The one place kids still play outside

Most of us remember playing outside till the streetlights came on, but our kids can’t because of (fill in the blank): crime, creeps, traffic, tennis lessons, homework, no one else outside, all of the above.


Lenore Skenazy Free-Range Kids

Lenore Skenazy
Free-Range Kids

Except at RV parks (and probably at regular campgrounds, too, but I haven’t been to those). Park your camper; open the door; and spill out the kids. They run around like it’s the Sputnik era. But if they were “safe” back home, chances are they’d be inside — or at best supervised at soccer.

As a gal who spends most of her time trying to persuade parents to loosen their terrified grip, I asked RVers, campground owners and a Harvard professor what gives. It seems to boil down to:

1) Cramped quarters.

“A family of four in 429 square feet is different than a family in 2,000 square feet,” says Eric Gaden. He’s a traveling nurse — yes, that’s right, a nurse who travels to temporary gigs in his RV with his wife and sons, 5 and 8. They’ve been on the road for four years now, and whenever they land at a new campground, he says, his kids discover “the hiding places and secret places the adults will never see.”

That’s in part because he and his wife kick them outside. “When we lived in a house, I could say, ‘Go to your room!’ But here they’re just 6 feet further away,” says Gaden. So out they go. And a child in nature tends to remain in nature.

2) Kids are their own kid magnets.

“The other day, I was going around the campground, and there were five little kids, probably 6 years old — three boys and two girls — on the dock fishing, and there were no parents anywhere,” says Dave Schneider, owner of the Indian Trails Campground in Pardeeville, Wisconsin. Once there are a few kids outside, others join them. But in the burbs, often the parks are empty. Or the only kids out there are part of a program, like Little League, so other kids can’t spontaneously join in. Here, everyone’s footloose, so kids can swarm. And fish.

3) Unscheduled time.

See above. When kids are away from home, they’re also away from karate, Kumon, kickboxing … This not only gives them free time but also forces them to come up with something to do: “Let’s make a fort!” Working together happens to be how children (and adults) make friends, says natural playground designer Rusty Keeler. So the kids become instant buddies.

4) Assumption of friendliness.

If you’re at a campground, you’re approachable, if only because you’re often outside — a sitting duck. That means anyone needing a little assistance may ask you for it, and vice versa. (When we went RVing, we asked complete strangers to park our camper for us.) “People are so friendly at campgrounds the parents feel safer,” says Kathy Kasper, who runs the Lazy River campground in Granville, Ohio. By defining yourself as a helpful member of a friendly community (however temporary), you feel a great oneness. This translates into trust.

5) It’s tribal.

You’ve circled the wagons. You’ve set up camp. And now you are sitting around a fire. That’s as ancient as it gets, says David Ropeik, a Harvard instructor, author of “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts” and — most saliently — a dad who took the family on a 4,000-mile RV trip. “In the morning, we’d head out, and in the afternoon, we’d call ahead, and there was absolutely a sense of safety and relief as soon as the campground said, ‘Yeah, we have a place for you.’ It wasn’t a hotel room. It was being in and amongst community.”

Affiliation, free time and being outside seem to be the key ingredients that allow parents to trust each other enough to let their kids run wild.

And a few beers probably don’t hurt, either.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”

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