As the coronavirus pandemic lingers like a hangover, many parents are still struggling to work from home and take care of their children at the same time. And for some kids, that brings a special kind of freedom: the ability to play like nobody’s watching.
Much of the time, nobody is.
So they’re doing things that would make most parents cringe: Children are racing on stilts in a cul-de-sac in Omaha, Neb.; a 6-year-old is climbing trees and scooping up caterpillars in the woods in Franklin, Tenn.; and siblings are building their own playground in a dirt parking lot in upstate New York.
All of their parents said they would normally try to minimize potentially risky activities, but lately they’ve relaxed the rules. Emily Chan, a mother of three in Brooklyn, calls it “freestyling.” Risky play, usually defined as any activity that carries the risk of physical injury while also helping children test limits, has been touted by psychologists as an important way for children to develop that independence. This type of play is devoid of a parent’s “intense hovering,” said Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, an early childhood researcher and professor at Queen Maud University College in Norway.
“It’s very easy to underestimate children’s potential and skills,” she said.
In the Chan household, where Emily Chan is working from home full time, the kids — ages 5, 8 and 10 — bake cupcakes unsupervised. They leap from the furniture in the living room and hang from a trapeze bar, part of an “indoor playground” that was pressure-mounted in a doorway.
Outside, the family ride their bikes together in the street.
Chan and her husband said they have become more tolerant of messes, too, as the kids experiment with chemical reactions, like mixing baking soda with vinegar and dropping Mentos mints into soda bottles.
It’s all OK “as long as you’re not burning down the apartment or trying to kill the dog,” she said.
But along with greater independence comes more potential for injuries. Doctors have reported a rise in broken bones and lacerations among children who are getting hurt while playing with outdoor toys and sports equipment at home during the pandemic. Chan’s 5-year-old, for example, dropped a glass and cut her hand while helping her siblings cook.
In Franklin, Tenn., Stella Rose, 6, fell while speeding down a hill on her scooter.
“I could hear ‘Maaamaaaaa!’ faintly in the distance. And my blood went cold and I ran out of the house,” said her mother, Jackie Gutierrez-Jones, a writer and self-described former “helicopter-style” mom who used to have eyes on her daughter constantly. “She was splayed out in the road, all bloody.”
On a different day, Stella Rose fell out of a tree. (After both of those falls she was scraped up but otherwise fine, her mother said.)
Brooke Phillips, a high school theater teacher who lives in Omaha, said her 4-year-old daughter now wanders the neighborhood by herself, visiting other people’s backyards.
“Before, I would have absolutely freaked out,” she said. But now that there are multiple kids and parents stuck at home, she said, she isn’t as worried. “It’s different, but awesome.”
Her 8-year-old daughter started doing daring tricks on her bike. “She has come in battered and bruised every other day from trying something like that,” Phillips said. “It’s a super good thing for her that she’s been able to learn that it’s OK to get hurt and to keep going.”
And the children, none of whom have ended up in the emergency room, seem to have a greater appreciation of being outside, their parents said.
For Stella Rose, relaxation used to mean sitting in front of an iPad, Gutierrez-Jones said, but now her daughter is more interested in outdoor exploration and heads into the forest with a notebook to draw the different animals she sees.
“The woods are like an enriched classroom — a Gymboree on steroids,” said Lenore Skenazy, a longtime proponent of risky play and the president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience. In May, Let Grow surveyed 800 U.S. parents and 800 children, ages 8 to 13, to find out what the kids were doing during the pandemic. More than two-thirds of the children said their parents were letting them try more things on their own, and a similar percentage said they were finding new things to pass the time.
“Kids are doing a lot of things they hadn’t done before and the parents are gaining a better understanding of their kids’ potential,” she said. “In some sense, the whole purpose of childhood is to become increasingly independent.”
In Norway, despite the fact that parents aren’t usually as focused on safety as they are in the United States, there has been a steep decline in the amount of outdoor unsupervised play over the last couple of decades, said Dr. Beate. But during the pandemic “we suddenly see a lot of children outside roaming around playing in the parks.”
Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist and researcher at Boston College who has studied how children educate themselves through play and exploration, argues that opportunities for children to play outside with other children have decreased over the last 60 years, leading to rising rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents.
According to Gray, the decline started at the end of the 1950s, deepened in the 1980s, when missing children began appearing on milk cartons and public service announcements asked if parents knew where their child was.
Well-publicized abductions, like those of Adam Walsh, Etan Patz, Jacob Wetterling and Elizabeth Smart, only solidified fears of “stranger danger.” That and the rise of adult-directed, after-school activities have led most parents to believe that adult supervision is better for their children than going out and playing, Dr. Gray said.
“I sometimes say that we’ve turned childhood into a period of résumé building,” he added.
A 2004 study compared American mothers’ active, outdoor play experiences during their childhood with that of their own children ages 3 to 12. The researcher found a decrease in the time spent outdoors and in unstructured play, as well as an increase in adult-structured activities.
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When parents restrict unsupervised outdoor play, it’s often done with the best of intentions. Of the 830 respondents in the 2004 survey, 82 percent cited safety concerns, such as abduction and traffic.
But Dr. Beate said her research suggests that risky play has an important function: It helps children explore and conquer fears, develop confidence and reduce anxiety.
Healthy children who aren’t struggling with developmental challenges are usually “quite aware of the risks they are taking,” Dr. Beate said. “The worst thing parents can do is to yell at them, ‘Come down, you’re not allowed to be up there! Be careful!’ Because then you’re actually disturbing them in their concentration of what they’re doing.”
Most children will stop when the fear becomes overwhelming, she added. And at that point they might ask for help.
While a certain degree of freedom is important, parents should still try to remain vigilant of potential hidden hazards, Dr. Beate said, like a rotting log that could cave in, or a broken piece of playground equipment. In those cases, parents should of course intervene before their children accidentally hurt themselves.
The benefits of riskier play have inspired cities to create “adventure” playgrounds, like the 50,000-square-foot park on Governors Island in New York. It has no slides or swings but plenty of dismembered store mannequins, tires and mattresses, and adults are not allowed. Educators in Britain have also sought to make playgrounds a lot more risky by adding hammers, saws and mud pits. Similar types of playgrounds have popped up in Australia, Canada, Taiwan and India.
Not all parents are convinced of the need for more unsupervised, adventurous play — but the pandemic and the resulting quarantine has persuaded some of them.
Erin Feuerstein and her family are riding out the pandemic at her family’s condo in Ellicottville, N.Y., about an hour south of their home in Buffalo, until school resumes. In the past, her children, ages 9 and 11, had mainly participated in adult-led team sports like lacrosse, swim team and basketball.
In Ellicottville, which is more rural than Buffalo, she has watched her children build a playground with a teeter-totter and a ramp made of old boards and logs. Her son goes on long bike rides by himself. Her daughter takes the dog for three-mile hikes.
It encourages creativity, she said, and also physical fitness. “I think it’s much easier for them now to relax and enjoy time outside and not be stressed.”