This post is based on Cooperation over Coercion: The Importance of Unsupervised Childhood Play for Democracy and Liberalism by Steven Horwitz.
What is a ‘free-range’ child
A ‘free-range’ child is allowed time to engage freely in unstructured and unsupervised play. Psychologist Peter Gray (2013) explains that in free play, “the players themselves decide what and how to play and are free to modify the goals and the rules as they go along” (p. 7). The unique benefit is that children “learn to make their own decisions, to solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.”
The important distinction is that the creation of the game, its rules, and the enforcement of the rules are left in the hands of the children. Interestingly one element that defines free play, is the freedom to quit the game; it only continues as long as those who are playing consent. This in turn encourages players to respond to complaints and resolve conflicts in a way that keeps everyone content to continue playing. This type of play is in direct contrast to institutional settings like e.g. Little League, where children are almost completely dependent on adults and pre-structured rules.
Among the most important lessons a free-range child learns, is making up and modifying rules according to varying conditions as well as settling conflicts through argument, negotiation, and compromise. As a result, Gray notes that children practiced in free play are more empathetic and less narcissistic. Taking concerns of others seriously to ensure the continuation of the game, supports the capacity to recognize when others don’t enjoy the game or find the rules unfair; this set of skills “is crucial to resolving all kinds of adult conflicts without the need for coercion.”
Why has there been a decline in free-play over the past 50 years?
Unfortunately free-play has been in decline over the last fifty years. Horwitz (2015) reports a poll indicated that, “68 percent of Americans think that there should be a law that prohibits kids aged nine and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact that most of the adults polled no doubt grew up doing just that.”
There is abundant evidence that childhood has never been safer than today, yet parents have become increasingly safety-obsessed. Each playground structure displays extensive warnings of all the harm that could befall a child if used unsafely, and children on tricycles can often be seen with elaborate exoskeletons.
In addition to keeping children away from free play because of safety concerns, children are so over-scheduled that there is simply no time. Between a full school day, Kumon, ballet, jujitsu, and piano, and homework there is hardly more free time than an executive might find to romp around in the forest or playground. The little time that does remain is generally used up staring at a variety of screens.
How is free play essential to democracy?
If emerging adults do not have the skills to problem solve by engaging in the rule creation and enforcement that characterizes self-governing citizens, they will continue to cede power to partisan politics and the state or other forms of coercion. The result will be the slow destruction of liberalism and democracy.”Steven Horwitz, Cooperation over Coercion: The Importance of Unsupervised Childhood Play for Democracy and Liberalism
Horwitz argues that unsupervised play is central to learning the skills that allow us to effectively cooperate rather than coerce. It serves as a sort of immunization against blindly following rules, but instead being actively engaged in the creation of fair rules that keep all the players engaged.
Free play also exposes children to risk. As ‘snow-plow’ parenting has become the norm, all obstacles for children are removed, their failures are mollified by awards for all, there are no consequences to their mistakes, and thus few real risks are taken or experienced. Horwitz points out that “in our zeal to protect our children from a whole variety of (mis)perceived dangers we may be undermining their social conflict solving skills in ways that prevent them from learning the art of association at the core of democratic citizenship – allowing kids to experience the real risk associated with freedom and the profit and loss such freedom might bring.” These are skills essential in a free democratic society.
Horwitz goes on to explain that without free play “we risk creating a society in which people either demand freedom without responsibility, or constantly wish to restrict the freedom of everyone in the name of either safety or preventing the negative feelings associated with failure. Each of these outcomes poses a threat to democracy and the liberal order.”
Thus, parents and families play a central role in the maintenance of classic liberalism:
One of the most important things we can do is to let children run free.
Give them unsupervised time to play with others.
Provide them with essential free play in mixed-age groups of children with minimal adult supervision.
Johnathan Haidt, Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid
Gray, Peter (2013). Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. New York: Basic Books.