I’m this close to letting my son walk our dog around the block by himself. One of these days in the not-too-distant future, I’m going to let him wait in the car while I run into the store to grab a loaf of bread. He’ll probably be allowed to ride his bike to the corner by himself this summer. I’m inching him toward outdoor independence, but I still want more for him. I want him to roam, but I also don’t want him too far out of reach, all by himself.
Writer Patrick A. Coleman came up with an old-school solution for parents who want their kids to roam a little freer: a throwback to the era of our own childhoods, when we explored with our neighbourhood friends. He started an outdoor roaming playgroup for his sons and their friends.
The average modern American kid spends 5 to 6 hours a day in front of a screen compared to three hours in 1995. And 50 per cent of kids in the U.S. don’t even receive one parent-supervised outdoor play session per day. Kids who do get unstructured play time only spend an average of 4 to 7 minutes in the fresh air.
What does this loss of free time mean for kids? Losing the chance to flex their imaginations in self-directed play. Losing the opportunity to turn the woods into fantasy land. Losing the opportunity to learn crucial negotiation skills in order not to get their asses kicked by the big kids. And I want all those things—on some level at least—for my kids. So, what’s a dad to do?
Short answer: Start a gang.
(Coleman calls his group a “gang,” but we’re going with “pack.” It sounds more wild animal to us.)
Find like-minded parents
The first step in starting a neighbourhood pack is to identify the parents most likely to be on board with a little roaming. Without getting too “free-range” versus “helicopter parenting” here, you probably already know which parents in your social circle are likely to be all “oh, that sounds cool!” and which will look at you in horror at the suggestion.
The kids who are already playing outside unsupervised or who are allowed to ride their bikes up and down the street are excellent candidates for your pack.
Discuss everyone’s comfort level — how much freedom is too much freedom? — and agree to some general pack rules.
Set clear physical parameters
You don’t want to jump from “not allowed to cross the street by yourself” to “have fun exploring the city” all at once. Set some clear physical boundaries for them to roam within. It’s helpful to use landmarks everyone can identify; don’t go past the school, for example, or beyond the soccer field.
Physically walk the area with them if you’re not sure they understand the boundaries. And remember that you can start small, such as just to the park and back or within “Dinner’s ready!” shouting distance. You can increase their boundaries over time as the kids build trust and everyone becomes more comfortable.
Give it a limit
They don’t need to be out of reach all day — at least. not at first. Pick one (or all) of them them to wear a watch and set a time to return to one of the homes to check in. That parent can text the others an update upon their return. If you want to be a little more flexible, send them out in the morning and tell them to come back when they get hungry for lunch.
(If they’re not back by 1 p.m., you’ll know it’s time to head out and track them down.)
If you don’t want to put a specific time limit on them but want to be able to reach them if needed, investing in a cheap mobile phone they use just for this purpose might be worth considering.
Recruit and grow your pack
As your pack becomes successful — the kids do, in fact, return home every day and with only minor injuries — other previously hesitant parents may start to come around to the idea.
Your pack should be open and welcoming of new members with the understanding that if it’s to continue, everyone looks out for everyone else and no kid is left behind.