I can hear my mother now, telling me to get outside and play. She was always after me to get outdoors because left to my own devices, I would stay inside and read. What I did frequently was go outside and read, but my mother was happy because I was on my own.
When I went off to school (and remember this was a long time ago), I was able to deal with the situations that I faced in part because she made me go outside and deal with the world. My own son played outside by himself or with friends from the time he was 6, staying close to the house, and out in the yard from the time he was 8. We had the luxury of living in the country so the yard was huge and wooded. He built forts and explored on his own for years and when he went off to school, he did not need us to manage his life.
Experts are very concerned that most children in the United States, and indeed in many places around the world, are never outside of their parents’ or other adults’ direct supervision, and what they do is almost totally structured by adults. If you want a boy to be motivated, risk is required and that means that he is doing something on his own. I spend a lot of time with teachers trying to help them understand how to include risk into their lessons, but it is difficult.
What your son needs is for you to help him find risky areas in his life. Outside is by definition a bit riskier because of the unpredictability of weather, terrain, ecology, and the like. It is the random nature of the outdoors that helps boys develop the ability to react to events. If everything a child encounters is planned, safe, and predictable, a child never learns to make decisions or to solve problems. Both of those skills are essential for children to become effective adults and they need experience with decision making and problem solving early.
Yes, this is dangerous. I hate to tell you, but there are no guarantees that your child will not get hurt both emotionally and physically in life. In fact, the best way for your child to learn to be a resilient adult is to be hurt when he is young. Falling out of trees hurts, but if you fall out of one when you are young and not able to climb very high, you will learn to be more careful. Children do not learn to be careful because parents tell them to do so. What they learn is to avoid that activity around their parents and try it again when their parents are not there.
Playground equipment is designed to attract children and climbing is something that many children love to do. Consequently, you will find that play structures designed for the purpose are often tall and offer many places for children to climb. Research reveals that injuries for little children increase when height is combined with upper body strength requirements – children hanging on to bars in the air or using a zip line (sometimes called a flying fox). What was interesting was that the children in this research study did not often choose these taller, riskier pieces of equipment, but would go to equipment that was challenging and interesting, but which did not involve a lot of height. These were pieces such as a wobbly bridge, ladder climbing, and riding toys.
Boys want risk and if the equipment is too safe will either find something else to do or use the equipment in ways it was not designed to be used. That may well result in injuries. The solution is to allow boys the freedom to run about and interact with their world without adult interference. Give your child the space to play by himself or with others and he will learn how to manage himself.
One of the best lessons children learn from playing without adults is negotiation. If you have an argument with your playmate and your parents step in to referee, you learn nothing about getting along with others. What you learn is that your parents do not trust you and they do not think you are capable of solving your own problems. I know that parents do not want their children hurt or to hurt others, but that is how children learn to get along.
There are too many tragic situations in this world where someone did not have the skills to get along with others and used a catastrophic method to get their way. Give your son space to play by himself or with another playmate. Resist the urge to interfere when they quarrel. Tell them if they cannot get along that they will not be allowed to play with each other, but that they should solve their own problems. Do not let one child hurt another child purposefully without making amends. The child who hurts the other child should not be allowed to play with another child for a day.
Remember, roughhousing is play and boys need to have the opportunity to play that way. They will need some supervision when they roughhouse so that it does not go too far. If you make them stop and both complain that they were just playing, accept that and let them go back to what they were doing. Your son needs and wants to be by himself. If you give him the space, he will come back, I promise.
You can find some great resources, a thriving community, and a terrific sense of humor on Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids site. Lenore made headlines in 2008 when her then 8 year old son asked if he could ride the subway home by himself. You can read that story here.
Also check out Petula Dvorak in the Washington Post. Her piece, published this week (August 25, 2014), pushes back on headlines like the Florida mom who was arrested for letting her 7 year old walk to a neighborhood park, and the South Carolina mom who was locked up for letting her 9 year old play alone in park near their house.