How to raise capable kids

What do your kids do after school? Chances are they’re signed up for soccer, dance or art lessons — all of which are wonderful and enriching. But chances are there’s one thing they aren’t doing much.

Free play.

Last month, Wilton Youth Council and Wilton Youth Services organized a forum at Trackside Teen Center addressing the lack of free play in our kids’ lives. The speaker, Peter Gray Ph.D., a Boston College professor of psychology and author of the book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life, calls it “Play Deficit Disorder.”

Gray came to Wilton to educate the community on the connection he sees between free play and successful, well-adjusted kids. That means he also came to discuss the connection between over-scheduled, over-supervised, over-structured kids and the rising rates of youth and young-adult anxiety, depression and helplessness.  

“There’s a big difference between Little League and kids organizing their own pickup game of baseball,” Gray told the crowd of more than 80 community leaders, parents, and school personnel. In Little League, Gray pointed out, an adult organizes the teams, the rules, and even the snacks.

But when kids play on their own, they are empowered to make all the decisions. When an argument brews, they have to resolve it. When the ball goes over the neighbor’s fence, they have to decide whether to ring the doorbell, climb the fence, or continue the game at all.

All those simple decisions involve leadership, risk assessment, creativity, planning, and resourcefulness. Through free play children learn social skills, empathy, and self-control. They learn how to get along with peers and how to negotiate to get what they want without losing their playmate. Children are deprived of the chance to learn these skills when adults make the decisions for them.

According to Gray, since the 1950s there has been a five- to eight-fold increase in anxiety and depression in children, along with a rise in suicides. He believes the concurrent decline in play may be a factor in this. Most adults have treasured childhood memories of playing in their neighborhood, the woods, or on the beach. As Gray reminded the audience, “Free play is joy.” Overprotection comes at a cost.

Gray has co-founded a new nonprofit called Let Grow, dedicated to “overthrowing overprotection.” One of his co-founders is Lenore Skenazy, the mother who let her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone and started the Free-Range Kids movement.

Now their goal is to give parents, schools and communities some easy, fast, fun, and safe ways to re-normalize free play in childhood. To this end, they are encouraging the Wilton community to adopt two new ideas: After-School Free Play and the Let Grow Project.

The aim of After (or Before) School Free Play is to give kids back the chance to learn all the social skills Gray talked about. If a playground, school gym, or community center is open for free play after school, parents know the kids are someplace safe, with an adult on premises — but not organizing the fun. Just as importantly, there’s a critical mass of kids to play with — something hard to find in suburban parks and back yards these days.

The “Let Grow Project,” meanwhile, sounds incredibly mundane: Teachers tell their students to go home and ask their parents if they can do one thing they feel ready to do that they haven’t done yet: walk the dog alone, run an errand or make the family dinner.

When their child brings home the bread for dinner, it’s as if they just discovered America. The parents burst with pride. Because it is at that moment that they finally have proof their kid can do something on their own. This means they have raised a child who will be able to survive even after they die. This is a deeply important revelation that our fear-based society has robbed so many of us of. The Let Grow Project gives it back.

Wilton Youth Council and Wilton Youth Services have formed a task force to explore these ideas and others to make Wilton a more play-friendly town. Implementing these ideas will be a community-wide endeavor — not one focused solely on parents, the community, or schools.

For more information, or to join the Free Play Task Force that is working to implement some of Gray’s Let Grow programs and ideas, call Wilton Youth Services at 203-834-6241.

Colleen Fawcett LCSW is the director of Wilton Youth Services. Vanessa Elias is the president of the Wilton Youth Council. Genevieve Eason is the vice president of the Wilton Youth Council and the chairman of the Wilton Social Services Commission.