How Free-Range Parenting Works

The Psychological Benefits of Independence and Free Play

girls jumping on bed girls jumping on bed
Childhood free play has a lot of emotional and intellectual benefits. Plus, it's fun! Lisa5201/Getty Images

As parents, we will do anything to safeguard our children's health and well-being and help them grow into successful and happy adults. To that end, most of us believe that the two best preparations for success in later life are a) school, and b) organized after-school activities like sports teams, music lessons and academic enrichment.

There is mounting evidence, however, that in our well-intentioned efforts to give our children a leg up in life, we may have overlooked a fundamental element of healthy child development: free play.

None other than the American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a report concluding that childhood play promotes "the social-emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain," and that "play is fundamentally important for learning 21st-century skills, such as problem solving, collaboration and creativity, which require the executive functioning skills that are critical for adult success" [source: Yogman et al].

Peter Gray is a developmental psychologist and strong advocate of free and unsupervised childhood play. Author of the book "Free to Learn," Gray is also a co-founder along with Skenazy of Let Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to "future-proofing" our children by promoting the principles of free-range parenting in homes, schools and communities.

Gray explains that over the course of human evolution, children grew up largely in a culture of other children. Loving parents have always had their place, but a child's "education" in a broad sense was always self-directed and happened among peers through the process of free play. When today's anthropologists observe cultures unchanged from those "primitive" times, they note that children still play and explore freely all day long, even into their teen years [source: Gray].

Free play is defined as "intrinsically motivated," meaning that it exists for its own benefit, not to satisfy some outside expectations. It's also completely unsupervised and unfettered by adults, another key component. Researchers have observed that kids play very differently when an adult is around. They're less physically active and creative and look to the adult to solve problems [source: Gray]. For free play to impart its greatest benefits, the adults need to stay home.

Gray argues that self-directed group play is an excellent way for kids to learn how to regulate their emotions and practice self-control, to take deliberate risks and find their limits, to make and follow rules that are fair to everyone, and to treat fellow kids as equals.

The reason free social play works is that everyone wants the game to continue. If you refuse to take some risks, or throw a tantrum when things don't go your way, you won't be invited back. And if you make rules that are unfair, some kids will go home. Keeping the game fun and exciting requires creative problem-solving, compromise, risk-taking and social skills.

Gray believes that the psychological fruits of free play include a sense of control over one's life. He cites a dramatic shift since the 1960s in a psychological indicator called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. Today's teens report very little internal control over their lives and Gray believes that explains the alarmingly high levels of anxiety and depression among younger generations. Gray argues that these pathological conditions are directly related to a steep decline in free play over the last 50 years [source: Gray].

Gray and the American Academy of Pediatrics make a convincing case for the importance of free play in healthy childhood development. But even if you're a true believer in free-range parenting and want to let your kid bike to the local park alone, play freely with a pack of kids and come home for dinner, will your community let you? What's stopping concerned neighbors from quizzing your kid about his absent parents and then calling the cops when they realize he's alone?

In the next section, we'll look at the legal challenges facing free-range parents and one state that's rewritten its negligence laws to allow more freedom for parents and kids.