Whatever happened to ‘go outside and play’?

Posted at 10:00 AM, Mar 23, 2013

(CNN) — “Parental competition” has sent American families into a frenzy of overscheduling activities for their kids. And out of fear, we’re depriving them of what childhood should be — a time of freedom and character-building. Our neighborhoods, once the classic microcosm of a free America, have devolved into little more than supervised “dorms.”

Those were the sentiments behind many passionate responses to my column, “Overscheduled kids, anxious parents,” about the conundrum facing millions of parents like me: Determining how many, and which, activities in which to enroll our kids. On, Facebook, and Twitter, readers responded in droves.

They were largely in agreement. With children penned in by too much structure, lacking the chance and encouragement to “go out and play,” make up their own games and use their imaginations, we’re hurting them, readers said.

“Most of this movement is fueled by parental competition,” said the comment with the most “likes,” posted under the name “Coco Bear.”

“An 8-year-old going to school, taking piano, swimming, quantum physics and ninja training on the weekend is, more than anything, a future psychologist’s client,” she wrote, adding that when the child’s adult life “doesn’t turn out to be as grandiose as mom and dad forced him/her to believe,” it will be evident that what he or she had really needed as a child were playtime, “friendships and positive examples.”

Just about everywhere I’ve gone since the column published, people have stopped me to say they agree with a clinical psychologist I quoted, who argued that hectic schedules are damaging American families. Many also agree with a trainer who said kids should wait until they’re 11 or 12 to join league sports.

In our Facebook discussion, Gary Simmons wrote that organized sports “are good for kids, but not if that’s the only time they play. Playing pickup games, with no parent around overcoaching and killing the fun, is how kids develop passion and instincts for sports. It’s when they develop their game. The inner-city athlete has changed the way basketball is played today. They grew up playing on their own.”

Get over the fear

Many commenters said nervous parents are keeping kids from an important childhood rite — the chance to play outdoors without the feeling that adults have to watch over them every second to keep them safe.

“I had free reign over a two square block area,” CNN commenter Lebowski 113 wrote of his childhood. “As long as I could hear my parents calling from the yard, I was good.”

Now, because of threats real or imaged, “people don’t let their kids wander around,” he laments. “Neighborhoods are just dorms with trees.”

Some commenters pushed the “free-range kids” movement.

Have we entered an era of “free-range” lifestyles for chickens but not our own kids?

Lenore Skenazy, who blogs at Free-Range Kids, rails against “out-of-control parents who are so overprotective that they can’t let their kids, aged 8 to 6, do things like walk to school, use the microwave or even play in the front yard.”

Like millions of parents, I understand both sides.

Growing up, I always knocked on the neighbors’ doors or answered mine, and a group of us kids would run around, play and explore. I don’t remember ever feeling afraid.

But as a parent to two little boys (the oldest is in kindergarten), I am protective and don’t like to let them out of my sight.

Crime statistics don’t back up a notion that kids are in tremendous danger of being kidnapped off the street. But as parents, we’re more aware of the danger than previous generations were.

Play dates: Part of the problem?

While many of the comments were what I expected, I was surprised to see a bunch slamming the idea of “play dates” — a standard part of how modern American child-rearing works.

“Even the simple act of playing has been taken away from children and put on mommy’s schedule in the form of ‘play dates,’ ” wrote Cory Dorsey.

“Something that should be spontaneous and free is now being rigidly planned. When does a kid ever get to sit in the yard with a stick anymore?”

Eve Ross’ kids do.

“My husband and I have been swimming against the current for the past 13 years,” says the mom of two in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“We heavily promote sitting outside under the trees and watching the leaves fall, making up games, painting and reading. I can’t begin to tell you how viciously we were attacked by other parents telling us how sorry they felt for our children because they were so deprived and would be so behind the other kids as they grew up. … Turns out just the opposite is true. Our kids are grounded, thoughtful, excellent problem-solvers, incredibly creative, extremely well read and never bored. They are calm, meditative and most importantly, happy.

In defense of staying busy

Some commenters spoke up in support of busy kids.

“If you start an activity early in life, you will be able to enter through the entry level classes along with your peers. Start at age 12, with the peer pressure of looking awkward at doing something, will most likely stop a child from pursuing the activity in front of others,” argued a mother who wanted to use just her first name, Tamara.

Enrolling your kids in various activities may “sound crazy” when put into a list, but it’s about providing “a taste” of “the variety of the amazing opportunities that are out there,” she said.

And a commenter using the name Odra wrote, “A lot of kids will simply end up spending their entire afternoon playing video games if you don’t put them in sports, etc.”

It’s a Catch-22.

Many parents like me, whose kids just have activities a couple of days a week, love to take our kids outside and have them knock on doors to play with friends and do whatever they come up with. But there are too few days in which they and their friends are home and free at the same time.

So scheduled activities help fill a social need.

“Without scheduling,” Odra says sadly, “there would be nobody there to play with.”