Parents: Free Play Matters – Mindful Disconnection – Pt Six

After all the discussion about toxic people vs great people having toxic moments in a recent post, I’m ready for something a little less heavy! (As great as it was to having everyone’s input.)

While this isn’t the post I thought was coming next in the series (which began here: Connection and Disconnection: Optimal Parenting Part One.) it is important. It was triggered by a programme on the tele put out by Sunday Night Entertainment Ltd (Canada TV) called ‘The Lost Adventures of Childhood’.

I’ve long been an advocate for ignoring children. Not in the emotional detached way, but in the ‘let them learn rather than here’s what I want to teach’ way. Example:
Not far from our house, but out of sight and out of calling distance is a creek that looks like this:


The bigger boys (six and nine) love it. They often spend time there, without adult supervision, deeply immersed in imaginative play. The bit Mr Owl is standing on they called Duck Island. It fell off the side of the bank last winter.

There are rules: stay together; both come home if one wants to come home; both come home if anyone or anything makes them feel uncomfortable; don’t go in the water; if someone falls in, help them out and come home immediately. The boys know that this is something that many of their friends would not be allowed to do and they are really great about coming home from time to time (mostly for food) so that I know they are still alive. Do I think about paedophiles and dogs and drowning etc? Of course, but I don’t show my anxiety and actually I’m more concerned about what they might catch from the polluted water than any of those other things (likelihood scale). We have had an encounter with a police-officer who had been rung about these two boys playing without adult supervision in a polluted creek (the officer said they were fine), but otherwise there have been no issues or falling in.

Human brains love to solve-problems. You could say we were built for it. Children who don’t have any problems to solve, create their own – so they can. If not when they are under the influence of their parents, certainly afterwards = college idiocy for example. Problems for very small children are as simple as how to stack blocks without them falling down. Problems for teenagers centre around risk-taking and learning about who they are. The gap in between toddler-hood and teenage years is what I am talking about here.

This is Mindful Disconnection too. We’ve given our children great attachment. We’ve connected in the morning and after times apart, and then we Mindfully Disconnect and let them play without our attention, teaching or interference.

Temperament certainly plays a part in all this. Mr Hare and Mr Butterfly who are more naturally adventurous were quite happy to go leave me and play by themselves for a long time from the time they could crawl. Mr Owl, who is more sensitive took longer, but is now six and just as happy to spend time in self-directed time, without us around, as the others. (He has been from about the age of three and a half.)

I’m sure you’ve heard all this before, so I’ll just point out the main points from the programme – which said it all much better than I can.

1. Children who have more time playing without adult supervision are more adaptable.

2. They have had to process more incoming information (rather than just what the adults tell them they need to focus on) so their brain cells have greater numbers of pathways leading to other brain cells. (They can relate the information they gained from walking along a log to walking along a brick wall – so have better balance.)

3. Over time they have  a greater number of experiences, so they have more sources of information to draw from and therefore can make decisions which are more informed and mature.

4. They get to be the person they think they are – rather than having to fit a pre-defined definition their parents may have of them.

5. While all play is important, it’s the amount of free play (no adults around) that helps pro-social competence and problem-solving ability the most.

And my belief from observation and experience = kids who are well attached and have a few well enforced boundaries, and are allowed many hours playing without adults around = maturity.

In fact the biggest surprise for me during the programme was just how hopeless over-scheduled kids were at problem-solving and pro-social skills. The psychologist (I can’t remember her name, if anyone else does let me know please so I can mention her properly) who did a few tests reported that these kids waited to be told what to do every step of the way and didn’t even talk to one another while they waited for the adult to direct them. They had no initiative. They could not think for themselves.

Many parents over-schedule their kids with the children’s best interests at heart. They know how competitive the big-wide-world is; they want to provide what they never had themselves and they worry about children being abducted, hurting themselves or being upset. They put achievement  and safety before maturity. And you don’t need to read research to understand this – just check out the next 100 kids you see.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be in a dirty old creek out of sight to be free play. Even parents just Mindfully Disconnecting (considered and ready to reconnect at any time they need to) while the children are playing in a different room is useful. And as the children grow their space to range needs to expand. Children who are allowed to do this are very good at knowing their natural comfort level. Example = four-year old wants to bike around the block alone; does; doesn’t want to for another two years.

Will a free play child’s first decision be whether or not to drink mixed spirits out of a bucket? No.

Will a free play child’s first decision be whether or not to brake or accelerate at an amber light? No.

Will free play children do these things anyway? Possibly.

The advantages then? They will be able to process all of the factors involved more easily and make different decisions after a not so positive experience. They are more likely to trust their own judgment than rely on what their peers tell them is ‘cool’.  They are more likely to remove themselves from situations which make them feel uncomfortable.

How can I be so sure? Because when you look at well attached children who have mindful boundaries and many hours a day in non-electronic free-play, they show signs of something called Executive Function. The evidence presents itself early. More about that another time…

(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )

About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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8 Responses to Parents: Free Play Matters – Mindful Disconnection – Pt Six

  1. Laura Weldon says:

    My kids, too, have been regularly given what I considered to be reasonable freedoms to explore and discover their strengths. Although the police haven’t been called I’ve certainly been harshly judged by other parents. Like you I’m careful but also understand that risk-taking and exploration is essential to growth. I may give more physical freedom than many parents but I have actually been pretty restrictive in other ways (no electronic games, very limited TV time, etc). I believe this approach nurtures more wholeness in children.
    I recall playing the woods behind our house when I was a child. I ran and played with friends there, but most memorable to me were the times I spent sitting still watching carefully in hopes I might see woodland animals. Time in nature, time to be fully ourselves, time to explore is all priceless in a child’s development. I can still go back to those moments in the woods even now, decades later, and feel the peace of those times.

    • 100% with you, Laura. It’s as if many modern parents have got it all back-to-front. Discipline the emotions, loads of over-stimulation, few boundaries or over-strict boundaries, no child-led discovery vs emotional support, calm natural environment, few mindful but well enforced boundaries, lots of child-led discovery. Sigh.

  2. I know we fall far short of outdoor play but for us there are very real safety concerns. We live in a new area and there is a lot of construction around, we won’t put up a fence yet b/c we don’t want a digger to run it over, but without some means of keeping the girls close they can’t go out on their own. We do spend time at the park and have an urban forest and wetland close, but it is still not enough.

    I think I’ll feel more comfortable when they’re older (3 mos, 2.5, 4 now) b/c they’ll be better able to keep themselves safe, know when they need to stop to warm-up/cool down etc.

    Around here it seems to be about 6/7 yrs when kids are let out to roam.

    • I’m definitely more comfortable now that we have two who are old enough to really understand what’s what and can take some level of responsibility for themselves and each other – they’re not alone, and that’s key for me too.
      The age of siix or seven seems about right for beginning to roam. The four year old riding around the block was a definite one-off event by a very adventurous child, and as I said, he didn’t do it again for a couple of years. 🙂

  3. Marcy says:

    I love your blog.

  4. The photos of Mr Owl on Duck Island remind me of the childhood my brother and I had – exploring the emtpy section, down the road and out of sight. It’s wonderful to hear that my parents weren’t mad, or careless! I hope to give my children the same sense of freedom, when they get a bit older. Thank you!

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