Why the Unsupervised Playgroup at Central Park Is a Bad Idea
Lenore Skenazy is making headlines again Skenazye has launched an after school program where children ages 8-18 can be dropped off at Central Park to play with each other. The caveat is that they are under no supervision from an adult. Her premise seems to be that children need to engage in free play, playing outside and playing with other children.
While there has been a lot of outcry against the program, I am not against her premise; children playing outside with other kids their age is important. However, I feel she has missed the mark dramatically with the concept that "free range" means the children should be dropped off alone while she remains a phone call away at a close by coffee shop.
To provide context, I live in a cul-de-sac in Edmonton, Alberta. Most of my neighbors have children in the newborn to elementary school age range. On any given day, the neighborhood group of children ranging from ages 5-9 can be found riding their bikes, jumping on a trampoline, hosting a lemonade stand and generally playing up and down the street. Are parents outside watching them? No. They are not being followed around by each perspective parent. I would argue they are the very embodiment of free range play. However, there are important differences which Skenazy’s play group is missing.
1) Proximity of Parents.
While parents are not riding their bikes up and down the street with their children, the kids remain on the street between the houses, meaning they are never more than a stone’s throw away from a parent if an emergency were to occur. In addition, parents can glance out a window or walk to the bottom of their drive to periodically check in on the children, without interrupting their independent play. A cry for help from any child would bring the closest parent running. While Skenazy is a phone call away, she is assuming that a child who is responding to an emergency is capable of remembering the location of their cell phone and dialing her number (not to mention that there is a signal and enough battery). There is also time factor involved where she needs to get the park if a child needs assistance.
2) The Children are Friends.
In my opinion, the most noticeable absence in Skenazy’s proposal is that random children are dropped off each week. Random children are meant to friend new children each week, or at the very least, take a few weeks to form a bond with one or more regular attending children. If a friendless child were to go missing (whether it be to wander off, get hurt, or be a victim of a crime), there is no social network looking out for them. In the case of my neighborhood group, they are all friends and as such have concern for each other, including their whereabouts. I believe it would be next to impossible for any one of them to be approached by a stranger -- or to wander off -- as the rest of the friendship group is looking out for them. Ditto if one were to get hurt. If your 8-year-old is at Central Park, knows no one, and falls down breaking an arm, who is calling for help on their behalf? Other children are not committed to a relationship, nor would other 8-year-old kids have any concept that this child may need help over another one whose parents are close by.
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