Play Free or Die

I've been meaning to post this video for months now. It's a teaser for an upcoming documentary on "The Land," a playground in the UK where children are set loose in a sort of unstructured adventure junkyard, and free to play in ways that most American adults would find terrifying. 

The philosophy behind this kind of child-rearing - that growing human beings need challenge and risk to become fully actualized - is also at the heart of a recent movement toward "free play," or "free range parenting." Not being a parent, my opinion on this matter bears little weight, but I do see many parents of my generation constraining their children's options based on fear, much of it with little basis in reality. Parents have a duty to protect their children, but as in society as a whole, the interests of security have eclipsed virtually all other considerations. The Atlantic had a lengthy and very engaging piece called The Overprotected Kid about the issue of fear and free play. 

This issue got "newsed" recently - I have just invented this term to denote when a simmering issue gains leverage in popular culture by virtue of a single event reported in media (and, as is often the case, debate is then framed by the specifics of the event, rather than in a more expansive and thoughtful discussion that addresses the underlying issues). Anyway, this issue got newsed when a self-identified pair of "free range parents" in Maryland allowed their two children, 10 and 6, to walk home from the park unescorted, and the kids were picked up by the police. Child Protective Services showed up to investigate, and according to the parents, threatened to remove the children from the home.

Now, all kinds of people who think that the government is being intrusive when it levies taxes or prohibits the dumping of lethal substances are decrying the so-called nanny state. Personally, I'm really intrigued by issues in which left- and right-wing perceptions loop around and overlap, but that's an issue for another time (and another phenomenon in search of a descriptive term). 

I suspect the free play movement started in an effort to revitalize the options for kids to explore and grow. Now that it's been newsed, I suspect it will develop primarily in its social and political dimensions. There will be great sport in the collective social shaming of so-called helicopter parents, who will be blamed for all the perceived failures of the Millennial generation. And for some, protective parenting will serve as a warped metaphor for entitlement programs and the role of government in protecting the most economically disadvantaged members of society. 

Speaking of kids, just over half - half - of public school students in the United States now qualify for free or reduced lunches. So, as a nation, we're apparently pretty comfortable with the risks of allowing a generation to grow up in poverty. As long as they don't leave their yard.