Supervision. Barrier to Kids Playing Outside?

Awhile back The Heritage Council published the results of a survey that examines the differences in playing outdoors between generations. Parents were asked where they played when they were children and where their children (ages 7-11) now play. Although playing at home, in a friend’s home indoors, the garden and the school playground are still the most popular locations for playing across the generations, it’s no surprise that there were decreases in the number of kids who played in fields, wild spaces and the woods.

I was however a little surprised at first when “supervision” emerged as the number one barrier to children playing and experiencing the outdoors.

This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit in relation to how I was raised compared to how I’m raising my own kids. I feel like I ran wild (to which I will be forever grateful to my Mother), and although I want my kids to have the same experiences I did, I’m just not sure I’ll be comfortable with the same level of supervision my Mom was.

To make my point let me dissect the first paragraph in my About Me page.

  • I grew up in Southern Utah.
    My kids were, until recently, growing up in a gated community, in the biggest little city in the world, Reno Nevada.
  • I spent my childhood outside; skin as brown as the dirt, hair bleached blond in the sun.
    I have naturally fair skin, so this was obviously back in the days before sunscreen. With all the hype over sun exposure I’m only slightly less paranoid than the next Mom about maintaining sunscreen applications, keeping hats on, and providing protective clothing.
  • We lived on the edge of town where there was plenty of room to run.
    In most places the space that once outlined the “edge” of our towns now mark the beginning of another town. In the few places where there may be some open space it’s generally privately owned and pegged with a no trespassing sign.  (And you know, with all the lawsuits now days, who can blame them?)
  • My favorite activities consisted of hiking to a cave atop the mountain near our house,
    A few details about that cave at the top of the mountain:  There’s a good 20 feet of 5.5 climbing route to get to the top (which we free climbed) and once you squeeze through a crack into the cave, there’s an opening on one side with a 75+ foot drop.
  • tubing down the irrigation canal,
    On one occasion I distinctly recall tubing down uncharted territory only to find the canal was about to go under a culvert in the road. Luckily my older brother and his friend pulled us all out, scraped up and crying. Pretty sure we vowed not to tell my Mom about that one…
  • snorkeling at the pond with the crawdads,
    Let me remind you this was before the days of life jacket paranoia.
  • skim boarding down at the river,
    Do you know how many homeless people (i.e. ‘strangers’) lived down there? We knew of at least one. We also use to cover our bodies in mud and try to scare cars on the bridge; can you get arrested for something like that nowadays?
  • and playing with my (dare I admit it?) barbies.
    Aaaaand, let’s not go there.

I’m wondering if my fears, as well as the fears of the parents in this study are justified. Are children who spend time unsupervised outdoors really that much more at risk than we were? Is this a legitimate fear or is it a fear based on our increased access to information? Some kid gets kidnapped in Europe and I’m sitting here in Utah in a heightened state of paranoia! 

I’m not advocating that as parents we totally let our guard down, but we can’t discount the benefits of allowing our kids to spend time outdoors unsupervised; time for their imaginations to run wild, time to think and problem solve for themselves, a chance to adapt to new situations, to gain some independence, etc. Right?

When I was googling around to see what other people thought on the subject I found this article entitled Why Your Kids Should Play Outside. The author lists reasons for and against playing outside. His thoughts on why kids should play outside: learning to play, sunlight, improving immunity, different senses, and he goes on to list several other reasons that are spot on! I was equally impressed with his reasons for not playing outside: predators, bullies, getting hurt, West Nile virus, etc.

But this is where we as parents come in. True, my kids are only 1, 3 and 6 right now, so letting them roam too far off outside unsupervised isn’t an option at this point, but it’s something I’ve obviously started thinking about. The way I see it by spending time outdoors with my kids now allows me to teach them the foundational rules of ‘safe’ outdoor play. If I do this well, when they’re older, they can explore on their own; within the safety of the rules I set up for them of course.

I may not be able to follow my kids around with mosquito spray, but I can teach them to put on a long sleeve shirt. My parents may not have come up to “the cave” with us but we’d hiked together along cliffs enough for me to know how to maintain safe boundaries.

I could go on, in fact I could write a whole book on the topic of children’s decreased access to nature (i.e. nature deficit disorder); luckily someone beat me too it. If you haven’t read Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods you should. I’ll admit, it’s been awhile since I’ve read it. I need to read it again, now that I have kids of my own I’m guessing I’ll get even more out of it.

So, how do you handle the dilemma of outdoor supervision with your kids? What skills do your kids need before you would feel comfortable letting them explore unsupervised? What are you fears? Your rules?

I’m thinking a separate post is in order for the answers to these questions. Unfortunately I don’t have all the answers, this is where you come in. Ideas?

25 Comments so far

Comments Feed
  1. kdog

    I think this is a great topic. I had nowhere near the outdoor adventures you did, but I still remember awesome summers outside roaming the neighborhood with friends, playing nightgames (no parents around), walking to the pool with no shoes, let alone adult supervision. And I wonder the same thing about how to give my kids that feeling of freedom and exploration and independence, without letting them get killed.
    I read Free Range Parenting last year. Lots of interesting ideas about parental paranoia & how children’s safety really hasn’t changed since the 70s, but parents’ perceptions of what kind of supervision is necessary have changed.
    So now in our new neighborhood, there’s a small herd of children that roams around between 3 or 4 yards & houses, supervised only randomly by a parent here or there. And I am trying to figure out if at 5, Noah is old enough to join the herd or if I still need to hover. I mostly hover, at least from a window. But I would love to feel good about saying, “Go play outside with your friends. See you later.”

  2. I love this post! Fascinating subject, and one I think about a lot as I think back to my own childhood and the time I spent outside. While I don’t have any kids of my own, I think what parents deal with is something that happens to all of us (parents or not) with age…
    Parents have the disadvantage of having fallen one too many times, of experiencing extreme empathy for their children when they’re hurt, and of not healing as quickly as their children. When we put ourselves in their shoes, we can’t imaging jumping off roofs, climbing trees, etc. But would you trade your childhood for one spent in front of a TV, becoming obese, never learning to trust yourself, losing your empathy for the real world by watching a fake one? I sure wouldn’t.

  3. kdog: I’ve been meaning to read that book! I hope this apprehension we feel towards free range children is just one of those first child things, and that we calm down with subsequent little ones… Also, if Ari had a friend like Noah (a friend who’s parents I knew and respected) it would make a big difference.

    Liv: I loved your thoughts on empathy. I hadn’t thought of it that way; but you have a really good point. Are we becoming TOO protective emotionally and physically of our kids in order to protect our own feelings? It’s important to remember how resilient kids really are; they bounce back quickly and seem to learn from consequences better than adults.

  4. Joe

    This is a cool subject, I too wonder if my fears are justified. I had a similar experience growing up as a Lindsey, I spent hours upon hours wandering the fields and gullies near my house (without my parents). I was thinking 2 things:
    1) I think part of my fears letting my kids wander is probably cause they are young, the oldest is 4. I dont really remember wandering around without parents until I was more like 8-9 years old, and then I was often with siblings (at that time my older brother would have been 12 or so). I think I would feel much better about letting my kids wander if there where older siblings to hang around.
    2) I had neighbors a while back who were constantly being visited by the police because their kids were wandering the neighborhood. Sure their kids were not angels, but they were not necessarily getting into trouble, they were just unattended. It really made me think twice about letting my kids play in the front yard without me sitting on the porch, I didn’t want to get turned in for letting my kids run wild. I’m sure my fears are largely unfounded but I wonder if other parents are thinking the same way. Who knows.

    • Joe, Yes, older siblings is key, I have a few of those myself which helped a ton I’m sure. Also enjoyed your thoughts on neighborhood kids running wild, I guess there is a certain level of supervision that really needs to be maintained, especially in suburban areas.

  5. Lacey

    Great review, I stopped to ponder a minute and think…would I follow this blog if it wasn’t my sisters? The answer is YES!

  6. trieste

    I think my big fear of letting my kids wander around the neighborhood are my neighbors, I am pretty sure they would be super annoyed with me if I just let my kids go all the time. To fix this problem I plan on trying to go car camping with my kids almost every weekend this summer, just to let them run. Sad, but it is a solution.

    • Trieste, I think it’s a great solution! Your kids will too. With all those camping trips I expect you’ll discover some words of wisdom that I hope you’ll share…;)

  7. i seriously want to live on a farm – just for this reason. away from it all, you know? I have basically no memories of my mom when i was little – only my big brother and his three best friends. we roamed freely and happily… love your blog, lindsey. i’m so proud of you. i hope you can keep it up… since you’ll have to spend at least some time on-line to do so – rather than outside where you love and need to be…

    • I hear ya Liz, a farm would be ideal! I spent about a year thinking up this blog, most of that time was spent wondering if I could actually sit down at a computer on a regular basis and write what was swimming around in my head. I’m pretty sure I can do that part, since writing is rather therapeutic. It’s the facebook and twitter thing I’m worried about! Hahahaa, we’ll see how that goes. Also, the fact that you’ve been able to blog so consistently has given me encouragement. I’m no Doctors wife, well, medical doctor, but I follow your blog, you write really well, it’s fun to read. And now that I know the value of comments I’ll try to comment more. Perhaps we can support each other on the sit down at the computer part…

  8. Becky

    Linds – how can I be this slow at finding your new blog….? I’m glad I found it. I love this topic. I was just talking to my Mom about it and thinking out it with my own kids. I also grew up like you did. I remember telling my mom “I’m going that way” and pointing to a place in the foot hills around our town. She’s tell me to be home by dinner. I was 6 or 7 at the time. I was with a friend and my dog. I loved it. I also loved it that I could beat most kids in a run down the mountain because I was expert at avoiding prickly pears while in flight. Ah – those were the days. You know, part of our freedom was because of where we lived. Not just because of who our mom was. It was a combo. I know I worry more than she did. She agrees that I have to much info. We all do. So we have to make a conscious effort to put away worry. Teach our kids well – let them know we trust them (which helps them to use their knowledge) and then let go a bit. We’ll see if I can do it when Eva is a bit older. Cause I still freak out when she gets to close to the road! I think she would already be more obedient if I could let got a bit more.

    Great post. Things to think on and try to get ready for.

    • I agree Becky. As they say in real-estate, Location, Location, Location! Thanks for the comment.

  9. Becky

    I forgot to mention how much I love that photo. Another thought – I was watching my kitty Mowgli playing outside yesterday, thinking of this post and a funny little comparison spun itself in my head. What if I kept Mowgli inside always so that he would always be safe – what would his diary entries be like. “Today I made my feather toy think I was a panther and I leaped 2 ft and ate it alive….again….” – vs what he actually lives outside. If only he could speak and dared tell me all the things he does. Now a cat is not a child, but to a certain level the comparison holds. Quality of life matters.

    • Beck. I LOVE that! It’s all about quality of life, which I think is well worth a few ‘mediated’ risks. Thanks! I’m going to be pondering this the rest of the day…

  10. jill

    This is a great topic. I think about this all the time. I think that kids, obviously need to be supervised according to their age but I think it is equally important for them to have time on their own to think, explore and make decisions. I find myself hovering and making suggestions of where and what my kids should play. I know I need to step back when my 6 yr old starts asking, “Mom, what can I do now?” when he is bored. I think that unsupervised play not only teaches a kid to entertain themselves, but also teaches them to make their own decisions and feel comfortable being on their own.
    …and about being unsupervised outside, I’m not really afraid of injuries as much as kidnappers and being turned in to the child protective services (when I’m in the US). But my kids are still young.

    • Jill – Good to know I’m not the only Mom who has the hover tendency. I defiantly have to fight the urge to always be giving my kids things to do. Why do we do that? I agree, unsupervised, or unstructured play is so important! Especially when it involves being outside where there are so many things to observe, explore and ignite the imagination.

  11. Becky

    As my mom would say -“Boring people are always bored” – that was her response and only response to “Mom, I’m bored”. I found it quite motivating – once I figured out what it meant!

  12. Andree

    I know I’m late with the comment, but I pushed my supervision limits twice today. I let the “big” kids ride around the block on their own. I knew they would be fine, but in the back of my mind, I was worried about being the step mom that wasn’t watching them when something happened. They were fine, loved it, and I’m so glad they were able to ride more than just up and down our street. I’m excited to see them start to be able to fend for themselves better. Later we went to a playground at the Headstart building. It is all fenced in so I wasn’t worried about anyone wandering off. I sat down and let the big kids and the little one play on the two play structures. I couldn’t even see the little one at one point, but I knew she was with her siblings, and was fine. It was interesting to let go even that little bit….

    • Andree – Odd, I pushed my supervision limits on the same day! A friend of mine and her kids came over for lunch. We let our boys (ages 4-7) walk down to the canal by themselves. They were a little shocked at first, just looked at us dumbfounded and said “aren’t you coming”? We could see them from my yard 80% of the time. It was the first time either of our kids had been out ‘on their own,’ but we felt like it was a good safe maiden voyage. They thought they were SO COOL! Yes, it was interesting to let go even for a little bit…

  13. […] not sure where I went wrong. Was it just my good old American supervision gene kicking in already?  I was worried about the neighbors dog eating him. I was worried about […]

  14. Sarah

    I have a 4 year old and an almost 2 year old. We just moved to a house on a tidal creek and a slow road. Me and my husband don’t let them outside totally alone yet (the two year old is just a hazard to himself) but we let our four year old roam mostly. Before letting him go, I established boundaries (stay off the road, stay off the dock) and I’ve established good habits in case he disobeys (lay on your belly to play in the water, leave the snakes alone until you can identify poisonous ones, get off the road when a car comes).
    I worry a lot. Especially about the water. But I want him to be confident and independant. Children take their cues from their parents, so a nervous hovering parenting makes for nervous hovering kids who are afraid to do anything outside. I want them to survive their risks, not not take any…and I guess that’s a life lesson.

    • Sarah, I love your thoughts. We just moved to a house with a pond in the backyard. I’m actually going back and forth between putting up a fence (because I tend to hover outside with them or close to the windows when they are out there) or just focusing on playing safe around water. It’s a lesson that could pay off later? Still, it worries me!

  15. Simply put…AWESOME! Love this post!

  16. Sarah

    The water is FOR SURE my primary concern. But, so far, he seems pretty trustworthy (not that I totally trust him, haha). Even when I’m outside he knows to ask for permission to go on the dock and that I have to come with him. I’m sure he will one day do something like try and take the canoe out while I’m taking out the trash, but hopefully he’ll at least put on a life jacket until I catch him!

  17. We have one who just turned six and one who just turned 4. They are woods roaming kids, and are only required to be within voice range. We do have to pull a lot of ticks though. A lot. But so far, only one sure case of Lyme Disease between them!


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

    I don't blog alone! Meet outsidemom contributer Olivia