Thursday, March 14, 2013

free-range? (chickens and children)

Legally, 'free-range chickens' only need to be "allowed access to the outside".  This could mean a large warehouse full of hens with a small door to a paved, fenced area that would qualify as 'outside'.

'Free-range education' seems to imply an unstructured learning environment in which children can follow their interests and passions.

The idea of 'free-range kids' seems to be a counterpoint to the fear-based parenting that prevents modern children from many of the freedoms that children have enjoyed for centuries.

My ideal of 'free-range' for children is raising them in an environment of support that promotes safety skills, exploration, creative thinking, problem-solving, and trust.

Why?  Why not just keep children 'safe' from all manner of strangers, dangers, germs, bumps, bruises, and non-organic produce?  I think it does children a disservice to limit them in this way.  How can we expect kids to learn to make measured choices, accept reasonable challenges, learn their natural boundaries, develop confidence and skills, ask for help, say no when a task is beyond their capability or comfort-level, or come up with unique solutions to difficult situations if they are not allowed to practice these skills while they have ample parental support.  What about as they develop into teenagers and young adults?  Will they feel trusted and respected enough to discuss iff-y situations with a parent or trust their own intuition enough to walk away from something that doesn't feel right, or will they dive into every 'freedom' that they find available?
 We had friends out for a visit on Monday.  While the younger kids (2-4) learned how to dance together, were read to, and played with play dough and toys, the older kids (6-9) played Animal Jam on the computer and then free-range roamed the snowy woods.

Our free-range chickens have complete freedom to roam every day, but they also have a cozy coop to take shelter from wind and snow.  They have nesting boxes, fresh water and food, and roosts to perch on.  They get closed in at night to protect from predation.

Similarly, I allow my children quite a bit of freedom within the framework of safety and support.  Yesterday, the older two set off on an expedition down the valley from our house.  They packed a deck of cards, a cloth place mat to play on, a box of matches, a small pot, carrots, celery, apples, tangerines, date-sweetened cranberry-oat cookies, mini Milky Way candy bars, a pocket knife, and few other odds and ends.  Our dog, Carly accompanied them.
They both have good knife-safety skills and Camille is comfortable with and capable of lighting matches safely.  They know what to do should they encounter a coyote or a fox (unlikely).  They know basic first-aid, and I knew where they were headed.

Because of the acoustics in the valley, if I shouted loudly in a sing-song, "Answer if you hear me!"  They would likely call back, "We hear you!"
hot cocoa in jar cozies

Anyway, after they were gone for about an hour-and-a-half, I had the brilliant idea of bringing them down some freshly made hot cocoa.  I knew that what I really wanted to do was 'check on' them, but I also thought they'd enjoy the cocoa.
So, Ayla and I grabbed the cocoa and the sled and hiked down into the valley.  It would have been nice for this post, and for our afternoon(!), had that gone as well as I thought it would.  When we reached our destination, the girls were happy.  They had gotten a few sticks burning, but weren't able to sustain a fire. No problems, otherwise.
When I tried to hike up, I found out that the icy snow that the girls were walking on top of was thigh-deep on me.  OK.  Sylvia came down and retrieved the cocoa to bring up to her sister, while Ayla and I had ours further down the trail.  Then, Sylvia accidentally spilled cocoa all over their 'cave' and their stuff.

Camille is rather sensitive to certain sensory experiences.  Her most anxiety-causing sensitivity is getting her hands sticky if she can't immediately rinse them.  So, her hands got sticky and she panicked and screamed and started rubbing them in the snow and then they were even more uncomfortable.  I offered her my mittens, a cloth to rub them on, any help she could think of, but it was All Over.  I told her she could run home and we would meet her back at the house.  Meanwhile, Ayla is crying because she couldn't go up to the cave. 

I tried to make the best of it and hiked back slowly with Sylvia and Ayla.
I don't know if there is a clear lesson to be learned here, or if it was just a fluke, but I DO know that everyone would have been much happier had I not gone down there to 'check on' them.  We later talked about strategies for keeping calm even when anxiety is running high.  Camille declared that she could have handled seeing a coyote better than she could've handled getting her hands sticky, and I believe her :).  She also apologized to her sister.  However, she's likely to always have strong internal reactions to certain sensations and learning how to cope in those situations is still important.

I am not into hands-off parenting, and I'm not into preventing children from exploring or overcoming challenges.  Finding that balance is a constant process of re-evaluation.  Each child is so different, each situation unique.  Clearly, there are unsafe situations in which a parent wouldn't safely let children 'free-range', but is the world really as dangerous as many modern parents assume, or as sensationalist media would have us believe?

What do you think?  Did you roam the woods, creeks, neighborhoods, or city blocks when you were young?  Do your children do that now?

A few related links:
overprotective parenting on playgrounds
reassuring crime statistics
helicopter parents*

*I don't love the term 'helicopter parenting'.  Some children naturally want more hand-holding and reassurance than others, and I fully believe in supporting each individual child where they are at.  

*I found the points about the negative side of over-protectiveness very interesting (including: undermining children's confidence, instilling fear of failure, stunting growth and development, and inability to launch)   


  1. :giggling: Everything would have been better without the cocoa - not something you hear often.

    I was very "free-range" as a child, but I lived in a small, quiet town in Illinois - in the 80's.

    Now I live in a very different place, and my son has a very different childhood than I did. I think much of it has to do with where one lives - the natural, social, and political environment.

    It makes me sad that my son doesn't have the same freedom to just go out in the morning and come back before dinner, like I used to.

    On the other hand, he has something I didn't have - a parent with time for him, and willingness to follow him to wherever he wants to go.

    I like your balance and your take on it. We can't make generalizations about what children need, each one is so unique. And how beautiful that as a mama of 3, you take the time to respect their essences. I very much admire you for that. It often comes through in your posts.

  2. This is an important topic and I enjoyed hearing YOUR perspective. Maybe an emergency hand-cleaning system would be nice for Camille? Wet wipes (purchased or hand-made?)

    I look forward to other comments.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Gabriela and Jen. It's an ever-changing balance, isn't it? I think I have a tendency to be very involved, which is why I want to be aware when "bringing them cocoa" (or the equivalent) isn't the best choice :)

    I like the homemade wet-wipes idea, Jen! We've tried other hand-sanitizer type solutions, but she has very sensitive skin and will often get rashy with even natural versions of those.

  4. I totally agree with Gabriela. I would not let them roam around our neighborhood in the city, but I let them go wherever they want at my Dad's property out in the country. It's people I fear, not woods, or getting lost or anything like that. Just sick people. There are a lot where I live. But, I do have the time to spend with them and I enjoy doing that...they don't seem to mind. We go on city adventures together :)

  5. This is one of those dilemmas that all parents face. I was one of those children who was allowed to roam. We had to be back for a certain time and we had to ring home if we were going to move from where we had told our parents that we had gone. I grew up in a small town which had masses of green space. I live now in a place where if my children want to go off I will allow them, they have yet to ask, they are still fairly young.

  6. Yesterday, Camille and Sylvia went on another adventure. This time, they came back after a couple hours, thrilled to tell me about the little fire they had started and how they put it out, the wild turkey tracks they found, and a new path home, and helping each other up slippery slopes! Ah, much better. . .


I love hearing what you have to say. Leave a comment?