Play Dates vs. Free Range Parenting

Play Dates vs. Free Range Parenting

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The first time I heard this phrase, I cringed: “play dates.” Suddenly, I began to hear this word often in my office, while in my role as a Registered Play Therapist/Supervisor. It seems that parents today have a need to micromanage their children’s activities and peer group. I wondered to myself, “What in the world is this all about?”

I grew up in the 1960’s. Those were the days when we came home from school, quickly changed our dresses and saddle shoes for play clothes, and headed out the door to run, ride our bikes, and play kid-designed games with our neighborhood friends. We were required to be within the block and to be home for dinner at 6:00. Then, we hastily inhaled our food and headed out until dark. The rule was be in at dusk or else. Those were the days. I recall the creepy man down the street, to whom we were not allowed to speak. I remember the rule to stay away from the creek unless there was an adult present. But otherwise, freedom reigned, and we blossomed. We got dirty, skinned our knees, fought and argued, and learned how to resolve these issues ourselves. The joy of climbing a tree and sleeping in a tent outside were blissful. Life was slower, and we felt alive.

I decided to roam the Internet to see what people are saying about play dates. I chuckled out loud when one of the first things I saw had information about the “etiquette of play dates.” I clicked further to see a site about how to have a play date for babies. Next I read about ideas for play date activities. All of them of course, are initiated by the adults.

Ah, finally a breath of fresh air! I saw a site belonging a stay at home dad who declares he is out to banish play dates. (You can find it here.) So, maybe I’m not the only one who can’t wrap her mind around this concept.

My professional life is based around the value and purpose of play. Each time a child comes for therapy, they are given a feeling chart. They are to put a gem on each feeling they are experiencing. I am saddened by the many children who routinely place a gem on “bored.”

My therapy playroom is stocked with rows of miniature figures, a sand tray, blocks, a huge dollhouse, and many other engaging toys. Some children roam anxiously when given the time to play as they choose. It is as if they are standing right in the middle of a foreign land. Yet, play is the language of children and is the most natural expression of their beings. Does this have anything to do with children having their calendars jam packed and managed by well-meaning adults?

What is fueling this trend? Do we believe that it isn’t safe for our children to play outside without strict supervision? Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist, writes in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, “that a smarter, more educated world is becoming more peaceful in several statistically significant ways.”

Or, is this all about helicopter parenting? Researcher Dr. Jason Bocarro, associate professor of parks, recreation, and tourism management at North Carolina State University, studied children and their parents in 20 parks over a two-month period. They found that children whose parents hovered were far less apt to engage in spontaneous play and get the exercise they needed.

So, move over play dates; the next cultural phenomenon is “free range parenting.” Now, I buy free range eggs, but this one is new to me. You can go to to read about “How to raise safe self-reliant children (without going nuts with worry).”

I join the dad who wants to ditch the idea of play dates. I’m not sure that I think children should have complete “free range,” but bringing back unstructured play times is certainly something for parents to consider. Summer is here and who can arrange play dates every day for their children? What is a parent to do? Where is there a place of balance? I suggest these four options:

1. Get to know your neighbors and make a pact to mutually keep an eye on the children. Then, encourage your children to play outside where you can check on them as needed.

2. Let the children decide what they will play and how they will handle their disputes. If they need adult assistance, be there to help them problem solve.

3. Let your kids dig in the mud, play in the puddles, and take reasonable risks. Expect grass stained jeans, occasional bruises, and hurt feelings.

4. Go and have your adult life while the children are playing. Wash dishes, catch up on email, have devotional time, and enjoy the peace and quiet. Your children need this time away from you as much as you need this time away from them.

Kathy Milans is a registered Play Therapist and Supervisor. She is also the leader of the Soul Care Collective steering team and a regular contributor to the blog.


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