Monday, July 17, 2017

How We Do #wildandfree In Our Urban Backyard

When my husband and I daydream about the things we want for our children, it often comes back to experiences that we associate with living in the country.  We want them to have free and open play spaces, we want them to climb trees, observe wildlife, tend to plants, raise chickens and gather fresh eggs, blaze bike trails through the woods, and build tree forts out of scraps.  We appreciate the positive affect that a "free range" childhood can have on the development of children.  (Lots of great studies have been done on the benefits!)  For a while we were actively looking at properties that were a bit more rural, had more than a couple acres of land with mature trees and grassy areas that didn't need to be manicured.  And hey, a little creek would have been the bonus that would have made all our house-hunting dreams come true.  

A few times we found properties that a-l-m-o-s-t made us pull the trigger... but we didn't.  And quite frankly, we're not unhappy to be staying in our current home within the city limits. Its space is sufficient and we've adopted an attitude toward our property and location that have allowed us to give our kids as "free range" a child-hood as possible in our present circumstances.

In fact, I've come to appreciate, that "free range" can happen anywhere, and doesn't require rambling rural fields and cool shady woods to be a reality for our kids.  In short, "free range" doesn't mean you have to have a home on the range.  It means giving your children unstructured free time, materials to inspire creativity and imagination, and the freedom to explore, create, and "do their own thing," as it were.  

We have a .16 acre lot and here's what we do to give our kids some "free range" experiences in our very own urban backyard...

(1)  First and foremost, I long ago abandoned all illusions of a yard worthy of Better Homes and Gardens.

Seriously.  I packed them away and stashed them in the dank, dark basement, and only think about getting them out after my children have gone away to college.  No, even then they'll probably bring their friends home for mud football games in the yard, so I'm just leaving my illusions packed...
I had always thought that once I was a home owner I would also have a beautiful yard with gorgeous flowers and a bubbling fountain.  Alas, how wrong I was.  I have a yard littered with scraps of projects and experiments, pieces of imaginative games, and holes that kids have dug.  It took a few years, but I'm finally OK with the state of the yard!

(2) We give our children tools and the freedom to use them.

Hammers, nails, screws and screwdrivers, rope or twine, a heavy duty bucket...  Our older boys have a couple power drills and have permission to use a saw when Dad is nearby.  Common sense safety rules apply, and they're not allowed to damage any structures (house, garage, playset) or trees, but otherwise we tend to let them use the tools how they want.  They've built some pretty awesome things ;)

(3) We give them supplies.  Or better yet, we let them collect their own.

Once you give your kids tools, they'll need some stuff to build with.  When we moved into our house there were a few saw horses and piles and piles of 2x4's and other scrap wood in our garage.  Those pieces of wood have come in and out of the garage more times that I could ever count.  Play houses, makeshift basketball nets, mini golf courses, American Ninja Warrior courses, and more have been crafted from that scrap wood.  Our garage it also filled with old, unused landscaping stones.  The kids get to do whatever they want with them. Some years they've used them to surround a garden.  Another year they used them to build a castle wall, and another time they were part of a frontier fort visited by Lewis and Clark.

You don't have to buy "supplies."  Our kids actually get lots of supplies from garbage hunting :)  (This is another aspect of their "free range" childhood that I had to grow to appreciate with my husband's encouragement ;) )  Recently they went out with a wagon during Big Trash Week and came home with lots of great stuff, including two 8 ft long bamboo poles and a large set of pvc-type pipes and various connectors.  You can always find scrap wood in garbage piles.  One of my sons also looks for old furniture that he can use for "harvesting" screws, etc...  The great thing about acquiring supplies this way is that once the items break or the kids are done with them, there's no guilt about taking the stuff right back out to the curb :)

(4) We let our kids climb things.

Don't have woods on your property full of beautiful climbing trees?  Sometimes you just gotta let your kids climb what you do have.  My little kids are actually light enough to climb our small Japanese maple in the front and the big kids can shimmy up the huge silver maple in the back, but they're not really great climbing trees.  So the kids also climb up to the top of the play set, the deck railing, and the wood fence to get up to the mulberry tree.  I confess I think climbing is important, but I hate to watch it, so my husband is usually around when they're defying gravity ;)  

(5) We encourage our kids to keep critters.

We can't go out to the yard to collect fresh chicken eggs or milk goats, but we can still give our kids some up-close encounters with city nature.  Last summer it felt like we had a menagerie on our deck.  It was a bit annoying to me (again... Better Homes and Gardens yards are never littered with makeshift plastic and mesh habitats...) but the kids had the chance to witness tadpoles turn into frogs, and fat green caterpillars turn into polyphemus moths, and snails slime about in a tupperware.  And it actually was pretty darn fascinating to get a front-row seat to the show :)

(6) We allow our kids to take a portion of the garden and give the freedom to do whatever they want with it.

Kids love to plant stuff and watch it grown.  For many years now we've had a family vegetable garden, but we've also let the kids take pieces of the yard for themselves to grow pretty much whatever they want.  They often try flowers, but with little success.  Of course they love eating the snap peas and beans they've grown themselves, or they'll run out to pick a quick leaf of lettuce from their garden to put on their sandwich.  We let them plant what and how they want.  They care for the garden how they want.  And even though I probably bought the seeds they used they can pretty much do whatever they want with their harvest.  Carrot chive soup is a favorite...... among the kids, at least.

(7) We let them use the garden hose.

  It's a sacrifice, but we actually will let them make mud :)  We let them build dams and bridges with spare bricks and and sticks and mud.  Our kids love to flood the driveway and then send little sticks and leaves and homemade boats floating down into the street and down to the sewers.  (Sometimes playing with the hose inspires them to wash the car, so bonus!)

(8) We allow them "import" nature.

This sort of goes along with the "we let them bring other people's garbage into our yard."  If my kids want to build a lean-to or teepee, they scour the neighborhood for fallen branches after a storm and drag them back to our house.  I mentioned we have a big maple tree, but it loses its leaves very late in fall and no one wants to wait that long to rake and jump in piles.  My kids bring our three wagons around the neighborhood, rake other people's lawns and bring the leaves back to our yard.  We're the only people I know who import leaves into their yard each fall, but I let them do it because, childhood :)
(ps - my kids get money and cookies from neighbors all the time for this leaf-raking service they provide every year!)

(8) I just leave them alone :)

This is sort of the heart and soul of "free range."  Kids' creativity shines when they're free from the rigorous schedules of structured activities and the order and limits often imposed by adults on their "play time."  My children are usually much more creative and cooperative amongst each other when I don't try to steer the activity or moderate every little dispute.  With a few tools, a patch of garden, and the freedom to be creative, my kids can do an awful lot of wild and free things in our own small urban backyard :)  

(9) We DO get out when we can.

Please don't assume we lock our kids in the backyard!  We let them out and about the neighborhood too, but I just used the word "backyard" for continuity's sake!  ALSO, We make it a point to get our city kids out of the city frequently, too!  It's good for the body and soul to get out and hike in the woods, spot deer and wild turkeys, splash in the creek, and swing from hanging vines.  But I'm grateful that I don't labor under the false pretense that a happy, playful, and creative childhood can only happen in the country.  I can say confidently from experience, parents can give their children the benefits of a free range childhood right from their own small patch of urban backyard!  

How about you?  What are your tips and thoughts on "free range childhood" for kids in traditional urban (and even suburban) environments?  


  1. I LOVE this! Kids need the freedom to explore and imagine, no matter where home may be.

  2. I love this. One of my favorite memories was when we lived in a 100 year old farm house. My mom let us dig a hole in the back yard. Six feet down we hit a clay pipe and had to abandon the endeavor. But it was super fun while it lasted.

    1. My parents always let us dig holes all over our yard when we were young too! I had no idea how instrumental it was in forming me as a parent ;)

  3. Awesome! We do the same. We happen to have some woods and a few yards of a rainy-season creek running through our yard, but we're still a suburban neighborhood. We made sure there was no HOA or any governing board that would complain about our untidy yard, and we've let the kids have at it. :) We dug and filled a sand pit last summer that nearly a dozen kids can play in comfortably!

    1. Yes!! We are so blessed to have neighbors that don't complain about our yard! It really stands out too, b/c there are no other kids around......... All of the other yards are verrrry neat ;)

  4. Wow! That's amazing! Love all these super Cool ideas!

  5. Just love your approach, similar to ours and it does reap rewards :-)


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