The XX Factor

Why You Should Leave Your Kids at the Park

“Bye, mom! See you in an hour!”

Photo by YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

 This Saturday is the fourth annual “Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day.”

For real.

The idea is that at around 10 a.m. parents take their kids to—as you might expect from the name of this holiday—their local park. And then they leave them there.

Not if the kids are babies, of course. Not even if they’re toddlers. But if they’re at least seven or eight years old, why NOT leave them there with the other kids gathering? It could be their first chance to finally do that thing we did as kids without thinking twice: Play.

And by “play” I mean: Stand around, get bored, wonder what to do, wish there was an Xbox around, feel hungry, feel a little too hot or cold, feel mad at mom for not organizing something “really” fun, like a trip to Chuck E. Cheese, feel bad all around, realize the other kids are feeling bad too, and then—in desperation—do something.

Start a game of tag. Or basketball. Or fairies versus witches. And suddenly, those bored kids who were desperate to go home don’t want to go home at all. They want to KEEP playing— with any luck, for the rest of their childhoods.

Playing is that powerful. It’s addictive. It’s what children have done since the beginning of time…till about a generation ago, when we decided, as a country, that letting kids go outside on their own is just “too dangerous.”

Do you know how many kids play outside on their own these days? One study I read said that in a typical week, the number is down to six percent. That’s kids ages nine to 13—the sweet spot for goofing around and, incidentally, becoming independent. But instead of exercising their bodies and minds and ability to organize ANYTHING on their own, including a couple hours of free time, most kids are either supervised in leagues or stuck inside, usually with a screen.

One reason for this lockdown is that parents today are so scared of predators. They believe—or so I’ve been screamed at—that if Saturday is “announced” as kids-outside day, predators will celebrate by circling the parks in white, windowless vans.

The fact that we are enjoying the lowest crime rate in decades has not gotten through. A Pew Study on gun violence released just the other day said:  “Firearm homicide rates in the late 2000s were equal to those not seen since the early 1960s.”  That’s right—gun crime is down to the level it was BEFORE COLOR TV.

The Pew study added that most Americans (especially women) believe crime keeps going up, even though the crime rate is now LOWER than when most of today’s parents were kids.

What’s higher is the number of times you will see the Cleveland kidnapping victims on TV. Desperate for ratings, the media bombard us with the most searing images it can find. And no matter how rare these heart-sickening stories are—the Newtown tragedy, the Marathon bombing—if you see them for weeks and weeks on end every time you look at a screen, it starts feeling as if they’re happening all the time. On TV, they are.

But it is actually safer for kids to play than not to play. Play is good for the brain—it makes kids into problem solvers. Play is good for the body—it makes kids less obese. Exposure to dirt builds the immune system. And don’t obsess about accidents: More kids go to the hospital from falling out of bed than trees.

So this Saturday, take your kids to the park…and leave them there.

Sunday, they can bike there on their own.