Free Range was the Definition of Childhood When I was a Kid: But What Were We Learning?

By Erin Kenny ©2017

When I was a child growing up in the 1960’s, I spent many hours of free time exploring and adventuring in nature. That was the very definition of childhood and it was completely normal that most days parents back then had no idea where us kids roamed nor how high we climbed. No one hovered over us and we were encouraged to go outside and free range whenever possible. My siblings and I walked almost a mile to our elementary school, by ourselves. Nature time was also family time back then as I remember every Sunday, after my Mom put the roast in the oven to cook all day, our family of nine would head to the local park and play together for hours.

In the summer, we kids played outside all day long, swimming, biking and hiking -all without adult supervision. We engaged in many “risky” activities and through this experience became highly risk aware and had plenty of opportunity to practice risk assessment. We learned how to keep ourselves safe. Through observations, experimentations and hands-on exploration, we also learned a great deal about the flora and fauna around us. We knew how to navigate trails and find our way home no matter how wide we ranged.

During my extended free time in nature, I learned many valuable lessons that I was not able to articulate until I was well into adulthood. This childhood experience of an intimate and personal connection to the earth formed something inside me. My Mother was my first Naturalist mentor and she taught me to respect all the living aspects of nature. I believe that my extended exposure to nature early on and growing up with a nature mentor developed my sense of environmental responsibility and my desire to protect the natural world from destruction by humans.

Another valuable lesson I learned was that just being in nature was soothing. Since I had so much unstructured and extended freedom outdoors, I developed a confidence being in nature and felt safe. I could recognize nature’s power to calm me even as a child. As an adult, I often avail myself of the outdoors whenever I need a reset button.

My childhood was the typical model for millennia. However, today’s children are experiencing a radically different relationship with nature. Children are increasingly kept indoors and spend inordinate amounts of time passively in front of screens. When children are taken outdoors (in “nice” weather), they are often hovered over by adults who discourage or forbid them at every turn from doing what they naturally gravitate towards: climbing, playing with sticks, getting messy, splashing in puddles and going barefoot. Young children today are so scheduled that even if they do get some precious time outside it is usually short and hurried and involves manmade toys or playground equipment.

There is great physical therapy in free playing outdoors. Through activities such as running on uneven ground, negotiating big sticks, climbing, throwing, balancing and berry picking, children’s core strength and fine and gross motor skills are enhanced. Being in nature for extended periods of time with no structure or schedule is ideal for sensory integration and is especially therapeutic when guided by caring and nurturing teachers who role model the healing aspects of nature.

Today’s children are experiencing fall-out because of this lack of critically necessary unstructured free time in nature. For example, in the U.S., many children entering kindergarten lack the finger strength to hold a pencil; preschool children are increasingly being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, ADHD and sensory processing disorders at higher and higher rates. In the schedule-driven lives of our preschoolers, there is no time for that restorative downtime that all humans need and no place in the schedule for free time in nature, the one thing all children need.

The need for children to free play in nature and its benefits to children are not limited to preschoolers. Kids up through high school need time built into their schedule for play, especially and preferably outdoors, with no schedule or agenda or pre-determined activity. I see behavioral fallout for my own middle school child, who gets in trouble for being loud and active indoors, because the school does not have recess built into the schedule.

Environmental education does not have to involve a pre-set curriculum or activity or schedule driven agenda. It does not have to involve lesson plans handed out by teachers. Connecting children with nature is most effective if it is hands-on experiential, relevant and place-based. Children become intrinsically motivated to want to preserve and protect nature when they learn to love it first hand and are guided to respect and value it. The added benefit of the extended unstructured free time in nature is that children learn how being outdoors is the perfect environment for self-soothing when feeling out of balance.

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