How to Raise Creative and Self-Reliant Free-Range Kids

boy climbing on wallI always find it funny when I write about something and suddenly I find other incredible angles of the topic coincidentally pop up in my newsfeed or even conversation. (I also loved reading the gamut of stories and opinions on the board.) Such was the case a couple weeks following my post on free-range kids. It’s true some other major media outlets took up the general subject in their op-eds, etc. More interestingly, I’ve stumbled across commentaries that cover everything from the value of tree-climbing to the no-fuss, no-guilt philosophy of 70s mothers (as the title notes, drinking Tab and locking us outside). Sound familiar to anyone?

The most intriguing find, however, was an NPR article highlighting a children’s “adventure park” in Wales inspired by the unofficial play havens of bombed out buildings during/after WWII. The unconventional playground, called simply “The Land,” is apparently one of dozens in Europe (with a small handful in the U.S. – including one in Berkeley, CA, and a few in New York).

The scene is probably every kids’ primal dream: a few acres of zip lines, hills, mud, fire, paints, chains, climbing structures, piping, tires, dens, hammers and nails, random boards, and all manner of, well, junk. (I mentioned the hours in New England dumps a couple weeks ago, and it’s apparently an official and universal truth: kids just like junk.)

The designers and “playworkers” (specially trained observers who offer strategically minimal interaction) emphasize the importance of “loose parts” for this kind of open-ended “play work” – e.g. pallets, boards, tools, etc. with no fixed or pre-associated function.

Such an environment, so antithetical to most traditional playgrounds, encourages self-direction, managed risk and social negotiation from the relative absence of any structure. (If you find yourself drawn to the concept, by the way, for your children or – admit it – yourself, they even offer a free PDF Play Work primer – a fantastically awesome resource.)

The concept casts playgrounds – and play – in a renewed light. In an era when swings and teeter-totters are deemed too dangerous, these parks refuse that safety-obsessive movement. (There’s something about rushing toward whatever everyone tells you is dangerous….) It also refuses the “precious” set-ups of perfectly arranged stations of toys or equipment that still suggest to kids what they’re supposed to do and cost more than most people make in a month. There’s nothing cute or stylish here. It’s ugly, and the kids like it that way.

What does it remind you of? Maybe nature – before we began to get caught up in the aesthetic arrangement of it. Nature when it was hands-on, when no one cared if you picked whatever plants you wanted, moved logs (if you were strong enough to lift them), threw rocks everywhere, walked in the mud. Nature when it was human habitat and not an endangered specimen or pristine gardenscape.

I think we find ourselves with this angle at an intriguing intersection of free play and free range. Not only are we obsessively restricting our kids’ parameters of place – the space in which they feel at home, competent to navigate, free to explore, but we’re relentless about planning or directing their play with everything from the over scheduled activity calendars to one-function toys to neurotic cleanliness.

Let’s eradicate their sense of communal space but make up for it by decorating their bedrooms to the nines. Let’s make sure they never so much as get a knee scrape but put them on ADHD medication before we even stop to question whether they simply want to run around a few times a day. We don’t have time for a green hour each day, but two hours of homework, and hour and a half of organized activities and an allotted hour on the iPad aren’t up for questioning.

It’s somehow become so easy to downplay play. But risky play, wild play, dangerous play? How do we justify anything presumably unessential to higher test scores – and remotely hazardous? The status quo might grudgingly accept that you have to let the little kids out to play for a short stint each day to help attentiveness and prevent major behavioral problems. When you try to then push the envelope and insist on play as more than a stretch break (for all kids – and maybe even adults)…that’s another story.

When we begin to look at the purposes of play and the diversity of its forms, it’s blatantly obvious we’re giving it short shrift. Well-known play theorist and advocate, Bob Hughs, is also one of the minds behind the development of the Playwork movement – and creator of the play taxonomy. According to Hughs, there are no less than sixteen types of play – all essential to cognitive, social, physical and emotional development (PDF).

  • Socio-dramatic
  • Rough-and-tumble
  • Exploratory
  • Object
  • Creative
  • Communication
  • Deep
  • Recapitulative
  • Symbolic
  • Fantasy
  • Dramatic
  • Imaginative
  • Locomotor
  • Mastery
  • Role play

Creativity has been called, for example, the most important factor for professional success in leadership. It’s little wonder, given that studies suggest free play (self-directed) supports a kind of a executive flexibility – the ability to switch out goals and directions.

For anyone who’s ever watched a horde of kids negotiate what to play or where to go or how to do something on their own, it’s clear adaptability is key to keep the peace and the fun moving forward. There’s a flow to it that might take their scenarios in a hundred different amusing directions, but for them it’s serious business. Fast forward twenty-five years, and that flexibility will work for them in their personal adult development. Yet, as Torrence test scores indicate, creativity is on the decline – paralleling the decline in children’s free time and free play (PDF).

Beyond the realm of success, however, is the question of general well-being and even emotional stability. Research has found strong connections between play and lower rates of depression and anxiety rates as well as the development of social empathy. Interviews with murderers have found that play deprivation was a leading (and unexpected) correlation at 90%.

Finally, from a Primal perspective, let us consider for a moment the definitions of just two of these: deep play and recapitulative play…. (PDF)

Deep Play is described as “play which allows the child to encounter risky or even potentially life threatening experiences, to develop survival skills and conquer fear.”

Recapitulative Play is “play that allows the child to explore ancestry, history, rituals, stories, rhymes, fire and darkness. Enables children to access play of earlier human evolutionary stages.”

What about our current education system or even most families’ weekend activities addresses these needs? There’s so much to just these two theorized types of play I’ll have to cover them another time, but I couldn’t help including them here. Grok as ultimate playworker.

So, I get it. Not everyone lives near an adventure park. Not everyone lives in a neighborhood safe enough for 8-year-olds to walk by themselves for more than half a block. I’m not suggesting we put our heads in the sand. What I am suggesting is that we look at the opportunities we have available to us. In fact, maybe we could commit to an experiment. Let me throw out some totally random suggestions that open the door for wild, free-range, diverse, and self-directed play and invite you to offer your own inspired ideas.

  • Plan your next vacation to include a trip (be prepared for repeat requests) to an adventure park. Better than Disneyland any day.
  • Make your own “pop-up” adventure park at home – or with others in your community. Make it the theme of your kid’s next birthday party.
  • Collect large (as large as you can get) cardboard boxes. Put them somewhere visible but don’t say anything. At some point, they’ll ask if they can have them. Pretend to reluctantly agree. Do not, under any circumstances, suggest what they could do with them.
  • Dump the idea of a perfect playroom or perfect toys. If it pleases an adult aesthetic, it’s probably not that fun. Forget anything that matches or declares its own function. Imagine Grok’s kids and choose for them. Think random, unusual, and useful. Kids, when left to their own devices, will raid your recycling and kitchen drawers for their play.
  • Donate 50% (or more) of your kids’ toys and make a room in your house (or backyard now that we’re heading into the warmer season) nothing but “loose parts” – tubes, beads, buckets, hose, platforms, random clothes, rags, boards, cardboard boxes of all sizes (never enough), etc. Tell them “nothing around the neck,” and then let them have at it.
  • Offer your child the chance to play with a group of friends/cousins/neighbor kids (not all same age) on a regular basis with a wild and loose part focus. The more minds, the more enthusiasm and ideas they’ll gather as well as negotiate.
  • Do a city/country scavenger hunt that allows kids the chance to wander with unobtrusive adult accompaniment (as needed).
  • Have a portable bin of “adventure junk” that you can bring to other parks and let the kids use. The different environment (and other kids who will inevitably flock to the new options) will open up new scenarios.
  • Give them their own “workshop,” which could be a portable wagon. Teach them (or, better yet, have a responsible non-parent teach them) to safely hammer, saw, etc. Give them opportunities to “work” while you’re inconspicuously present – washing the car in the driveway while they work in the garage.
  • Teach them how to play with fire without burning the neighborhood down (or seriously injuring themselves).
  • Spend an hour each week somewhere outdoors where they can actually manipulate things – where the “no touch” rule doesn’t apply. Have you ever watched kids on a rock beach? Bring water and food because you’ll be there for hours. Find a friend who has some land and doesn’t mind the kids moving old tree limbs and whatever else they find.
  • And most of all? Make time for whim, adventure, exploration, experimentation – boredom…which is the mother of many a great invention (and many a good story).

Thanks for reading, everyone. Have you been to an adventure park or feel inspired to go build one? Have a great end to the week, and enjoy some deep and recapitulative play this weekend.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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36 thoughts on “How to Raise Creative and Self-Reliant Free-Range Kids”

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  1. Sorry for the recent site issues, folks. MDA has had some buggy plugins and server problems. It’s caused MDA to load slowly or not at all over the last couple days, and the comment board was out of order the last few hours. Hang in there with me! Thanks!

  2. Hi Mark, I’m a big fan of free play for kids. My 6 yr old attends a Steiner/Waldorf primary school here in Australia and the playground is like a wild garden. All natural materials to play with – trees to climb, logs to move, sand to dig, wood to hammer, a climbing wall with holds made from tree branches, rope climbs, vegetable gardens to tend and grab a quick snack from etc etc. And there is minimal teacher interaction during play is part of Steiner philosophy – let kids do their thing and just play! Yes there’s the occassional injury but that’s how kids learn to be careful and know their limits. My 6 yr old was so proud when he could finally manage to make the ascent in the big tree, his next goal is to reach the top. Great for teaching them to be self motivated!

    1. My son also went to a Waldorf School. It was on 25 acres of land that was pretty wild in the undeveloped spaces. The kids climbed and sat in the trees, they dug holes and tunnels, and because they had the same classmates and teacher through their 8 years of lower school, they all became “cousins” in their adventures and are lifelong friends. The local suburban public school, where kids are treated like inmates, did not suit my son and his friends from nearby farms at all. Farm kids are out having clod fights and playing in the irrigation ditches from a very young age. I don’t know what can be done to help free kids in public schools. Maybe if they just stopped giving homework, so kids can go outside and play when they get home?

    2. The downside to Waldorf, at least in my city, is that kids don’t learn how to read until they’re in 3rd grade.

      1. Thats not such a bad thing. The kids I know who came through Steiner, also read late but had a really solid foundation in ‘pre-reading’ skills and once they started reading (and writing) were un-stoppable and quickly became very fluent. Better not to measure against the ‘so called norm’

  3. The good ‘ol cardboard box always produces hours of entertainment, kids seem drawn to them like magnets.

  4. First time I’ve ever really wanted to comment and it’s not working!!
    What a great article, great topic. I was raised by pretty laisse faire parents in the late 70s and 80s. We used to go camping a lot on this big piece of old farmland my parents had which had about a mile of river frontage. And we used to be free to roam and swim. Every year on Easter Sunday my parents would set out a long series of clues across the whole farm for our Easter egg hunt. It would take us all day and might involve swimming, rafting, walking through swamps etc. It was a real highlight of my childhood.
    I have always done something similar for my kids (now 9 and 12) but it tends to be around the local area and parks as we don’t get the chance to camp at Easter. Over the years other kids, cousins and etc have heard about it and gotten involved. This year there were about 20 kids ranging in age from 3 to 13. So the treasure hunt had about 20 clues beginning easier (simple riddles and so on) and closer to home and ending up difficult (cryptic mostly) and far away from home. There was no pressure to complete (everyone got a little bag with some eggs in it) but the kids who made it to the end had walked or run about 10 miles. The last clue was in the swimming pool so they all (five girls made it to the end) stripped off and jumped in. So much fun, a big physical challenge, and a good way to balance the ridiculous amount of chocolate that tends to be a part of Easter.
    Funnily enough the younger boys who didn’t make it the whole way through, spend the day making a treehouse in the park out of fallen branches and various found objects. Many of the parents watching were saying, as the kids dragged enormous branches across the park, ‘do you think we should intervene, that looks dangerous?’. Looks ok to me, I said. Of course, when my son went down to the park the next day it had all been cleaned up by the ranger. Far too dangerous.
    Anyways, just wanted to confirm that not all kids these days are chained to the screen. And if Mark didn’t keep writing such interesting articles, I wouldn’t be either. ????

  5. I’m a young adult, with ambitions in the field of acting (amongst many other things). Growing up in primary school, I had a small gang of friends who joined me on many adventures during recess. We used to imagine we were characters from movies, video games, etc, essentially role playing or even making up new characters and stories as we went along. I will say the stories progressed and confued to become more sophisticated each year. There were actually ‘to be continued’ segments! All of this was my introduction to acting, creativity, and working with a group to make something wild and fantastic. We used our imaginations and bonded over the stories, outside, climbing trees, getting dirty, and scraping our knees on the playground. We fought The Red Ant Wars, orbited into space on swingsets, went through Ninja/Jedi training on the jungle gym, slid our way into Narnia on the slides, and searched for Godzilla in the fields. I hope my future children or at least nieces and nephews can do the same!

  6. Doing most of this already. Glad to hear that other are considering similar outlook on raising kids.

    1. Yes this is why we and our friends home-school our kids too. Play is the priority. The last few days, they’ve been bathing in mud in a small, nearby patch of woodland as they clear a path for a den with whichever friends happen to be around. I still like them to be in hearing distance, though – it’s not the same freedom I had as a child.

    2. I was thinking the same thing. THIS is why we homeschool. It has been such a blessing and improvement in their educations and general health!!!

  7. My granddaughter’s favorite thing to play with at our house? The tub we filled with dirt from the garden, that has WORMS! In it. Had to save the garden somehow. I let her roam free in the yard and cul-de-sac within eyesight, playing with anything she happens across (dirt, potato bugs, flowers, rocks, sticks, etc.) She loves coming to Grama’s house. Oh, and she is 4 years old.

  8. I took my son to have his knee patched up when he took some skin with a fall from his mountain board. The nurse made very clear her disapproval of my having allowed my son to do something so dangerous.

    I tried to explain that his injury could have happened with any activity, tennis, football, running, climbing, and my son was wearing full protection (including spine protection). The only way this injury could be completely avoided is if I had sat him on a chair in front of a computer game. The nurse was impervious in her judgement.

    Our lives today, including out medical systems, are far too focused on short-term gains for any of our good.

  9. British child-of-the-seventies here and I thoroughly enjoyed this article for the happy memories evoked and the good old-fashioned common sense. Nothing kicks solipsism more finely into touch than Nature. Easily of your best pieces Mark, thank you.

  10. I don’t have any kids but I think this is one of the best post I’ve read here! It’s so inspirational and it even made me a little emotional.

  11. This is sooo fabulous!!! Makes me feel good that some I’ve done in a small way, but a great inspiration for the future, with my daughter being 5 1/2 now. I wonder if you know of . He writes about this subject a lot and your blogs complement each other; where he writes about children, you focus on adults and nutrition/fitness. My top 2 blogs!

    1. I would like to thank you Becky. I read a few of his articles and he’s already my hero. I just can’t stop to read his blog and I would pay so much money to be able to send my kids there! So inspirational!

  12. At the very least let them play in the back yard with out micro managing. For many parents that will have to be the first step, because some kids aren’t even getting that. We are too quick to step in and solve everything, too quick to plan it all and much to quick to demand that they clean it up. Kids can’t create, play, negotiate change, and make a world in a 20 min. allotted time frame and have it all cleaned up and tidy when that is over.

  13. Thank you so much for this post. I grew up in trees 🙂 in Holmesville, Nebraska. We ran barefoot all summer. No t.v., books from the library, carried in wood and helped in the garden. (Actually, not even running water!!) Then I was fortunate enough to raise my son in Roslyn, Washington, where we had access to woods and rivers and a lake. No t.v., books from the library, lots of time outside. 2 different years of unschooling. I am so very grateful for both our childhoods.

  14. This is great! My years behind a desk in the corporate world have stunted my creativity with my kids sadly! The cardboard box idea is easy enough, any other resources/suggestions for younger kids, 4-6?

    1. Your 4-year old child can play with cardboard boxes as well!
      Even younger children can.
      My children loved to hide under the boxes and play turtles.
      And they loved to paint the boxes, make them into “houses” or “ships” or “cars” and relive their favourite adventure stories with them.
      They once even build a fort out of boxes that filled a quarter of our backyard.

      Cardboard is flexible and cannot hurt the children even if they try to climb onto those boxes and they collapse.

  15. Wonderful! My 1 year old is more interested in buckets, boxes, dads tools and potatoes than any of his toys. He’s also incredibly happy when roaming freely outside. As he gets older we’ll definitely be emphasizing play and exploration of nature. It’s funny I remember going to houses under construction as a kid and tightrope walking across floor beams, playing in the basements full of nails and junk and loving every minute. We also learned that lighting aerosol hairspray on fire was about the funnest thing ever!

  16. I don’t have children, but I observe that the kids of my Generation X cohort are either quite housebound (toys, video games) or scheduled to the hilt with activities (at least some of that involves sports).

    If I had kids, the thing I would be most afraid of is not that they’d get injured being outside, but that I’d get arrested for neglect! That in itself says a lot about today’s society.

    1. This is exactly what I find most frustrating. It’s hard to raise kids this way when nobody else is. I find that organized sports (and other organized, adult-led activities) beginning at very young ages have been the biggest detriment to free play. There are so few kids around in the afternoon because they are either indoors, doing homework, or at an organized activity.

  17. For parents who can’t bring themselves to allow their children to take any minor risks while developing and growing, consider this…

    When your kid turns 18, he/she will probably still be in high school. On that day, he/she can go buy a motorcycle that will, in a few seconds, accelerate past 150 MPH, ride it down the street and buy a carton of cigarettes, a shotgun, a machete, a baseball bat and a big box of fireworks — and under the law, you can’t say, “Boo!” about it.

    Do you really want that to be the first time that your child has to work through the process of making decisions about things that can harm, or kill, other innocent people, or him/herself?

    There’s an evolutionary reason for play, even, or maybe especially, play that involves some forms of risk or ritual acting out of violence in an environment where there are real, but not extreme, consequences!

  18. Reminds me of building a fort along the ditch bank as a kid. There was an old piece of farm equipment there that the trees had grown around/through/in and we took boards, nails, and hammers from my dad’s shop to “build” our exclusive fort. There was a rickety bridge that we could cross to get to the field on the other side, and we used old cut stumps as chairs inside. Endless hours of fun and play and building in that thing, manipulating the trees and the branches to clear out “rooms” and whatever else we wanted.

    Dad was a little upset we took some good tools and nails for the project, but secretly I think he was proud of his little girls getting out there and building something. Really, thinking back, that entire area was probably the best playground I could have asked for as a kid. It was full of junk–unused and forgotten farm equipment and tools for the playing. Oh, the nostalgia…

  19. My brother and I were lucky growing up that we lived in an area that was semi rural. Plenty of orchards and small farms with a rubbish dump and a river nearby. My brother loved the dump and was forever bringing things home including the odd spider in a glass jar to show the parents. Mother wasn’t too impressed. There were also plenty of other kids to play with every day and I guess that was our ‘tribe’ although we didn’t think of it that way. We played cowboys and Indians (yes it was a while ago) built cubby houses, climbed trees, found tadpoles, ate lots of fruit, we only had to ask the farmer and most of the time he would bring boxes of yummy peaches, nectarines, apples and pears to mums door. The farmer at the end of the road had a massive horse that he ploughed a small field with and he would often put 6 of us kids on the horses back for a ride. There were chooks, lambs, cows, cats and dogs everywhere. We had a ball. Sadly the world has changed, I could only wish that kids these days had a much fun as we did, free range and loving every minute of being outside.

  20. Four of us brothers and sisters lived in an apartment building with a coal boiler when I was a kid. One of our favorite things, and one our mother dreaded, was to play on the coal pile in the coal bin in the basement. There were many other wonderful games and play places for us, but I loved the coal bin.

  21. Parents can also help with their kids. My father used to take us out on pre dawn wild mushroom hunts when the season was right. Plenty of fields around and there we were with a bucket and torches looking for the mushrooms in amongst the cow and horse pats. We loved that time with dad and the mushrooms we gathered were so tasty. Minimal supervision with kids is good but there are times when you can do an activity with your kids when some parental supervision is necessary.

  22. This is great. I could go on and on with childhood adventures. Great memories! Back in the pre digital age a cardboard box was awesome. We had bikes, open space and Evel Knevel as a role model. It’s sad in a way that YouTube has replaced the black rubber inner tube. An inner tube was one of the best imaginative playthings ever. Now kids watch videos of people do crazy things instead of pushing the limits as a neighborhood daredevil jumping a few trash cans on a Schwinn Stingray

  23. Fascinating. I found this out in a roundabout way the other day as I left a bunch of stuff in my otherwise vacant backyard to dry out .. snow sleds, car mats, a couple small rugs .. and my two kids along with their 4 friends had a blast improvising a bunch of games using the various pieces. The power of play!