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On summer days, my 10-year-old daughter, Avery, often rides her bike by herself or plays at the park with friends, unsupervised. Come September, she’ll walk the three blocks home from her Calgary school alone, or she’ll leave with a gaggle of grade-five kids to attend an after-school program.
Avery delights in her growing freedom and especially loves inventing games with a neighbourhood posse. It’s a chance for them to make up and enforce the rules without adults present to impose limits on their fun.
The benefits of unsupervised, unstructured play are well-documented. “Kids need practice making decisions, coming up with something to do and getting themselves out of boredom, and that practice comes when they are in charge of themselves and their activities,” says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). This kind of independent free time also gives kids a chance to problem solve, compromise and communicate with other children across ages and genders, she says.
Is my child ready? The best gauge might simply be your child’s eagerness. Jennifer Pinarski considered her eight-year-old son’s pleas for independence based on his enthusiasm alone. “Isaac’s been begging me to go bike riding by himself for a long time,” says the mother of two, who lives in a rural area outside Kingston, Ont. Isaac already uses public bathrooms by himself and plays unsupervised on the family’s one-acre property. So this summer Pinarski is preparing Isaac to ride the 2.9 kilometres to school with a 10-year-old friend when he starts grade four. They practise paying attention, and looking and listening for traffic.
But there are no definitive signs of readiness for this milestone. Jennifer Vadeboncoeur, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia in the area of human development, learning and culture, says readiness comes down to the child, the family and their values, and ultimately, the neighbourhood. For example, some parks simply aren’t safe because of criminal activity. If that’s your reality, look for other ways to foster your child’s independence. “Maybe it’s being dropped off at the community centre and meeting a friend to take a class,” says Vadeboncoeur. Giving a big kid more freedom can also mean trusting him to babysit a sibling or fly solo in the kitchen.
Prepare them: There’s not much more to it than teaching your child how to cross a street safely and making sure she knows the route to and from her destination, says Skenazy.
You can also ease into it. With Avery, we started gradually. First we let her walk the dog, then go to a friend’s house, and it grew naturally from there. And we of course had the “strangers” talk. Skenazy says it’s important to teach children that they can talk to strangers—kids might get lost or hurt and need help—but not go off with them.
“My boys know not to help a stranger find a puppy,” agrees Calgary mom Robin Meckelborg. Her 14-year-old son, Tyler, took a babysitting course and a Strangers and Dangers workshop through Child Safe Canada, which puts her mind at ease when Tyler and his 10-year-old brother, Kohen, are playing at the park or riding bikes. The brothers started walking to school together when Tyler was 10 and Kohen was seven, and their boundaries have expanded as they’ve grown and proved their competence.
What if something happens? Tyler and Kohen know to stay and wait for help or ask a stranger for help if someone gets hurt. “They’ve been taught not to leave a man down,” says Meckelborg, who also sends them with a cellphone if they’re going further afield. Meckelborg says letting go was hard at first, but she’s so glad she did it. “It’s good for them to get a sense of how to behave in public spaces without our guidance,” she says. “They have the freedom to make their own decisions."