Footloose and fancy free….
‘Free range’ children? What ARE they? I put this question to a group of parents, who said it conjured up images of children running around in the fresh air, nature, fun and laughter. And yes, I wholeheartedly agree. I think being a free range child is about fresh air, connecting with nature, rain, sun, mud and water, but I think there’s more to it than that. For me, free range also means FREEDOM. Freedom for children to think for themselves, freedom to be themselves, freedom to discover themselves and their place in this complicated world and, crucially, freedom from the concerns and worries of adulthood. So how can we as parents support and encourage this type of freedom?
Quite simply, PLAY. The pure and innocent joy of a child, their amazing creativity and imagination, is nurtured by wonder and encouraged by play. Whether indoors or outdoors play is vital, but how children play has changed….A LOT. Our children are not children for very long these days, in fact I think childhood is getting shorter and so the ability to play becomes ever more important. Why? Because this is where children begin to learn their life lessons, how they learn to socialise, how they learn their boundaries, how they learn what’s ok, what’s dangerous, how to communicate with the world. These are the essential building blocks of adulthood.
So what is ‘play’? Of course everyone has different ideas about this. My experience is built on 14 years of bringing up my own children and being immersed in the communities of school, as well as seeing children in my professional capacity and I do feel passionate about the need for play. I’m talking about proper play. The old-fashioned type of play that involves creativity, movement, imagination and wonder. Building, drawing, cooking, painting, gardening, walking, woodwork, talking, family time, cuddles, knitting, quiet time, reading, dressing-up, den-building, music – these are all high priority activities!
“The earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” Kahil Gibrain
When you’re next out walking with a young child in the woods or local park, watch them and see their joy in the simple things, like picking up a frosty leaf or climbing a tree. Right from the outset, if you can allow your child the freedom to ‘play’, they will occupy themselves in ways you never thought possible. It’s amazing what a child can do with a bunch of wooden blocks that you’ve collected, sawn and sanded together and they will treasure those blocks all the more because you made them. Give them a wooden spoon and a pan, give them a few silky cloths and a frame, give them toys that are nourishing – that feel nice, smell nice and taste good! They really need very little in the way of toys, but they do need to be surrounded by natural beauty and wonder.
They also need to be surrounded by LOVE. Showing your child how much you love them sounds so obvious – hugs, understanding, healthy food, sympathy, support and listening, yes, of course. And time. One of the most fundamental ways of loving and supporting your child is by quite simply giving them your time. This might involve building something together or going for a walk, looking through a picture book or planting some seeds on the allotment. If your child likes baking, you could make something together in the kitchen, if your child is interested in insects, you could go and look at the snails and beetles in the garden. Making it real for them and giving them something tangible to connect to is very powerful, as is the message that you value their company and enjoy spending time together.
People often mistake freedom and free range for lack of routine and boundaries. I actually think children feel safe when they’re embraced with loving boundaries, just as they feel safe in a big hug. This is not a negative thing. It simply means that they know where they stand and can relax, ‘breathe out’ in the knowledge that you’re in the driving seat. The rhythm of our daily life is built around these boundaries and includes the need for outward, ‘doing’ activities, as well as more inward, quiet activities. Just as we breathe in and breathe out, so our daily routine recognises this need for balance. In my experience, this is essential for good health, peaceful sleep and all-round happiness and is a really easy rhythm to embrace. For me, routine and boundaries actually encourage and enhance freedom, allowing children to get on with the more ‘serious business’ of free range PLAY!
Footloose and fancy free? Yes please. Free range? Yes please. Childhood is so precious and too short. Enjoy every minute of it. Yay!