Free range vs. scheduled summers: which is better for children?

By Sarah Glenn

There is plenty of research supporting a busy, engaged and controlled childhood and just as much advocating for free-range children. With summer well underway, we thought we would sift through some of the research. This article is not meant to be a definitive, end-all source of information. Rather, we want to give you something interesting to talk about around the table with your family, friends and even your children. Share your thoughts on structured vs. free-range children on our Pocatello Parents Facebook Page.

Free-range, helicopter, attachment parenting … there are so many terms! So what is free range parenting, really?

There is no one black-and-white definition of what “free-range” parenting is. The term means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But in general, it describes how closely you monitor your child’s play time. Do you let your young kids wander far away for some unsupervised adventure? Then you might be more on the free-range side of the spectrum. Never more than five feet away from your child? You might be on the “helicopter parenting” side of the spectrum.

Why does the term “free-range” parenting irk people?

Like anything, it can be taken to extremes. In a world swirling with statistics about child endangerment and victimization (Idaho is no. 3 in the nation when it comes pornography offenses with child involvement), the idea of kids unsupervised seems irresponsible. We have to ask, what is child neglect? Who gets to decide? And how can we prevent children and families from getting to that point? We also live in a world where just under half (47.7 percent) of American homes have two working parents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. During the summer these parents need someone to supervise their kids, and camps and scheduling seem to be an appealing and educational option.

I’m the kind of parent who wants my kids involved in a lot, doing a lot. Are there researched benefits to that?

Probably the biggest benefit is knowing that your child is safe, cared for and doing something productive while mom and dad are at work. Beyond that, clinical research has uncovered some interesting side effects for young kids who participate in several extracurricular activities. Researchers from Yale, the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois combined in a 2005 paper to say that, “(We) are beginning to recognize that along with family, school and peers, the organized activities in which some youth participate during these free hours (after school and during the summer) are important contexts of emotional social and civic development.”

Another study that appeared in the journal Applied Developmental Science in the year 2000 looked at the extracurricular activities of 6,000 thriving, well-adjusted, racially diverse children. The researchers found that “Time spent in youth programs was found to have the most pervasive, positive influence in being a predictor of positive outcomes, including social and moral development and civic involvement.”

What about burnout? What if I put my kids in too many activities. Isn’t that something to be concerned about?

Yes, it is and there is a threshold that scientists have identified. Those kids who do participate in lots of activities can start seeing diminishing returns, a phenomenon called the “threshold effect,” according to some studies. Researchers with the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) found that the benefits of participation begin to level off at about five to seven activities. This study was done by Jennifer Fredricks, who presented research on overscheduling March 31 at an SRCD meeting in Montreal.

Ok, what’s the other side of the argument. What are the benefits of unprogrammed, free-range, “maybe they will get hurt” play?

This time, the American Academy of Pediatrics is championing the cause of childhood free time. In a recent press release they say, “Play or some available free time in the case of older children and adolescents is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.” In 2011, the New York Times asked, “can a playground be too safe?” The article’s answer was “yes.” These researchers referenced by the NY Times said that facing unsafe situations teaches critical skills needed as adolescents and adults.

While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of nine is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights. By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

Bottom line, I want my child to be successful and smart. Which option does that for them?

All researchers agree that amid the mix of conflicting information, the best option is somewhere in the middle. The American Academy of Pediatrics said it best: “The challenge for society, schools, and parents is to strike the balance that allows all children to reach their potential, without pushing them beyond their personal comfort limits, and while allowing them personal free time.”

Leave a Reply