Last week, we focused on the new free-range parenting law that has redefined neglect in the state of Utah. Policymakers designed this law to allow more independent play, especially outdoors, for children. The discussion focused on allowing parents to choose how their children play and learn in order to change neighborhoods.
Still, readers and contributors have continued discussing other intersections of this law and our work. Today is a Part II on Free-range Parenting - focused on neighborhoods and how more freedom for children and families means more vibrant and connected communities, like “the good old days.”
State Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, who sponsored the bill, told Salt Lake City's KUTV 2News,"It’s not neglect if you let your child experience childhood. The message is you need to protect your kids but we are not doing kids any favors if we shelter them to the point where they are not learning how to function."
Sen. Fillmore’s quote echoes recent research by Dr. Roger Hart, Prof. of Environmental and Developmental Psychology at the Graduate School of CUNY, and co-Director of the Children's Environment Research Group. This research focused on the “environments of children” in the 1970s. Hart observed and interviewed children of a Vermont town and documented where they went by themselves. Then, he made physical maps of their routes. At 4 or 5, children often traveled unsupervised through their neighborhoods and by age 10, many children had run of the town.
Several years ago, Hart repeated his study in the same town. He observed the original children’s children and what he found floored him. Although the crime statistics showed the town was as safe as it was in the 70s, children were barely allowed to move freely on their families’ property without supervision. The physical maps of independence had shrunk significantly.
Hart’s research is a strong representation of the change in parenting over the past 30 years, and Utah’s new law aims to lift some of the fear that parents have of being second-guessed by state social workers and encourage a move towards independence and building communities again. Why is this important? Because kids who play outside and in our streets create better neighbors and better neighborhoods.
I remember one summer when my youngest son was 5 or 6 years old, and we allowed him to walk the neighborhood, knock on doors, and ask neighbors if they had any jobs they would be willing to pay a kid his age to do. In one afternoon, he created a connection between our family and a half dozen neighbors whom previously we did not know well.
Likewise, children walking to school in a neighborhood can create a similar sense of community, but not every community has this option. As discussed in our blog on Linda Brown Thompson, many children are not assigned to their closest schools but must take long, sedentary bus rides to their assigned schools. Laws like the new free-range parenting law give both children and parents more autonomy, and no child should be required to ride a bus to school if parents conclude that an acceptable school is within walking distance. So, there is still more to be done here. When we are empowered to make our own path, we create more organic connections that not only feed our own personal growth but also grow the communities where we live. We need more laws that allow communities to be shaped by consensual, organic relationships rather than bureaucratic pronouncements. Want to learn more about what we have in mind? Get to us know a little bit better!