Let the kids loose….

This post was originally published in the Cape Codder on August 10, 2012 as my column, Nature’s Ways. It has been a popular column so I am reprinting it here for readers who do not get the Cape Codder (since it is not available online)

Gather any group of folks of a certain age and at some point in the conversation the point will be made that when we were young our parents sent us out for the day and told us to come home when the street lights came on. Some had a bell to listen for, some had a lesson to be home for but mostly, we ran pretty freely through our neighborhoods, the woods, the fields and around the ponds. It doesn’t take long for these same groups to lament the lack of freedom today’s kids have accompanied by a lot of head shaking and making of concerned faces but no solutions are really offered. Everyone just agrees that the world has changed, alas…..

Most kids today go outside to do something specific. They play a sport, they go to camp or they take a class or an organized walk. They stand and walk in a line, play on a team or practice with a coach or a machine. They wait patiently for nets and are given a list of rules. Don’t throw the frogs, don’t hurt the butterflies, don’t pull the leaves off the branches and don’t ever pick the flowers. Don’t get wet, don’t get muddy, don’t hit that girl with your bucket and stop throwing stones in the water. Eat your snack now, go to the bathroom later, stop your complaining and well, on and on it goes.

People complain all the time that today’s kids don’t listen and don’t follow directions and as a person that works with a lot of kids I do know that there is more of a tune-out going on with kids than there used to be. I also have to say that I get it. All day, all the time, every day someone is telling a kid what to do or what not to do. When do they just get to find out on their own that snakes bite when you grab them, poison ivy itches like crazy and picking up a blue crab out of a net takes a special skill if you don’t want to get pinched?

I was out recently with a bunch of kids and realized we had an awful lot of rules to follow. We couldn’t walk there and we couldn’t touch that and we absolutely couldn’t throw this. After all, there are restrictions to help the birds, to keep us from getting bitten or itchy and to keep us from bonking each other on the head. These are all sensible rules of course but in the end they also take away a lot of the plain old fun and the magic of real exploration and skill building. Do kids even skin their knees anymore? If a kid skins their knee under my supervision there is a whole packet of paperwork to fill out, have stamped, approved and filed away. I am not even allowed to put a bandaid on—I can hand the kid a bandaid to put on themselves. When I skinned my knee someone put on mercurochrome or iodine and then the bandaid and sent me back out to play. The only paper trail was the bloodied tissue and the bandaid wrappers.

We do a lot of talking to kids but all of us that work with kids know that they really do their best learning by doing, not listening. We need to let the kids loose. We need to encourage them to get muddy and wet, dirty and itchy. We need to let them get nipped and pinched and we need to let them fall down. There’s real satisfaction in holding up a big blue crab without getting pinched but if we don’t let them get pinched a few times they are never going to get that satisfaction.

I know the world has changed and that people are afraid. I know there are places and things to protect and that we want all children to be safe. But in the end, what are we really giving them? We are giving them the lesson that rules often outweigh the fun and we shouldn’t be surprised that one of the first things a lot of kids do when they are finally let loose is break as many rules as they can. Funny, isn’t it, that those of us who ran loose often obeyed the rules, okay, most of the rules….maybe because there were fewer of them to obey.