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Opinion

“Free range” kids learn independence, creativity

April 18, 2018

I’m pretty lucky to have grown up wild.

Most of that has to do with my parents. Mom grew up on the edge of the Apple River, and she told me once that she “never really spent time in the house during the summer.” She learned how to light a campfire with just one match, catch panfish with a home-made rod, accumulated so many mosquito bites that she “looked like one big bug bite” and built a stone-walled fort out of cement, rocks, discarded barn materials and chunks of scrap metal. I visit that fort from time to time. The roof fell in, but the walls, the one window and the little firepit/chimney she made are still there.

Dad was just as wild. His family home was just a quarter mile down the road from where I grew up, and he spent his time roaming the woods and fields that surrounded his family’s little farm with a gun and his dog, Jack. He shot, cooked and ate squirrels, played with toy army men and handmade boats in the dry-run stream and camped in all seasons (even winter) with Jack for company.

I think my generation has lost a lot of what my parents had during their childhood. Utah recently gained attention in the news for being the first state in the U.S. to pass laws protecting so-called “free-range parenting,” which basically redefines the term “neglect” so that reasonably-aged kids don’t get picked up by Child Protective Services when they’re caught walking home from the park alone.

It’s a little sad that this is a necessity. We are of a generation whose parents had a marked tendency to hover and shelter while we were growing up. The “stranger danger” was an ever-present threat, and I remember being instilled at an early age with an acute wariness of cars. Some level of protection is a good idea, but I think over-protection caused many of us to miss out on a lot of the independence, creativity and imagination that marked my parents’ upbringing.

I definitely felt some of that pressure towards safety and caution, but overall Mom and Dad did a pretty good job making sure I knew how to explore on my own. They armed me with an adventure pack, the ability to identify poison ivy and the advice, “don’t eat anything unless you know for sure it’s not poisonous.” Then they ushered me out into the very woods and fields that Dad used to explore when he was young.

I wandered all over  out there. I built forts out of piled rocks and fallen tree branches. In the spring, I would put on tall boots and splash through the dry-run stream that runs past Dad’s old house. In the summer, I used his old tent to sleep out in cow pastures with my dog, Stella. At night, I had to make sure to zip the tent up tight lest the mosquitoes devour me alive.

A lot of that childhood defined who I am today and has become indirectly useful. I can’t say that the ability to arrange branches and rocks into a teepee is something that I can put on a resume, but I learned how to be creative and resourceful. Camping out in cow fields isn’t directly useful experience in most jobs, but it taught me to plan and pack carefully so that I didn’t get cold/wet/dehydrated/mosquito-bitten overnight.

As we become the next generation of parents, I think it’s important to keep these things in mind. “Free-range” kids learn a lot about the world as they wander ravines, fall in mud and rip their pant legs. Protecting them from the world doesn’t just make them unprepared for it – it robs them of the things that make childhood wonderful.

Sophia Koch is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

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