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Chris Mercogliano on protecting kids’ “inner wildness” while keeping them safe. A Babble.com interview.

Chris Mercogliano knows kids. As the co-director of The Free School – a small non-traditional school in Albany, NY, that eschews mandatory classes and forbids Ritalin – for three decades, he worked with hundreds of them, including many considered unteachable by mainstream schools. 

In his new book, In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness, Mercogliano argues that childhood is becoming “domesticated”: filled up with structured, adult-run activities; overshadowed by ever larger amounts of rigid, test-obsessed schooling; and sucked up by indoor, screen-based entertainment. Mercogliano prescribes plenty of unstructured, minimally supervised group play, time outside, solitude, and not insulating children from all risk. He spoke with Babble.com about being a voice for children’s “inner wildness” in a fear-obsessed society. -Miriam Axel-Lute

As I finished reading your book. I got a newsletter from my health insurance company with a big article about how you should never let your kids be unsupervised on a playground. What’s it going to take to convince our culture that kids deserve some time on their own?

The first thing that has to happen is we have to become more aware of the price involved. It’s paradoxical. How can there be a price to safety? Still, there is a price. I don’t think there’s any mass solution. “Create a new program to make kids free!” It doesn’t work that way. Then you’ve got the problem embedded in the so-called solution.

Okay, but seriously, what about the lurking pedophile?

Obviously children need to be safe. Parents have good instincts about safety; I don’t think you have to encourage parents to think about that. But it’s also important to allow a child to explore, take appropriate risks, to learn to manage themselves.

So what’s an “appropriate” risk?

I’m not going to throw myself out there as an advocate for childhood injury. But I would argue we’ve gone too far. We’ve become so obsessed, they’re hardly getting to do anything anymore. A lot of the juicy, cool things that kids do are dangerous. I would go out on a limb, and this is how I was with my own children, and say it’s okay if they get hurt once in a while. It’s an acceptable risk. They might fall out of the tree. They might fall off their bikes.

The world isn’t getting any more dangerous. But we perceive the world to be dangerous. And then we don’t let our kids play outside or let them ride their bike three blocks away to their pals’ houses.

You talk about the importance of access to nature. Are kids who live in cities necessarily worse off?

Well, obviously being on a path in a forest is going to be a more intense experience. But I don’t think you need a forest. Even an urban, inner-city park or playground can provide contact with nature. When The Free School takes its preschool-age kids to the park, they don’t spend much time on the play equipment. They are tree climbing, because we don’t prohibit climbing trees, or sword fighting, because we don’t tell them they can’t play with sticks. They are constantly interacting with the nature that’s there.

Then you contrast that with another local day care center that uses the same park. If you watch those kids, you won’t see them climbing the trees or digging in the dirt or playing with worms or chasing the cat or crawling in the bushes. All you’ll see them do is playing on the play equipment, because they’re not allowed to do any of those other things. I’m not sure how much interaction with nature you could say those kids are getting.

Are people taking attachment parenting too far?

I think the young generation of parents is far too concerned with being perfect parents. And so many of them don’t transition out of attachment parenting. Even if they seem to get the issue of control, they’re too wrapped up in their kids, living through them.

Are you worried about these wannabe perfect parents reading your book and turning around and becoming equally paranoid about trampling their kids’ inner wildness?

That’s the American way, isn’t it? To go from pillar to post, extreme to extreme.

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