Preschool

Why we need to encourage our kids to be wild

Jennifer Pinarski's children are wild—and she worries that there isn't a place for them in society.

wild-kids-risky-play

Isaac climbs to great heights. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

There are certain scenes that have played out almost daily this summer: My kids climb higher or swim further than they should, point imaginary guns at imaginary aliens and blow them up, or throw rocks and sticks wildly in all directions with accompanying war cries. In the safety of our rural backyard, my husband and I sit on the porch, admiring their antics and recalling when we did the same things as kids.

But it’s different when we take them out in public: Isaac and Gillian’s risky play—which we nurture at home—suddenly looks out of place. When my kids catapult themselves off a swing, and go up instead of down the slide, I always get sideways glances from other parents. We often leave a new playground well before my kids are tired out, for the sole reason that I don’t feel welcome—even after I extend apologies to other parents for my kids’ wild behaviour.

Therein lies the rub in the fight for more free-range parenting and risky play—that no matter how many studies are published about the ills of excessive screen time or the harm associated with helicopter parenting, the idea of kids behaving like kids is still frowned upon in society.

Dionne Lapointe-Bakota shared her eloquent point of view earlier this week in The Globe and Mail‘s Facts and Arguments section. She describes her three-year-old son Malcolm as being a lover of sticks and loud noises and, like me, she often finds herself apologizing for his behaviour. Five years ago, when Isaac was Malcolm’s age, I remember him fashioning a make-believe grenade out of mud and dandelions.

“We have arrived at a time in our culture when wildness is no longer valued,” Lapointe-Bakota writes. “Many parents strive to raise sensitive boys, gentle and compassionate boys, boys who are more comfortable in music and creative movement classes than wielding sticks in the outdoors. Boys who are more like girls.”

Although Lapointe-Bakota laments over how we no longer appreciate wild play in boys, as the mother of a spirited daughter, I feel that people see Gillian in her usual outfit of  head-to-toe pink taffeta and dollar-store pearl necklaces and expect her to be mild-mannered and gentle. In reality, she’s a vivacious thrill seeker and the first to throw a punch when play-fighting with her older brother. I struggle all the time with that juxtaposition, while knowing in my heart that her stubborn streak will pay off. That is, if society doesn’t smother her fire first.

As I write this, I’m watching Isaac and Gillian climb to the top of a crabapple tree at the edge of our property. Their bodies are hidden in the thick leaves, and every now and then I can hear a branch crack and a shout of surprise as they lose their footing. Barely ripe apples are being pelted at the ground, followed by explosion sound effects. I don’t know what imaginary world they are waging war on, but I’m not going to interrupt on a peacekeeping mission. In this moment my wild kids are safe from judgment, from reproach.

My fear is this moment will be gone in the blink of an eye.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big-city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

Read more:
Kids need risky outdoor play—here’s why>
Confessions of a free-range parent>