When I was 9, my parents shipped me off to Jerusalem to spend a very hot summer with my grandparents. Perhaps the most memorable cultural difference I discovered during my time there was that, in Israel, young kids ran around unsupervised for hours at a time, day or night. As a kid living in American suburbia, I had never gone far from adult supervision. For one, nothing exciting was within walking distance from my house. But most importantly, exploring without adults around was also considered a safety issue, especially at night.
In Israel, parents practice free-range parenting, trusting their kids to stay safe and be independent. On my first day of summer camp, my group accidentally left me on the public bus we took back from the beach, but no one seemed concerned that I had to navigate the unfamiliar Jerusalem streets by myself. Though I wouldn't recommend that experience to others, I was able to locate the camp...eventually. Overall, my freedom to explore throughout the summer allowed me to learn more Hebrew and make some friends on my own by asking directions and finding things to do.
Reflecting back on that summer makes me wonder: Are American children given enough space to explore?
Switzerland is leading the way toward educating children in an alternative, looser environment. A piece written by Emily Bazelon for Slate.com focused on a completely outdoor school there aimed for kids ages 4 to 7. There is no formal learning in this school; it is all about exploring. During free play, kids can go wherever they want, sometimes under no supervision.
Many American children do not enjoy that kind of freedom ever. In fact, the Slate.com article reveals that Connecticut actually passed a law in 2011 mandating that elementary school students needed at least 20 minutes of recess, because many kids (especially ones in low-income neighborhoods) weren't getting any at all. Some schools still haven't implemented the requirement, and this kind of environment, coupled with structured after-school activities, leaves kids with very little free time or space. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that the United States is still very concerned with safety issues, so it can seem as though parents are more hands-on because of the culture here.
I'm not recommending that we send our kids to an outdoor school in Switzerland. However, there are some steps that we can take to step back a bit. In Parents' January 2014 issue, Senior Editor Gail O'Connor shared expert advice on how we can lean back from our kids. Allow your child to have unsupervised, self-directed play in a safe environment. Don't be afraid that she will be bored; she'll learn to entertain herself. When we don't offer children some form of adventure and freedom, we might be hindering their creativity, independence, and self-reliance.
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