Children Should Play Outside Alone—Here’s How
Teach, plan, supervise, and let go
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The most pivotal experience of my adolescence was spending three days alone on an island off the coast of Maine with a tarp, a bag of trail mix, a sleeping bag, an apple, a sleeping pad, and plenty of water. My solo, at age 15, was part of a 21-day sea-kayaking and sailing Outward Bound course. I journaled, contemplated boredom, did many jumping jacks, and emerged with a sense of accomplishment and self-reliance that paved my way for a lifetime of outdoor adventure.
So naturally, I want to give my sons, who are nine and seven, similar opportunities to spend time alone outside, solve problems, and experience the world in its massiveness. But it’s one thing to be an Outward Bound student; it’s something else to be the responsible parent deciding how much independence to grant kids outside and when. I reached out to Truckee, California, resident Janel Ferrin Anderson, a raft guide turned doctor and the mother of four, for advice. She abides by four basic steps: teach, plan, supervise, and let go.
Before letting them run wild, teach your kids basic safety rules, like what to avoid (open water or busy streets), how to assess their own skills, and what to do if they get into trouble. This is a lifelong process that is best begun in toddlerhood, says Anderson. “I used to send my kids on ‘expedition missions’ as toddlers and preschoolers,” she says. “We’d be out on a trail, and I would send them off into the woods on an objective.”
The mission could be gathering pine cones or rocks or counting birds. The point is to give the kids a task that they can do outside of your immediate purview. As your kids get older, teach them how to navigate so you can trust that they’ll be able to ride their bike or walk to a designated spot. Show your child what you’re doing and why. On the ski hill, let them pick the slopes. If you’re camping, let them set up the tent. Hiking? Let them pick the route.
Come up with an oh-shit plan just for the adults. Assess the potential danger of any given scenario, and identify how you would get out of it. (Broken arm at the crag? Map directions to the nearest doctor. Have a kid with food allergies? Stash the EpiPen in your pack.) Don’t tell the kids the plan, says Anderson—this one is a backup. “The kids should feel as if they’re totally on their own in the wild, and you should have a general sense of where they are and what’s going on,” she says. “They run wild and free, and I’ve identified potential problem spots and made a calculated risk as to what I’m comfortable with and what I’m not comfortable with.”
Another important part of the plan is communicating with your kids, says Anderson. “Explain, ‘Here is the situation, and I want you to make good choices. This and that should be on your radar. Here’s what you need to do.’ And then get confirmation that they understand,” she says.
Parents will have varying degrees of risk acceptance. Anderson believes it’s fine for your kids to experience natural consequences—so long as they don’t endure serious injury. If the kids are bouldering, for example, they might get themselves into a sticky situation high up on a rock and need a rescue. That’s an acceptable risk. Sure, they might get scared, and there might be tears, but they’ll learn a lot about their limits and how to take care of themselves. They will also know they can trust you to help them out when they need it.
“You have to be in a place where you can let your kids encounter problems and work through them,” Anderson says. “The situation has to be safe enough so you can monitor without interfering unless you need to for their safety.”
This problem-solving builds confidence and skills. It’s a positive-feedback loop: kids build upon knowledge and demonstrate their responsibility, and their parents become more and more comfortable granting them independence in the outdoors.
“Kids are a lot tougher than we think they are,” Anderson says. Trust they have learned the lessons you’re imparting, and remember that their skill building is an iterative process. It can be harrowing to watch your offspring ski down a slope solo for the first time, with plans to meet for lunch, but instead of giving in to anxiety, reframe the situation in your mind. You are giving your kid the opportunity to be independent and deal with what comes their way, even if that means getting lost and tracking down a ski patroller to help them return to their familiar meeting spot.
“If you don’t let them make choices by themselves, kids don’t get the chance to learn and to depend on themselves,” Anderson says. “The outdoors is a great classroom, and getting the chance to experience it on their own will make kids stronger—emotionally and physically.”