As a child counselor, one of the most frequent reasons parents bring their kids to me is behavior issues in school and at home. And academic issues. And social issues.
These wise parents understand that their child is struggling with something, and I am happy to help!
In my office, I help by offering a confidential space for kids to talk, play, learn skills, and offer feedback all while having an objective stance, without emotional attachment to what he or she says or does. I’m a safe place for a kiddo to explore their inner world as well as what’s going on in the world around them, and how they feel about it.
But one thing that I see often is that even with kids who get a lot of activity and movement, there is very little free play. Unstructured play – or rather, play that is structured by the child or children involved in it. Without or with minimal adult supervision. Where imagination can be expansive, where no one is telling the child, “no, not that way, do it this way.” or “Oh! Be careful! Don’t do that, you’ll get hurt!” or “HEY. What did I say about sharing?”
Parents, you know I love you. I am behind you 100% in your parenting journey.
But I gotta tell you…as hard as it is…you must back off, and give your kids some freedom.
Freedom to (once they are old enough, which could be as young as five or six) walk a few blocks to the park alone or with a sibling or friend. Walk to the corner store. Play with other kids of varying ages – ideally in a natural, outdoor setting. Let them work out their conflicts, learn to cooperate and help each other, learn to collaborate, to set boundaries, to back each other up. Learn to find the edge of their comfort zone, to manage risk and navigate their internal sense of what’s safe for them, and not.
This is not a new idea. This is how most of us grew up if we are over the age of 30. And there are still a few neighborhoods and families that let their kids play this way. When they leave the house after breakfast or chores on a Saturday with the call from a parent as the door is shutting, “Be home for dinner!” In my house it was “Be home when the street lights come on!”
But we live in a modern world. And there are so many barriers to this kind of freedom for kids.
1. Safety. I’m gonna spend some time on this one because, important.
We have safety concerns, some are justified. As the statistics show us, the danger of abduction by strangers has gone down, and the dangers of abuse or assault by strangers is very low. But when it happens we hear about it, so it feels like it is everywhere. What is true and good to remember is that most of those crimes happen not from strangers, but from those your child knows. So…yes, be wary. But teach your child about tricky people, not strangers. Tricky people are adults or older kids that want you to go with them, away from adults or other people. Tricky people will often give you a “heebie jeebie” feeling, a gut-twisty feeling, or raise the hair on the back of your neck. Teach your child to be mindful of the feelings that indicate their intution, and to heed them. If they are worried, teach them how to find a safe person: A store clerk behind the counter; or a mom with kids are two standards for safe people. Teach them to call 9-1-1 and what to say, and practice. PRACTICE. We don’t like to teach our kids about bad people, but it is important. Good touch (hugs, snuggles, kisses that we like); Bad touch (hits, pushes, punches and any hugs/snuggles/kisses that are unwanted) and SECRET touch, touch of private parts of their bodies by an older kid or grown-up where they tell your child to keep it a secret. We can’t ever guarantee the safety of our kids, but we CAN teach them how to keep themselves safe. Teach them how to cross a busy street, how to find their way around, and even how to ride the bus as soon as they are old enough to do so (10 or 11 is a good age to start, depending on your child.) Some neighborhoods are more dangerous than others, so each parent has to use their own best judgement on this. But my point is, we rarely give our children credit for being able to do stuff on their own.
We have busy lives. There are a lot of reasons why it’s not easy to take your kids to a park (too far for them to walk) and just hang out there, at a distance, while they play. We work when they are on school break, so structured programs really is the only alternative. (Is it? Please let me know if you are interested in a day camp for kids, that is unstructured and includes ample time playing in wild areas…)
3. They are addicted to screens.
And this inhibits imagination, creativity and the desire to move. They might whine, stomp, pout etc, and sometimes it’s just easier to let them hang at home.
4. Other kids are inside.
So there isn’t anyone to play with if your kids DO go out to play.
5. Parents worry about getting blamed and judged for our choices, and are worried they will get in trouble if their children do not have supervision.
This is often a real threat, partly because we are growing more and more afraid.
The barriers are real.
But the benefits are too. In Balanced & Barefoot, a brand new book by an occupational therapist who has seen first hand the benefits kids have to outdoor, free play without adult intervention, author Angela Hanscom describes children who do better in school, are kinder, are more emotionally balanced, and who develop confidence in themselves after being allowed to play in wild areas, unstructured. This book joins the ranks along with Last Child In The Woods and Vitamin N by Richard Louv, and Free to Learn by Peter Gray, among others.
Therapists like myself more and more are offering outdoor therapy and I am working to bring outdoor play therapy to my practice as well, because research is showing that being in nature reduces symptoms of anxiety, PTSD, depression and builds self-esteem for all ages.
So I get it, and I realize it isn’t easy. But we need to learn how to let our kids go again. How to allow them to manifest what they are capable of, trust them to play well, learn well, and develop their inner and outer skills to live fully.
Please share this far and wide to anyone that you think would be intrigued!
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