Free Range Children

Posted on April 11, 2013 by


One thing I’ve noticed, since moving to America, is how out of shape the children are. It’s astonishingly pervasive and even most of the thin ones are flabby and weak.

I used to puzzle a bit about this, as I’ve never met people so obsessed with their children’s health as Americans. Many put their children in sports clubs and dance lessons. They feed them expensive organic food, fret over whether to put fluoride in the water or vaccinate, and debate over whether whole milk is gold or garbage.

But one thing I rarely see them do is send their children out to play.

American children don’t really play. On their own. Outside. With no adult interference. My children play a lot, all year round, and spend hours every day outside — even in the middle of winter. Their physical prowess is astonishing to Americans, but it’s really nothing unusual. If you do something often enough, you’ll tend to become quite good at it, even if you lack any extraordinary talent.

On a typical stay-at-home day they:

  • Wake up early and scarf down a bowl of cereal
  • Get dressed in play clothes and go outside
  • Come in and wash up for second breakfast, usually something warm
  • Complete first part of schoolwork
  • Go back outside
  • Come in and wash up for lunch
  • Finish schoolwork
  • Watch TV and/or play on the computer
  • Go back outside
  • Come in and wash up for dinner
  • Play or do science and German lessons with their father
  • Take baths and get ready for bed
  • Storytime and lights out

I try to keep them inside during the hottest hours and I often use that time for running errands, but other than that… they essentially live in recess. They nibble their way through the vegetable garden, play soccer, investigate the status of the robin’s nest under the deck or the chipmunk who hides behind the garbage bin, play soccer, jump on the trampoline, play soccer, dig in the sandbox, and sometimes they also play soccer. (Well, they are German children, after all. We have to start them young.)

This keeps them happy and healthy, but it also frees up time for me to read, write, or work, and gives me an empty house to clean and a quiet kitchen to cook in. The older they get, the more they play outside, and the more I can work and bring in extra income. Now I’m studying up to go back to school myself, as well.

When I try to explain this sort of “free range child” concept to people, they smile politely, but it doesn’t reach their eyes. They have enormous houses and small yards. They think it must be a strange life to be such a wild child. Tumbling around the yard as young children. Climbing trees, digging for tadpoles, building a snow fort, playing badminton and soccer, hoeing the garden, jumping in mud puddles in rubber boots, and running through the sprinkler. Their children are inside children: hovered over, wheezing on indoor  air, and constantly entertained and educated until their minds turn to mush.

They don’t understand that children’s minds are sharpened by their contact with nature. They don’t want to picture their spotless houses marred by mud-caked children. They haven’t gotten the memo on how organized sports lead to repetitive motion injuries that you can protect your children from through more varied forms of exercise. They refuse to toss out the Adderall and deal with ADHD through run-around-and-jump therapy. They won’t hear that childhood obesity will shorten their children’s lifespans and turn them into the chronically ill. And they are absolutely terrified of their children being kidnapped, even though the chances of that happening are roughly one to one million.

Not everyone’s children are as active as mine, but all children should be active. I know that lots of families are stressed out and pressed for time. I know that not everyone has a backyard and that some people live in dodgy neighborhoods, without access to a decent park or playground. But please find a way, for at least an hour a day.

Free the children.

Posted in: Homemaking