Opinion

Why you should leave your kids at the park on Saturday -- without supervision

Saturday will be a day devoted to the quaint notion that children can actually play outside, with one another, period. Without their parents and maybe even without a squeeze bottle of Purell. They’ll be fine!

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Mark your calendars, get out the sunscreen, and for goodness sake turn off Nancy Grace! This Saturday, May 22, is “take our children to the park … and leave them there day.”

Yes, OK, so I declared it myself. Somebody had to, otherwise a whole lot of kids – including my own – would probably be spending yet another spring day in front of a screen, or at a baseball/soccer/lacrosse clinic with a grown-up telling them what to do and how to do it and now it’s snack time and don’t forget: next week is team photos, bring a check.

Instead, Saturday will be a day devoted to the quaint notion that children age 7 or 8 and up can actually play outside, with one another, period. Without their parents and maybe even (I can dream, can’t I?) without a squeeze bottle of Purell. They’ll be fine!

Except that a lot of folks are saying, “No they won’t.”

“What about food, water and restrooms?” someone commented on one of the blogs (not mine) discussing the idea. “What happens when a fight breaks out? What happens when an accident takes place?”

Well, let’s see. Food is something kids can live without for an hour or two. In fact, they probably should. Kids used to play so hard they’d forget to eat. Now it’s the opposite.

Water? Maybe they could use a drinking fountain or bring a bottle. Restrooms? Let’s not obsess. Most of us managed to play outside without bathrooms being our primary focus. Our progeny could, too. Especially since the idea is for the kids to stay at the park just a short amount of time, if this is their first solo flight – an hour, or even half an hour – heck, 10 minutes! – simply to get them acclimated to free time free of us.

So what happens if a child gets hurt? Here’s what Diane Levin, a professor of education at Boston’s Wheelock College, noticed when she took a group of grad students to Ireland earlier this year. They visited a school where about a hundred first and second graders were running around at recess, on the asphalt, “And my students are looking around and saying, ‘I can’t believe this!’ ” recalls Levin. “I say, ‘What do you mean?’ They say, ‘There’s not one teacher dealing with one problem!’ Then two kids bump into each other and fall down and before the teacher can even get there, there’s another kid helping and then they go back to playing. My students were blown away.”

If a kid falls on the playground and no adult hears it – or kisses it, or calls a lawyer – did it really happen? Maybe it just gets shrugged off.

And if it’s a serious accident? Well, those are extremely rare. From 1990 to 2000 the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 147 deaths of children on playgrounds, or roughly 15 a year. About 70 percent of these were on home playground equipment. So kids are actually safer at the park.

Still, about four children a year do die on public playgrounds. That is tragic. It is also tragic that about 2,000 children die each year as passengers in cars. If we are too scared to let our kids play on the playground, we should be absolutely terrified to drive them anywhere, ever.

OK, so what about the biggest fear of all: Predators circling Saturday on their Hello Kitty calendars.

The good news is that we are in the midst of a historic 20-year drop in crime. Crime is lower now than in the 1970s and ’80s, when most of us parents were playing outside without our parents plotzing. Of course it doesn’t feel as safe, because that was before the onslaught of gruesome, in-your-face media, from CNN to CSI: to Law & Order (RIP).

On TV, kids are being snatched 24/7, making it feel as if they’re being snatched 24/7 in the real world, too. But are they? Warwick Cairns, author of “How to Live Dangerously,” crunched the numbers and puts it this way: If, for some strange reason, you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to keep him outside, alone, for this to be statistically likely to happen?

About 750,000 years.

That’s a lot of take our children to the park … and leave them there days.

Not that there is no risk to this idea at all. Of course there is. There is always risk in life. That’s why trying to minimize it makes sense (think: bike helmets), but trying to eliminate it does not (think: never riding a bike at all). And let’s not forget it is risky when we don’t let our kids do some things on their own. There’s the risk they’ll sit on the couch and get diabetes and start worshiping the Sham-Wow.

Free play turns out to be crucial to child development. (And, oh yeah, fun.) When a kid says, “The tree is jail!” she’s developing communication skills, and creativity and even compromise, if she wanted the jail to be the swings and got voted down.

The idea of our children doing this on their own may seem radical in our hyper-vigilant age.

But with a little practice, starting Saturday, our kids could get so used to playing with their friends that they’ll run outside after school and come home for dinner sweaty, hungry, happy, developmentally on target and maybe a little sunburnt.

How radical is that?

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).” She blogs at freerangekids.com and ParentDish.com.

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