Free Range Childhood

I was a free range child.  The way I spent my early days made a huge impact on how my life turned out.  In fact, I’m fairly certain the Seed would not have happened without the kind of childhood I had.  The experience we had as kids has been on my mind lately, especially after reading an article a parent sent about the value of unstructured play (http://qz.com/311035/were-ruining-our-kids-with-minecraft-the-case-for-unstructured-play/).  I had a favorable response to the article and posted it for others to read, not because it was critical of computer games, but because of what it said about unstructured play.  The post generated a respectful response pointing out the benefits of gaming, including potential for “responsible, intergenerational and connected learning.”  It has kept my thinking about this topic in high gear, as I can see both sides.

I love technology.  In fact, we’ve spent considerable effort this year to include it more than ever in our curriculum.  Our emphasis has been applying technology in ways that invite creativity and empower children to use it as a valuable learning tool.  That said, I also feel passionate about ensuring that our students learn how to grow food, explore the natural world and have time to play in an unstructured way.  Although our children live in an urban setting, they can still have a free range childhood.

I’ve been reflecting on the elements of my childhood, what it was that made it free range.  First, there was the unstructured quality.  Whether it was the dead of winter or lazy summer days, we were outside using our imaginations, creating worlds made and lived in by children only.  We had time.  Another element was the availability of raw materials such as sticks, logs, cut grass, water, mud, sand, boards, hammers and nails, fabric, bricks, rope, and cardboard boxes.  In the winter we went sledding, built snow forts and carved hiding places out of giant drifts.  Indoors was for meals and sleeping.  Mostly we were outside.  In addition to the unstructured time and availability of materials, we were generally left to our own resources to work things out.  My mother stayed at home with us and was always around; however, we also had an abundance of unsupervised time to let our creativity flourish.

When I wasn’t outside during my free range childhood, I was often by myself, in my room or the basement, making things.  I made clothes and accessories for my dolls, as well as little sanctuaries for them and myself with whatever I could get my hands on.  Free to combine materials in innovative ways, I painted, sewed, glued and designed worlds within my own.  I read voraciously and most of my significant learning happened outside of school.

I don’t know what childhood would have looked like if I’d had technology.  I’m guessing I probably would have figured out ways to use it to continue making things.  Technology has changed all our lives, including our children’s.  They will use it to lead our future in new, and hopefully positive, directions.  Their childhoods will be different from ours, just by virtue of the presence of technology.  As we continue to evolve as a species, integrating technological advances into our lives, I believe we owe it to our children to provide balance by also including “free range time” to muck around with the natural world and make things by hand.   We’ll all be better off and our planet will, too.