• Rita Pontes

Written by Neve Spicer - WeThe Parents

Is your child getting enough ‘free play’?

Child-led free play – the unstructured time during which children can act out their fantasies, create their own rules and explore the world at their own pace – profoundly benefits their early development.

But here’s the thing:

While experts agree that undirected play is vital, it is disappearing in favor of organized athletic, artistic, and academic activities. In moderation, these structured classes can be enriching, but ditching playtime all together comes at a cost to a child’s growth and wellbeing.

As you consider and plan your child’s weekly routine, here are 43 vital reasons to prioritize and safeguard free play.

In this article:

Let’s take a closer look…

Character and personality

Brain & Mind

Physical development

Emotional & social skills

Academic performance

Over-scheduled and over-entertained Kids

Let’s take a closer look…

From the cognitive to the physical, research shows that free play can allow our little ones to gain self-confidence, promote neurological development, and even enhance their fine motor skills.

Let’s dive in and take a closer look at why child-development experts recommend that screen time and structured learning ought to make way for more opportunities to play:

Character and personality

1. Boosts confidence and self-esteem

Free play involves every part of a child’s being; mind, body, and soul. Through this playstyle, kids are able to naturally explore their physicality as well as engage in independent learning. The result is a child who is building their confidence, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and empowering their potential as human beings, all while having fun. (Source / Source / Source)

2. Teaches the ability to recover quickly from setbacks

A child might be frustrated when the last block they are stacking topples their masterpiece or upset when the red marker runs dry and that apple on the page must be colored a different shade. These are necessary experiences for healthy brain development, and low-stakes situations like these are the perfect time for your kiddo to learn how to bounce back from disappointment or change things up and still be happy with the end result. (Source)

3. Helps with overcoming emotional trauma or disturbance

Fantasy play, or role-play, enables young ones to uncover, address, and articulate any distressing feelings and/or conflicts. Some psychoanalysts believe that the skills built from the play are essential for the cognitive development that is needed to process a particularly traumatizing event. (Source)

4. Grows personal resilience

Free play is rife with opportunities for children to learn about social skills, including idea sharing, self-control, and even how to handle exclusion and power dynamics within a group. It also teaches them how to regulate their own emotions while becoming sensitive to the values and needs of their peers. Figuring out how to deal with disappointing, different, or frustrating group dynamics in a healthy and productive way will benefit children for their entire lives. (Source / Source)

5. Reduces childhood stress and anxiety

Research suggests that over-protection from having ever been exposed to risk-taking activities can actually increase a child’s anxiety all the way into adulthood. Because free play inherently encourages a level of risk-taking with relatively low stakes, it is the perfect opportunity for children to get these experiences under their belts.

Another aspect of free play that can lower stress is imaginary friends, especially when it comes to boys; they tend to have a decreased level of fear and anxiety during later play sessions. (Source / Source)

6. Increases empathy

Through imaginary play, children can put themselves in all sorts of situations, thus exploring new roles and the feelings that come with them. By engaging in free play with their friends, their cooperation, sharing, helping, and empathy skills will grow by the game. (Source)

7. Encourages expression of views, experiences, and frustrations

Free play provides us with a wonderful window into the minds of our children. It is an excellent way for our kids to express safely, both to their parents and to themselves, what they are feeling. Even when their language isn’t quite at a level to articulate their fears, excitements, or opinions, the type of free play they engage in will speak volumes. (Source)

8. May lead to the discovery of interests and life passions

Psychologist Peter Gray makes a strong case in favor of incorporating free time into our kids’ lives, contending that it allows children to cultivate their own interests and passions in a way that strictly regimented schedules do not. Without the structure of preplanned events, activities, or lessons, children will inevitably experience and, more importantly, find ways to overcome boredom. Where that takes them could be something they fall in love with for life. (Source)

9. Nurtures a sense of self and place in the world

Free play has a way of fostering our children’s ability to grow as people, often by merely expanding on that which they have previously learned. Whether they are honing their skills in problem-solving, communicating their wants, or just discovering that those blocks are made for more than knocking over, play can be a great foundation on which to build a sense of self. (Source)

10. Outdoor play develops respect for nature

Is there a better arena for playtime than the great outdoors? Hardly, and not just because when our kiddos take the mess outside it means less vacuuming for us. Playing outside can allow children to develop greater respect and understanding of mother nature. (Source)

11. Trains children to recognize and avoid potentially dangerous situations

We need our kids to be able to identify a situation that is genuinely threatening, whether it is on the playground or in their future adult lives. Many experts believe that this ability starts young, and comes from the type of risk-taking and self-challenges that occur during free play. (Source)

12. Inspires exploration of the world

Encouraging strong bonds within our families is essential, but so is teaching our children how to play away from their parental figures. Much to our motherly chagrin, our kids need to stretch their independence so that they can confidently explore their world, and free play is an excellent way for them to do so. (Source)

13. Reduces or conquers fears

The risk-taking that occurs in play is, in some ways, a mirror of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Both teach children how to engage in less negative thinking regarding their anxieties, thus reducing maladaptive behavior in stressful situations. Studies show that imaginary friends can also reduce stress in both boys and girls, so by all means, set an extra place at the table for the unseen Annie or Andrew. (Source)

14. Allows children to practice for adult roles

Roleplay can provide children the room to explore situations well above their pre-school pay grade and, in turn, prepare them for their futures as adult members of society. Whether they pretend to be chiefs, doctors, cops, or astronauts, this type of sociodramatic play enables them to try on more mature personas, along with all the trappings that come with such a position. (Source)

15. Provides feedback on beliefs about the world

Free play can teach a child that fitting a round block into a square hole will be tricky, if not impossible, no matter how much they push. While this example is a little rudimentary, it demonstrates one way that free play is showing our kids that sometimes things are the way they are and you will need to change your strategy to solve a problem, regardless of your wants or beliefs. (Source)

16. Expands the ability to consider others’ viewpoints

Perhaps one of the most natural lessons our children learn from fantasy play is how to put themselves in another person’s shoes. As they role play, they explore the world from different viewpoints and can even mentally traverse cultures and boundaries beyond their everyday experiences. (Source / Source)

Brain & Mind

17. Develops cognitive abilities

Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, two of the most renowned psychologists of the 20th century, believed play to be a pivotal part of cognitive development. While further study is needed for definitive results, modern research suggests that play can help increase neural structures, assist in learning, and may even help children cope with complex mental health issues. (Source / Source)

18. Improves decision-making skills

As our children engage in what might look like silly games to us, they are actually honing their ability to pick between several options. While playing, they are independently practicing their decision-making skills, something that will go on to enhance their ability to make choices. (Source / Source)

19. Increases creativity

Compared to activities that were not initiated by children, child-led play, specifically social-fantasy play, was shown to support the creative imaginations of youngsters. This creativity can, in turn, make a boring task meaningful, even fun, and give a child a sense of control and contribution to their world. (Source / Source / Source)

20. Nurtures imagination

One can argue that playfulness and imagination go hand in hand. The more a child is allowed to play, the more they can enact their fantasies to make the impossible become possible. This leads to a healthy exploration of the world, as well as a creative way to regard and use ordinary objects. (Source)

21. Supports learning readiness

Studies have demonstrated a positive relationship when it comes to the act of play and a student’s learning ability, with some researchers concluding that the primary mechanisms supporting a child’s ability to learn are acquired through social relationships, including those between peers. It’s worth noting that free play encourages such interactions. (Source, Kumar & Harizuka, 1998; Lieberman, 1977)

22. Boosts problem-solving skills

Children experience an increase in their abilities to solve problems when allowed to play games and complete puzzles. On the other side of the spectrum, children rendered unable to engage in creative play, such as those who have experienced trauma, lack the capacity to fully access their problem-solving skills. (Source / Source)

23. Promotes free and flexible thinking

Free play strips away all rules, expectations, and time frames, encouraging our kids to think for themselves. Play can be quiet and solitary or loud and social; a child engaging in creative play assumes total control over the type of games they are creating. When not bound by adult-set rules, they are free to manipulate their environment in unique ways. (Source / Source)

24. Enhances language development

When a child participates in social play, they will find themselves both listening to and mimicking the way language is used by others. Some assert that this type of play enhances a child’s vocabulary, with researcher Sara Smilansky asserting that fantasy play will aid in both speech and language development. (Source / Source / Source)

25. Gives rise to concepts of size, shape, and texture

A child will have a hard time stacking large blocks on top of a very tiny block or fitting a square peg into a circular hole. These are ways that, through interacting with the objects around them, children are internalizing the concepts of size, texture, and shape. (Source)

26. Strengthens ability to pay attention

When we see toddlers or infants playing side by side with no peer-to-peer interaction, our first instinct might be to wish they could be more social. However, these little ones are learning vital skills: those of concentration and focusing on their own needs. Self-directed play can enhance a child’s ability to concentrate and should be encouraged. (Source / Source)

Physical development

27. Promotes physical activity and health

When children partake in physical activity, they are developing muscle strength, strong bones, and a healthy lung capacity. Free play, especially outdoor play, is great for keeping kids moving and healthy. (Source)

28. Refines fine motor skills

Certain types of play are great for getting those little hands working to their potential. Games involving block-stacking or arts and crafts activities can encourage the development of fine motor abilities and finger control, things that will ultimately be necessary for handwriting skills. (Source)

29. Increases gross motor skills

Research shows that a vast majority of infants and toddlers gain vital movement skills through free play that involves physical activity. They may even go on to have fewer bump and bruise-inducing accidents later. Meanwhile, kids lacking these abilities will tend to shy away from physical activities later in life. (Source)

30. Expands manual dexterity

By three months of age, babies will express an interest in reaching for, grasping, and maneuvering objects. Providing toys to our babies and children will help them practice and grow their skills in dexterity by encouraging their natural inclinations to handle fun gadgets of curiosity. (Source)

Emotional & social skills

31.Teaches children how to manage emotions

Play allows children to work through their conflicting feelings, as well as to express feelings that are unacceptable in a way that is socially acceptable. When engaging in group play, kids are learning to better communicate and behave in a manner that allows the interaction to continue, thus receiving a natural reward for their behavior. (Source / Source / Source)

32. Builds the ability to cooperate and work in groups

Social play allows children to become comfortable navigating group dynamics at a young age. It is also a time for them to learn that their actions can impact those around them and that that impact can have negative consequences. (Source)

33. Develops the capacity to receive and respond to feedback

Kids can receive input from their equals, as well as work on communication and the taking of different perspectives, while they play. In fact, by engaging in peer play prior to entering kindergarten, children are provided with a robust framework for the transition into school. Entering the world of academics will, of course, involve having to process both positive and negative feedback from peers and adults alike, so coming into the gate with this skillset is a huge plus. (Source)

34. Trains children how to negotiate and resolve conflicts

Social play presents the potential for conflict, and kids need to experience conflict to learn how to handle it in a healthy way. As they master the ability to negotiate with their peers, they realize that sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. (Source)

35. Encourages self-advocacy

Standing up for oneself is a skill that every human being needs to hone in their youth in order to become healthy adults. Free play not only teaches our kids how to navigate a negotiation but also how to make sure that any compromise they make takes their own needs into account. (Source)

36. Grows and nurtures friendship

Free play can foster the development of healthy relationships with both a child’s peers and the adults in their lives. Roleplay, especially, has been shown to promote strong adult-child connections and can provide young people with a sense of belonging. (Source)

37. Teaches children how to socialize

We want our kids to be able to fit into their respective cultures and become contributing members of society throughout their adult life. Social play can be the first building block to achieving this, as it teaches kids to work in groups, often with a shared goal in mind. (Source)

38. Gives rise to leadership qualities

Too much adult interference in child-led play will ultimately lead to the children deferring to the adult. However, when left to their own devices, kids will assume the responsibility of teaching each other, handling conflicts, and ensuring fairness among the group. (Source / Source)

39. Builds lasting bonds with parents

Playing is a great way for us parents to get to know our kids. They will happily show us their interests, quirks, and strengths when we join them in their fantasy world. It is a great way for us to foster a bond built on joy and engagement. (Source)

Academic performance

40. Boosts academic skills

Engaging in social play allows kids the opportunity to learn from their more advanced peers. These positive group interactions can lead to children who are more likely to succeed in academics. Physical play, meanwhile, may increase cognitive function, speed up neurocognitive processing, and ultimately lead to a better academic performance. (Source)

41. Prepares for the transition to kindergarten

When young children play with their peers, it sets them up to have a more comfortable landing when they enter the classroom. As young as kindergarten, social abilities and behavior are among the key skills considered by professionals who are determining a child’s readiness to enter school. Worth noting is that kids who have a smooth transition into kindergarten tend to do better in future academics. (Source)

42. Helps with adjustment to a school setting

When your child enters school with proper social, behavioral, and cognitive development, something that child-led play is proven to provide, they will be better prepared to handle the anxieties that can accompany academic transitions. This can mean that their new routine away from home is a source of pleasure instead of fear. (Source / Source)

43. Develops a sense of numbers

Numbers are ever-present and important in academics, and free play can help your child understand them. Manipulating blocks, for example, can create a good foundation for numerical and concept comprehension. (Source / Source)

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  • Rita Pontes

By Katie Arnold - Outside Online

Bestselling author Caroline Paul’s new book, 'The Gutsy Girl,' is a how-to guide for parents to push through the anxiety and let their kids take acceptable risks outdoors

The other day my seven-year-old daughter, Pippa, and I rode the flow trail at our local mountain bike park. We’d heard it was smooth and gentle enough for kids and she was desperate to try it, so even though it was her first day on a fat bike, and the sign at the top read “Technical Trail: Advanced Riders Only,” I said yes. Before we started, I coached her on the basics of downhill mountain biking: keep your weight back, your pedals level, and feather the brakes. Then she pushed off, shrieking with glee as she rolled over the first loamy whoop-de-woo.

I rode behind Pippa, watching her handle her bike with confidence, control, and joy. If there’s any sweeter sound than a little girl oohing and ahhing as she banks through turns and up and over dusty berms, I don’t know what it is. Still there were moments when I had to bite my tongue and resist the urge to scream Careful! or Slow Down!, half expecting to come around a corner and find her endo-ed in the dirt. The desire to protect our children from harm is innate and reflexive and, at times, all-consuming. As I like to joke to my husband, mothers’ worry is what keeps the human race alive. But too much can be limiting and, especially for girls, potentially detrimental to their development.


A few days earlier I’d spoken by phone with Caroline Paul, whose op-ed in the New York Times Sunday Review last month, “Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to be Scared?” went viral. Paul is the author of the bestselling new book The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, which is part high-energy how-to guide, part hilarious memoir, and part interactive adventure journal designed to help girls of all ages build confidence, pluck, and bravery by venturing outside.

“I want to gird girls with life lessons of bravery and resilience before puberty, before the real pressures kick in: to be liked at all costs, to look pretty, to be perfect,”

Paul, 52, was one of the first female firefighters in San Francisco in 1989. One of the first things she tells me during a phone call is that most parents, often without realizing it, treat girls differently than boys. “Even the most progressive, open-minded parents caution them more, saying, Be careful. Oh, no you shouldn’t. Or, Watch out!” she says. “There’s a sense that our daughters need more protection than sons, which is ironic, because before age 11, girls are ahead of boys physically and emotionally. My twin sister and I could beat every boy in class until seventh grade. Until then, we were the same as boys. And we break the same as boys.”

It’s never too early—or late—to raise girls to be fearless and adventuresome. “I want to gird girls with life lessons of bravery and resilience before puberty, before the real pressures kick in: to be liked at all costs, to look pretty, to be perfect,” says Paul, whose own madcap childhood escapades included trying to set the Guinness World Record for crawling when she was 13 years old. (The distance to beat was 12 miles; nearly hypothermic, she quit at mile eight.) “Going outdoors gives you confidence and self-esteem to handle the teenage years, and it carries into womanhood, too,” Paul says. “Nature doesn’t care what you look like or if you’re popular or nice. What it cares about is if you’re a good team player.”

The most awesome part of the awesome message of Gutsy Girl? “Bravery is learned,” Paul says. Build it into our girls’ hearts, brains and bodies now and we’ll raise a new generation of badass female forces. Here are ten ways to teach our girls and ourselves.

1. Adjust Your Attitude

My two girls have been game and outgoing from the get-go, but I knew I might be unwittingly sending mixed messages about fearfulness and danger, so I inventoried my recent behavior for signs of gender bias: Would I have encouraged my daughters to hit ski jumps faster and launch higher if they were sons? Doubtful. I have no problem shouting at their ski buddies, who are boys, to slow down if I think they’re out of control (yeah, I’m that mom). If they had Y chromosomes would I let them play unsupervised in the sandy arroyo near our house, collecting iron with little magnets, without checking to make sure they were safe from strangers every ten minutes? Possibly. Take stock of your own prejudices in different scenarios and ask yourself honestly if, now, knowing what you do about girls’ capabilities, you really need to hover so closely while she hauls off across the monkey bars. Would you do the same with your son?

2. Talk About Fear

“Emotions are complicated,” explains Paul, “and as girls, we are acculturated very early to fear. But here’s the thing: the rush of fear feels a lot like excitement. Sometimes they’re just feeling exhilarated when they're faced with a steep hill on their bike. Girls need tools to understand the emotions as they grow up.” We should encourage girls to go outside their comfort zone, Paul says. “When they are scared, say ‘OK, you’re scared. What else are you feeling?’ Then let them name their feelings: excitement, confidence, et cetra. Talk to them about their skill level so they can put fear in its place and go forward. I really think that if you give them guidance, fear won’t stop them.”

3. Practice Bravery

As Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, “Do something every day that scares you.” Give equal or greater air time to bravery. “Bravery is an emotion that’s unfamiliar for girls. It’s considered the purview of boys and men,” says Paul. “No one questions a mother’s courage to protect her kids, but it’s so odd that we don’t attribute bravery to women otherwise. At a young age, if girls learn to value bravery like boys do, they’re going to be so good at it.” Paul suggests encouraging your girl to practice five acts of “microbravery” each week, like picking up that icky spider on the kitchen counter. And when your daughter does something gutsy, name that too. Repeat after me: “that was brave!”

4. Break It Down

If your girl has a goal that intimidates her—like climbing a tree when she’s scared of heights—show her how to break it down into smaller steps. “A lot of girls are focused on perfection,” says Paul. “It’s that all or nothing thing. But you don’t have to be perfect.” If you get to the top of a steep hill on your bikes and your daughter balks, stop for a moment to ask her, “What do you think we should do about this?” Break it down into shorter, more approachable chunks and pretty soon she’ll be flying down the hill from top to bottom in one go. “Feeling scared is good,” says Paul. “After all, the bravest person is the one who feels afraid and does it anyway.”

5. Find Role Models

“I actually grew up very shy and kind of a scaredy cat,” Paul says. “I read a lot. Which is where I got a lot of my role models. Most of them were men, like explorer Ned Gillette.” Ditch the princess phase by pointing your girls to books with strong female characters, so they can identify their own role models. The pages of Gutsy Girl are filled Girl Heroes, including teen rock climber Brooke Raboutou and round-the-world explorer Nellie Bly. Says Paul, “I rarely talk about them being the best women. They are the best in the world.”

6. Give Them a Long Leash

When Paul was 13, she read a story about building a milk carton boat in National Geographic—and then spent months making her own. She never would have collected enough cartons if she was bouncing from piano lessons to soccer to gymnastics every day after school, like so many schoolchildren these days. “You have to give kids free time to dream up and do their own adventures,” she says. This starts with letting them out the door on their own, an increasingly controversial parenting move of late. “I don’t think we’re protecting kids when don’t let them go outside on their own. We’re simply putting a bubble on them until they rebel. And then when they do, they have very little of the expertise we should have been giving them. It’s about giving them the right information so they can make good decisions.” 

7. But Not So Long…

As a child and young adult growing up with her twin sister in rural Connecticut, Paul was constantly hatching crazy new adventures. Sometimes a little too crazy. Once she got sucked into a thunderhead while paragliding in Brazil; another time she nearly lost a partner in a crevasse on Denali.“I learned that being reckless is not being an adventurer,” she says. “It’s being stupid. Being an adventurer is all about assessing risk and understanding your own comfort zone.” Teach your girls to be aware of the inherent risks in their sports, clear-eyed about their own skills, and humble in the face of natural forces greater than themselves. Then you can back off and really let them rip. 

8. Stick It Out 

To be truly gutsy, girls don’t have to be the best. They just have be determined. “I’m not being coy when I say that I’m not that highly skilled,” says Paul. “But what my sister and I are is super dogged. We have a belief if you are motivated enough, you can actually do it. Girls often think you’re born with a talent or you’re not, and if you’re not, you better not try it. But that was never something we thought.” Instead, they got savvy and came up with two guiding strategies in life:  “One, find a niche where nobody else is,”—case in point, Paul’s brief stint on the U.S.A. National Luge Team—“and two, be determined.”

9. Failing Is Cool, Too 

Paul bailed on her world record crawling attempt, but it’s still the raddest, most inspiring story in her book. Not because she and a friend dragged themselves for eight miles along her high school track while the boys’ lacrosse team jogged by (“To say that we were embarrassed does not come close to describing the mortification we felt.”) But because at age 13, she came up with the hair-brained idea and was intrepid enough to try. “Failure is having a resurgence,” Paul says. “It’s inevitable and a way of moving forward.” She writes, “Anne and I had failed but we had also dreamed big, which is much better than dreaming small and succeeding. Setting a world record is magnificent. But you know what? Failing to set one is pretty impressive, too.”

10. Let the Boys in on It, Too

Finally, don’t discriminate. “Boys should read this book, too,” says Paul. “They’ll like it because it’s about adventure. And they need to see that girls are kick-ass.”

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  • Rita Pontes

When we truly let our children run free, the only guarantee is that they will surprise us

By Bent Hewitt, Sep 1, 2018 - How to Raise Brave Kids

By the time my eldest son, Fin, turned six, the age at which he might reasonably have been expected to enter the public-­education system, my wife, Penny, and I had long since determined that neither of our children (Fin’s brother, Rye, is three years younger) would darken a schoolhouse doorway. As if this wasn’t recalcitrant enough, we’d also decided to pursue a self-directed, curriculum-free educational style known as unschooling. This meant that at the age when most American children are busy memorizing the alphabet, our sons were running wild in the fields and forests surrounding our rural Vermont home, belt knives and bow drills at the ready. Like many of our contemporaries in the unschooling movement, we placed our faith in the freedom and trust that more-­formal learning institutions are ill-equipped to provide. The result, we assumed, would be a degree of curiosity and resourcefulness that no school could equal.

I wrote about my family’s educational path in a 2014 essay for Outside called “We Don’t Need No Education,” and then in my book Home Grown. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the publication of our story, but I know I didn’t expect what I got. My inbox was flooded with e-mail from readers in at least as many countries as I have fingers, and I fielded calls from producers at the BBC, the National Geographic Channel, and CBS’s 60 Minutes, to name a few.

Obviously, I’d hit a nerve, one rubbed raw by a growing but still largely unspoken dissatisfaction with compulsory standardized learning, accompanied by a collective groping toward a satisfactory alternative. Could my family’s grand experiment be the answer, or at least part of it? Could my free-ranging sons really learn all they needed to survive and even thrive in an increasing complex and technology-driven world? Should Penny and I be revered or brought up on charges of negligence? I soon realized I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and quick as we could, we returned to living the quiet life we’d led before our brush with mainstream notoriety. This included the running of our small farm, the continuation of my freelance writing career, and yes, the unschooling of our two sons, by then 12 and 9.

Over the intervening years, I’ve been asked repeatedly for updates, and mostly demurred or answered in only the vaguest of terms. Partly this was due to an increased sense of protectionism around our boys during their blossoming adolescence, and partly it was rooted in my feeling that people were hungry for a particular type of affirmation that I could not provide: the assurance that despite their atypical education, my sons would prosper in the modern world.

I still cannot (nor do I care to) offer such affirmation. They are now only 16 and 13, still kids after all, albeit of an age when the oncoming headlights of adulthood loom large and the awareness of those new respon­sibilities can feel overwhelming. But then this is true of any child. Come to think of it, it’s true of most adults I know, including myself. As children, we tend to view adulthood as some sort of self-actualized plateau; as adults, we tend to view it as a double-loop roller coaster operated by a drunken carny.

I’ve learned a lot over the past four years, much of it informed by my sons. I’ve watched as Fin’s interest in music has become a driving force in his life, leading him to seek out an apprenticeship with a master guitar builder and, ultimately, to part-time enrollment in a public school with a unique student-led program that has them composing songs, booking gigs, touring, and recording. Fin loves the social opportunities school provides, along with the chance to immerse himself even more completely in music. And while it was initially difficult for Penny and me to see him walk through those doors, there is no denying that the life of my unschooled son is richer for the public-education system. Many times I have had to remind myself that just as I encourage others to challenge their assumptions regarding education, so too is it healthy to challenge my own.

Rye continues to be mostly unschooled, with just a bit of sit-down math thrown into the mix. He still spends the majority of his days in the woods. He remains a committed practitioner of traditional skills, as well as an avid hunter and trapper. (Indeed, the very morning I sat down to write this piece, I awoke at 3:30 A.M. to drive him to the field where he’d scouted wild turkeys the week before; four hours later, I picked him up, along with tomorrow night’s dinner.) His skills have evolved to the point where he now mentors younger children. He is saving for a truck, working part-time at dairy and vegetable farms and at a maple-sugaring operation down the road. I suspect that once he turns 16 and is granted a driver’s license, it won’t be long before we watch his tail lights disappearing down our driveway. He talks of big-game hunting in Alaska and the allure of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range.

I want to make one thing clear: we never set out to rewild our children, at least to the extent that I understand rewilding to mean an emergence of body, mind, and spirit within the natural world. Truthfully, we sought only to provide them the opportunity to fully inhabit their childhoods and their learning, in whatever ways felt most enriching. The fact that much of this occurred in the woods had at least as much to do with geographic circumstances as it did with philosophy. This is not to say that we didn’t have hopes and aspirations for our sons; of course we did. And still do. They’re our children, after all.

But I’ve come to believe that modern parents too often do a poor job of distinguishing between responsibility and control. Which is to say, it is our responsibility to provide a base level of material, intellectual, and emotional support for our children, along with experiences that will enrich their lives. But we cannot control the outcome. Perhaps our children will develop into the capable, compassionate, and successful (however we define success) people we fervently want them to be. And perhaps, in ways that may be disappointing or flat-out painful, they will not. Almost certainly, their interests and lives will evolve in surprising and delightful ways.

With the passage of time, I have become increasingly aware of a particular sort of irony that runs rampant in the unschooling and rewilding communities, which are joined at the hip by an ethos of freedom and self-­reliance. We choose a more liberated approach to our children’s upbringing at least partially out of a well-intentioned desire to ensure the development of specific qualities: curiosity and courage, resilience and resourcefulness. We want to instill a strong sense of place and a connection to something larger than themselves, something that helps them understand the world is not solely the domain of humankind.

In and of itself, this desire is not problematic; I doubt there’s a parent alive who doesn’t want their child to develop specific qualities. It’s when we link these qualities to a particular outcome that we begin to lose our way, that we conflate responsibility with control. I know that Penny and I have been guilty of this. Perhaps, in ways I don’t yet fully understand, we still are.

You can want all the freedom in the world for your children, and you can do your best to provide it. But what they do with it? That, my friend, is simply not up to you.

Ben Hewitt (@lazymillhillfarm) is the author of Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World.

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