Building Self-Reliance in Children Through Free Play

by Todd Walker

I dare you!

Who hasn’t been dared to do something totally stupid growing up? Like when we dared my younger bother to climb the tree over our swimming hole.

“Bet you can’t climb further than Henry! You chicken?”

Life was a huge adventure and he took the risk to beat Henry’s mark. No one had eclipsed Henry’s monkey-like ability. Ever.

“He won’t do it,” Henry said as we watched from the safety of earth.

“Yep, there he goes.”

To this day, my brave crazy little brother holds the record for reaching the summit of that old Georgia pine. The youngest of our tribe of four, he constantly had to prove his worth. After reaching the outer limits of where no kid had ever gone before, perched on a wrist-sized branch, he gloated. We cheered. The bow gave way and he tumbled in slow motion, back first, into the shallow water with a thud.

We pulled him to shore. He regained his breath and we never told our parents. This true story may be hard to believe for helicopter parents.

We never had adult supervision on our day-long explorations down the big creek. Or a warning sign in all caps that read “TURN BACK NOW!” Every bend in the creek reveled a new challenge or new vine swing or new critter to catch. We were denied no hazards. All the while being too young by today’s risk-averse style of parenting.

That was a past time of pure, unadulterated play. We weighed risks, took chances, learned how to cooperate, negotiate conflicts, attend to the wounded, respect each other, depend on each other, and eventually, to run our own lives – without adult hovering. Adults were avoided. They took the fun out of play.

Had an adult told us, “There are no savages hiding behind those huge sycamore trees!” our fantasy, and play, would of been crushed.

For the record, our parents were trusting, not negligent. Granted, growing up in the 60’s and 70’s was different from today. It’s likely that my parents would have had several visits from child protective services if they had to raise us in our modern nanny-state society.

Building Self-Reliance in Children Through Free Play |

Our 7 year-old grandson playing in his new hammock… hung on the edge of our steep lake dam 

The War on Play

Our perceived fears of all the possible dangers to our children handicaps them in the playground of life. The anxiety is crippling. It’s hard not to buy into the myth of safety being peddled in mainstream media, schools, and even churches. Stranger danger! When the Amber Alert breaks into our regularly scheduled programming, parents call the kids in from their backyard and lock the doors – even in ‘safe’ neighborhoods.

We’ve become a nation of soccer mommy’s boys – and girls. Every moment of free time is filled with organized, adult supervised and sponsored busyness. Left alone, kids get creative and entertain themselves. They make up the rules for a pick up game of “Balls and Grounders” in the vacant lot or field. Self-regulated fair play happens with out official umpires or refs. If someone is found cheating, the others will expose the misdeed. Kids learn to govern themselves in free play to discourage players from taking their ball and going home. End of game. That’s no fun.

One of the greatest infringements upon free play is found in our system of public schooling. Recess has been outlawed in many districts. We educators have come to the distorted view that play time is a waste. We need to use those extra 30 minutes to teach to the high-stakes exam and make them even more unhappy. This is the highest priority in schools today. We need scores to compare students with each other, other schools, other states, and other nations. We then rank and pigeon-hole accordingly. We believe free play has lost its role in education. Plus, we can’t chance a lawsuit by allowing kids on those dangerous monkey bars, now can we?

What are the consequences of the war on play?

According to Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor at Boston University and author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life“, the decline in children’s freedom to play points to psychological disorders.

He cites research that shows that the rate of suicide for children under the age of 15 has quadrupled since 1950.

“These increases seem to have nothing to do with realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world. The changes do not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of national or world events … affecting young people’s mental states. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, during the Cold War, and during the turbulent 1960s and early ’70s than they are today.”

The changes have more to do with children’s perception of the world than with the way the world really is. “Anxiety and depression correlate strongly with people’s sense of control or lack of control over their own lives.” When one moves from a belief of having the ability to exercise control of one’s own life to being controlled by circumstances outside of the person, a dramatic shift in mental health occurs. From 1960 to 2002, children between the age of nine to 14 showed a linear increase in the lack of personal control.

Why try? We’re doomed. Not if we allow our children time and freedom to use their powerful instincts of survival.

We do a great disservice to this generation by hovering over and controlling children’s desire to educate themselves and follow their interests. As prepared parents, we should find ways to allow our young to exercise these instincts of self-reliance. Here’s a couple of suggestions.

  • Trust children to follow their passions. Here’s an inspiring story of parents that encouraged their children to follow their passions. 
  • Get over the myth of safety. It doesn’t exist in nature or your backyard.
  • Allow children to free-range without going nuts
  • Quit believing that your children are in constant danger of abduction or other unlikely events. Prioritize your threats and let your kids live the adventure.
  • Go outdoors. Loosen the safety harness. Let your kids be kids.

Life is an adventure. Having freedom and time to play is the first step to building self-reliance in your children.

And no, they probable won’t put out their eye.

What’s your story? Do you agree or disagree? What suggestions do you have to help children develop self-reliance and resilience? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

If you found this helpful, please consider sharing it with your family, friends and social network. I double-dog dare you!

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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7 thoughts on “Building Self-Reliance in Children Through Free Play

  1. Todd, great post! I grew up on five acres in the rural south with two younger brothers. We killed at least one rattlesnake per day with sticks and rocks, we rode our pigs and thought it was great fun when they knocked us up against a pine tree, and when the cows got out, i used my little brothers as pop up redirects to get the cows back inside the fenceline. We had zero adult supervision all summer long and run the risk of snake bite, pig trampling, and cow mauling pretty much everyday. Wouldnt trade it for the world. Oh, and our favorite leisure activity was jumping from one pine to another and riding it down while clinging to it. Good sappy fun.


    • Well, appreciate the kind words, Durable!

      We played skin the cat with young sweet gums mostly. We both are fortunate to have been able to free-range as kids. Sounds like you might have a cow patty fight or two in your time, too. 🙂

      Hope y’all are doing well. Been busy I’m sure. Peace to you bro!


  2. Karen Davis

    while I am loving these posts, this email acct has been hacked, I have changed the password, and for the moment it is secured again, but I have changed my email acct also, the new account is Thank you Date: Tue, 7 May 2013 11:33:26 +0000 To:


  3. What a great article!

    When I moved to the boondocks, a friend gently prodded me to “let go” a little and let my then-11-year-old daughter start making a fire in the woodstove, our only source of heat. I really didn’t want to until he pointed out that if something happened to me, she could very likely freeze to death here in our frigid climate and isolated locations.

    So, I taught her to build a fire, to add wood, to stoke the fire – everything she needed to know in order to stay warm. And you know what? She burned her arm when she bumped it off the side of the woodstove. And she lived. It wasn’t a terrible burn, just a red mark. Despite that incident, she now knows how to build a blazing fire in 2 minutes flat, a skill that lots of adults are lacking. She gained not only that ability, but confidence in herself.

    Letting go is hard, but it’s very worthwhile.

    ~ Daisy


    • Thanks Daisy!

      It is tough to let go and let kids learn from the school of hard knocks sometime. But they really learn when they make mistakes. It stretches something inside. They become more self aware.

      I worked with a guy in construction years ago who’s favorite phrase was, “How hard can it be!” When DRG or I want to start a new project, one that we’ve never done before, we throw up our hands and say, “how hard can it be.”

      Hope you are doing well. I tried to leave a comment on one of your articles the other day and somehow erased it 😦 It was a long reply on my phone.

      Anywho, I really liked it – the review on Tess’ book. I may post that here.

      Keep doing the stuff, girl!

      BTW, I’m working on an article on functional fitness. Hope to have it up soon.


  4. MisBehaved Woman

    Excellent post!! We were ‘free range’ kids, too…miles of open fields and ditches were our playground. Mud-clod wars, bike-jumping dares, forts to build (and defend with bottle rockets) and trailers of cotton to jump in. Best double-dog dare was against my buddy, Cory that he couldn’t jump from the truck bed, over the chainlink fence and two rows of metal trash cans…dumb boy got mad at ME when he landed half-in-half-out of one of those metal cans! Miracle that any of us ‘neglected’ kids survived past age 8, isn’t it? 😉

    My ex husband is/was a real helicopter parent – kids were never even allowed in the front yard without one of us “on duty” to make sure no one stole them or that no fight ever went unsettled by an adult…I love my kids dearly but I’m first to admit that style of parenting stunted their growth and ability to solve problems on their own. They also aren’t big risk-takers and want a guarantee that every decision is right or safe. I’ve tried to balance things out by encouraging them to leap from time to time but I once dared my son to jump from a swing…he broke his arm…I am the worst Mom ever and Dad is right, it’s better to be safe. Argh!


    • Appreciate your kind words.

      Glad you grew up as a free-range kid too. I tell some of my kids in class stories of my ‘raising’ and they are shocked that we shot BB guns at each other, caught snakes, camped over night on horse back at age 12, and other great adventures.

      I’ll bet your son’s arm is healed up fine 🙂 Plus, he’s got a great war story. The chicks dig it.


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