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What Happens When Your World Bans Play and You’re the One Blamed for Bad Parenting?

What Happens When Your World Bans Play and You’re the One Blamed for Bad Parenting?

Hello, I’m Michele and I’m a parent.

As a group, parents get blamed for overprotecting our children or hovering or helicoptering — all of which prevent our children from experiencing the free play we loved and learned from when we were children. The same is true of the flip-side — if we don’t keep a very close eye on our kids we are bad parents.

Failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent.” – The Overprotected Kid by Hanna Rosin (Atlantic Monthly,  March 2014)

Do you think this is my choice? Oh my goodness! How I wish I could set my children free to climb trees, collect rocks and sticks, build forts with their friends, and play away from adult meddling.

In her blog post called  “If Dogs Get Their Own Parks to Run Free, Why Can’t Kids? Too many look-don’t-touch-rules harm children and parents,” Janice Swaisgood from the Children & Nature Network wrote about this hands-off phenomena when visiting her local wilderness park.  I imagine Janice out there in nature letting her child play. She’s close by, but not imposing her grown-up narration of play.  She’s there despite feeling as though she might be chastised at any moment. I can say from experience that this is a horrible feeling.  Why would I be motivated to go anywhere to get that you-are-totally-breaking-the-rules-and-gonna-get-in-trouble feeling?

I really, really WANT to get my kids “out there.”

But where are we supposed to go for unstructured free play, let alone nature play?

One of my strategies has been to stay after school and let my children experience free play there.  Guess what? Apparently, the children who are free playing after school are interfering with paid after school programs  — so, in a newsletter blurb, parents like me have been asked to closely supervise our kids: “Parents, please be sure to pick up your children on time and keep them with you once they are released into your care. Unsupervised students may be disruptive to aftercare and tutorial programs.” 

So then I’m forced back into bad-parenting-hovering. What’s a parent to do? I mean, really, this is NOT good for the kids. They are the ultimate losers. Since kids set foundations for lifelong learning and social interactions through play, it’s really important they get time to navigate play on their own. Unfortunately, I’m starting to become well-practiced in being a play advocate for my children as more and more limits are placed on their play. 

Even though I know this new policy is a result of responding to a complaint, I want to make sure the unrecognized consequences of this decision are heard.

Dear School Administrator,

I can totally understand the frustration of after-care providers when unsupervised children join their programs. That should stop. But I have to argue that school is one of the only places I feel free to let my kids have FREE PLAY. It’s valuable to me to let them have time to play and roam in a relatively safe environment when I know their friends and other adults will watch out for them. They play differently without my eyes directly on them or hovering over them. I’m always there and they know where to check in with me. I’ve directed them not to interfere with the after school programs. But I feel like it’s the last safe haven for free play which is so valuable.”

Okay, that might be an exaggeration. It’s not the LAST safe haven for free play.

We’ll always have our neighborhood, right?

Well, my HOA came out with this zinger in our community newsletter later that same week: “The Common Area and the streets are not a playground. Children should be supervised when in the common area. Parents may be fined if their children do not obey the rules and regulations of the common area.”

Parents may be FINED? When they are playing on the community basketball court? If I wanted to give my 12 year old an ounce of freedom to “Go Play Outside!” — now I’m in danger of being reported by my neighbors and literally paying the price.

Do I say something? I know this is a response to a complaint over some specific incident, but does every kid have to pay the price for whatever rules and regulations were broken? I can’t be silent when it comes to play — and neither should you. Parents need to speak out when it comes to our children’s right to play.

Dear HOA Board,

I don’t think any of you have young children right now and mine are not too young anymore, but I just wanted to respond to the note about the “common area and streets are not a playground” in the April newsletter.
Do you remember your childhoods? Do you remember running free in the neighborhood with your friends and maybe even further afield? Heck, I used to ride my bike miles to the liquor store with my younger sister to buy candy bars.  These memories with the neighborhood kids are some of the best in my life!  I learned so much about being a good person by interacting with adult neighbors, too.
People complain and wonder at the state of our youth, yet they restrict virtually every part of their play and freedom. We are even getting our hands slapped for letting our kids play on school grounds AFTER school hours. It’s not that I don’t feel safe sending my kids to our nearby parks to play, I’m afraid someone will alert the police to my “negligence” in just letting them be a kid. The basketball court inside our community is somewhere close, somewhere safe with my lovely neighbors helping to keep an eye on our community. I just love it! In fact, I wish there was more interaction in the common areas between our young residents and our adult residents. I think we have things to learn from each other.
I assume this warning is for the kids who do not “obey the rules and regulations.” I teach my kids their limits and to respect our neighborhood — just as I hope the adults respect them and their right to a childhood. 
Threats of parental fines are just a sad state of affairs! If we can’t come to a more positive solution in our little 99 home neighborhood — how is society going to survive this all-out assault on children’s play? What kind of adults are these cooped up kids going to become?
I just wanted to share another perspective. Thanks for listening!

Why do I even bother?  

It takes time and thought and energy to come up with these responses. And, realistically, my kids are not even going to benefit from my fight because social change takes time. But think about what our collective PARENTAL voices could do for speeding up the change and cementing play as a priority for the next generation of kids.

I don’t think HOAs or school administrators or park rangers are maliciously out to restrict children. It’s just a response to a complaint or a policy or an ordinance. It’s a worry about liability. As parents, we need to invite the complainers and lawmakers to play and remind them of play’s value for building a successful person who looks back on a childhood filled with joy and lessons that made a difference in their life.

Play is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give their child.

Play doesn’t require any assembly or directions. The kids know what to do with it.

All kids need is a place where play is allowed and the time to explore it on their own.

As a parent, I will defend and protect my children’s right to this precious gift.

Even if my world bans it.

Even if I’m accused of bad parenting.


Friday 12th of June 2015

Michele - You are making a difference by speaking up, even if it's ever so little. I know exactly how you feel! When my daughter started kindergarten I thought it'd be a great idea to stay on the playground at the school to let her play after the day was over, but was quickly reprimanded. Because the car line is nearby nobody is allowed on the play equipment after school, not even if they're supervised and literally 100 feet away from the car line. That just doesn't make any sense to me.

Bruce Smith

Saturday 19th of April 2014

Michele, thanks so much for sharing this: it's so refreshing to find someone else who gets it! For the past 17 years I've been promoting a type of school that gives free play its proper, central role. Most of this time I've been at Alpine Valley School in Denver, but you might be interested to know a similar school is in the works right there in Orange County -- the Open School. I'd also point you to the work of Peter Gray and Lenore Skenazy. I really appreciate your courage in speaking out on this sensitive yet vital subject.

Michele Whiteaker

Saturday 19th of April 2014

Thanks for the comment, Bruce. I totally know what you mean about "getting it." I'm very familiar with Lenore since I've been writing about play for the last 10 years. She's a bit too extreme for me - and I'm sure it's more to elicit a response than anything. I'm much more mainstream. But the fight is moving into the mainstream - which is sad. And our school is very progressive in the play realm! That's what made this new policy a bit jarring. I'm sure we will see our way through it. Good for you and and all the work you're doing to promote play!


Saturday 19th of April 2014

It's hard, finding a balance. And unfortunately some kids aren't raised the way yours seem to be, and left on their own cause these letters to be sent out. It's frustrating! I enjoy reading your newsletters & website Michele - thanks for the great play ideas.

Michele Whiteaker

Saturday 19th of April 2014

Thanks for responding, Diane. I think it would be easier to balance if we gave the kids a chance to play more often. Then they'd know the rules, their limits, and how to respect others -- because it would have been learned through experience. I give kids a lot of credit. They can figure this stuff out if given the chance.

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