Kids need more unsupervised time outdoors, according to research. Here's how some families encourage free play.

(Photo illustration: Oscar Duarte for Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)
(Photo illustration: Oscar Duarte for Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

Today’s parents remember being sent out of the house and told to be home when the streetlights came on. There were no watches with tracking capabilities or cellphones that parents could use to locate their children at a moment’s notice. If kids wanted to play video games, they had to invite friends over, not grab a headset and connect online. Long before group chats on Discord, kids roamed the neighborhood and knocked on doors to see who was around for a bike ride or game of kickball.

Because parents now have the ability to know where children are at any given moment, they expect to do so. If a child can’t be located within minutes — using a smartphone, smartwatch, social media or other digital tool at their disposal — panic ensues. Today’s parents are also more preoccupied with their children’s development and monitor milestones more closely than previous generations.

But a new study has found that this “intensification of parenting” might be holding kids back. Here’s what the research says, and how different U.S. families give their children the freedom to enjoy independent outdoor play.

What a new study says

In August, a study conducted by the University of Essex and published in the journal Sociology of Health & Illness concluded that parental pressures have led to less organic play and more structured activities for children, reducing creativity as well as eliminating opportunities for them to independently learn the dangers of outdoor play.

According to researchers, this "intensification of parenting" sees modern-day parents feeling pressured to plan play dates, organized sports and other scheduled activities to encourage physical enjoyment; as these supervised, structured play opportunities rise, however, spontaneous play among children has declined. The study found that more opportunities for unplanned physical activities would allow children to develop stronger awareness of dangers and limitations while providing an outlet for creativity.

What experts say

Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees that free play is important, in that it encourages physical activity which aids the development of both gross and fine motor skills.

“In the era of screen time and social media, free play remains crucial for a balanced childhood,” he tells Yahoo Life. “It counteracts the potential negative effects of excessive screen use by promoting physical, social and emotional well-being.”

Ganjian is aware that parents have legitimate safety concerns, and he recommends preemptive measures such as eliminating potential hazards within the home and yard in addition to continued conversations with children about safety rules. “Parents should set clear limits on where children can go and whom they can interact with,” Ganjian says. “Teach children how to handle unexpected situations and who to contact in case of emergencies, and when it is appropriate to seek help from trusted adults.”

Having regular check-ins with parents is also recommended, taking into consideration their children’s age, maturity level and capabilities when allowing unsupervised play. “There are no strict age requirements, as children develop at different rates,” he says.

According to Ganjian, regular communication and trust-building are key in determining the right level of independence for every individual child. “Ultimately, parents should assess their child's readiness for independence and gradually introduce more freedom as they demonstrate responsibility and good judgment,” he says.

What does free play look like? Here's what parents told Yahoo Life.

‘Children can learn from parents, but they have to make their own mistakes as well’

Michele Meek is an associate professor of communication studies at Bridgewater State University as well as a mother of two. She is also an award-winning filmmaker, and her short documentary, Imagine Kolle 37, chronicles the adventures of two young children — one of whom is Meek’s child— as they explore an “adventure playground” in Berlin. These playgrounds are for children between the ages of 6 and 18, and aside from a supervisor who is on hand to answer questions about using tools and make sure safety rules are followed, no adults are allowed. Children can build fires, hammer, saw and create three-story structures with the provided tools.

Meek became fascinated with the concept while living overseas, and found herself both terrified as a parent and envious of the freedoms these children were experiencing. “I became obsessed with this space. I was enamored by it. Shocked and excited by it,” Meek says. “I was coming at it from the perspective of a parent thinking, ‘How could this be OK?’ while my inner child was like, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’”

She considers a space where there are known risks to be actually safer because children are aware that they are playing near sharp objects and other hazards. “One time, my child got burnt, but after that, [they were] more cautious around hot things. You don’t want a child to be seriously hurt, of course, but they can feel a bit of fire or hit their hand and realize, 'ouch.' And be more cautious the next time,” she says. “Children can learn from parents, but they have to make their own mistakes as well.”

‘I used to spend two hours in the woods each day after school’

Many parents are working to combat the helicopter mentality that pervades modern parenting in order to give their children space to learn on their own. Hannah Wohlfert knows that her own upbringing was more free-range in part due to circumstances: She lived more rurally and now resides in a condominium in the suburbs. “I used to grab a snack and then spend two hours in the woods each day after school, but that isn’t possible here,” she tells Yahoo Life. But they do what they can to squeeze in free play. “We try to make sure our daughter gets outside at least once every day, but twice is ideal,” she says. “On weekends, we make sure to get to the park or something seasonal like an orchard.”

‘We couldn’t imagine another way to raise our kids’

For Jennifer Shevchuk and her husband, moving out of the suburbs to rural upstate New York once they had children was a priority in order to provide freedoms similar to their own upbringing. “My husband grew up on a family farm in Eastern Europe, whereas I grew up on some acreage in a small town here,” Shevchuk says. “[Being] close to nature was a grounding factor, and we couldn’t imagine another way to raise our kids.”

To that end, the Shevchuks have provided plenty of outdoor play structures for their children, including a trampoline, sandbox, swing set and large swaths of outdoor space. Their only rule is that their children notify them if they plan on leaving their property for a neighbor’s. “Nightfall brings the possibility of bears and coyotes, among other wildlife; there are acres of forest nearby that one could easily get lost in,” Shevchuk says.

‘Outdoor access is essential to a healthy childhood’

While her children attend public school, play instruments and organized sports and are active members of their faith community, Virginia-based Ginna Haske believes that their interactions outside with the other neighborhood children is the foundation of how they relax, create, exercise and learn. “In my experience, outdoor access is essential to a healthy childhood and also brain development and mental and physical health,” she says. “Observing animals [and] trees, splashing in creeks and building entire kingdoms in the woods is something that has happened daily for my kids for over a decade.”

Not long ago, Haske and her family moved into a larger home in a neighborhood with fewer open spaces in order to provide more socializing space for their teens. Even so, outdoor time for all family members remains a top priority. “Children who might not shine in the traditional classroom can flourish as leaders outdoors,” she says. “I’ve witnessed on countless occasions how a simple nature walk, neighborhood soccer or basketball game or bonfire can positively impact a child’s day.”

As her children have gotten older, Haske has observed the benefits that this emphasis on outdoor time has produced. “My son’s Eagle Scout project was restoring a cliffside trail destroyed by many years of snow, ice and erosion,” she says. “It was so special that he picked that as his project, as it represented so much of his childhood.”

‘The independence has helped him with confidence’

For Laura Morgan, allowing her children to enjoy the outdoors and independence without fear has been important. Instead of living rurally, she and her husband have chosen to raise their family in a small town outside of Cincinnati, where safety concerns must be constantly evaluated. Shortly after they relocated, for example, a drunk driver drove into their front yard. As a result, this space is not an option for independent play. Instead, Morgan arranges walks to nearby parks and maintains a fenced-in garden in her backyard.

Morgan allows her middle schooler to walk home from school independently, which means crossing streets unmanned by crossing guards. “We teach him defensive walking, but I also contacted the City Council repeatedly until they added extra signage and lights,” Morgan says of dealing with distracted drivers.

Because of this independence, Morgan has received some judgment from other parents who don’t think it’s safe to walk home without an adult. She still maintains it’s good for him. “The independence has helped him with confidence and has helped me trust him and let go a bit,” she says. “I still don’t trust other people and I still worry a lot, but I do plan to let each kid walk home from that school when the time comes, if they’re comfortable with it.”