Taking the ‘Free’ Out of ‘Free-Range’: Lenore Skenazy to Charge for Afterschool Unsupervised PlaygroupMadeline Holler
Lenore Skenazy is on a mission to free your child from the bonds of a fear-mongering society. She’s trying to get inside your heads, Mom and Dad, and remind you that the world right outside your front door is safer than it has ever been from murderers, predators, strangers, and abductors.
Tomorrow, she launches her latest effort: I Won’t Supervise Your Kids, a Manhattan playgroup where kids aged 8 to 18 can show up at a designated area in Central Park and play, as advertised, without adult supervision. But get this interesting twist: she’s charging $350 a head for the 8-week non-program.
Skenazy first came into parenting consciousness when she wrote about dropping her then-9-year-old son off in midtown Manhattan to find his way home, alone, to Queens (a subway ride that can take up to an hour). To no one’s surprise, he made it back just fine, pumped on success and ready for more. Countless readers saw things another way and spanked her hard in comments on the piece.
From the ashes of harsh and judgmental parenting opinion rose Skenazy, in her new self-appointed role as the nation’s foremost Free-Range parent. Since that time, she has organized (in, true to her parenting philosophy, a very hands-off way) an annual Take Your Kids to the Park and Leave Them There Day, had her own (one season only, not shown in this country) TV show helping other families free-range parent, and written a book.
She admits she’ll take your money, point your kid in the right direction, and then go sit and drink coffee for the next two hours. That sure takes the “free” out of “free-range.” Charging people to offer their kids up for sacrifice was too much for me, so I called Skenazy for some answers.
Madeline Holler: The title of the class is “I Won’t Supervise Your Kids.” And yet you’re charging $350 for 8 weeks. What exactly is that $350 for? What kind of scam are you running here?
Lenore Skenazy: I’d love to earn a living helping kids get back outdoors, playing. That’s reason #1! But reason #2 is that we value what we pay for. Parents pay for all sorts of activities that they hope their kids will learn from and enjoy. The one activity we have taken OUT of kids’ afterschool lives is plain old play time with a group of kids.
If you go to many neighborhoods, it looks like the kids have evaporated. (Even “nice” neighborhoods, where parents moved specifically to give their kids a great place to BE kids.) But free play time just goofing around with a bunch of friends, without an agenda, a coach or a trophy is extremely valuable. As valuable as another afternoon of an organized activity.
Here is my essay about free play that lays out why it’s nature’s “supervitamin” for kids.
MH: How many takers do you have at this point? How many requests for TV interviews about the class?
LS: Zero kids, and about million interviews. I should point out that, as I say on my website, the class is free to anyone who’d like a “scholarship,” no questions asked. I’d really love to have a gaggle of kids show up. They’d have so much fun!
MH: Anytime someone brings up kids playing by themselves, your name gets mentioned or your website linked. Is this really how you want to leave your mark in the world encouraging kids to play in parks without any kind of supervision? (Your own son on a subway is one thing, but …)
LS: Yes. I’d be honored if every time people think, “Oh, I’d love to let my kids play outside, but that is just too dangerous!” a little voice in the back of their head says, “But wait! Wasn’t there that Free-Range lady who said that our kids are safer than WE were when WE played outside as kids? And didn’t she say that play turns out to be something really valuable for kids? Something that helps our kids develop all those good qualities we’re worried about them missing? Self-confidence and focus and joy? Gee…maybe I can’t afford NOT to send my kids outside to play!”
MH: This waiver nice try. See! Even you know danger is a real and that without a properly vetted, CPR-certified and possibly TASER-toting adult keeping watch, our 8- to 18-year-olds MAY BECOME VICTIMS. We’re talking Central Park!
LS: Why not have a waiver? I’d actually love to have a waiver that would say, “I don’t expect anyone, much less Lenore, to not watch my kid.” There are no guarantees in life. This is something we’ve been taught to ignore in our absolute bid for guaranteed safety. Don’t get me wrong, I love safety! Seatbelts, helmets, mouth-guards. I just don’t think our kids need a security detail every time they leave the house.
Believe me, if I had suggested a generation ago, “hey, wouldn’t it be fun to go outside and play, and the kids would come home in time for dinner,” I’d get ignored. Now, I seem like I’m the wild parent. What’s changed is the way we view children and our communities and our job as parents. If you look at the crime rate, crime was higher when our parents told us to go play outside. Look up FBI crimes stats you’ll be surprised.
MH: Sure, but that’s because KEEPING KIDS INSIDE ALL DAY WORKS! Constant adult supervision has paid off!
LS: No, but ALL crime is down. Crime against adults, rape, murder. It’s safer for everyone. But it’s not like we’ve been helicoptering adults and not letting them go to the mall alone or walk by themselves to the car.
There’s a quote I was just reading in a book by the former editor of “Ladies Home Journal,” Myrna Blyth. Something like, “We trust people who tell us we’re in danger more than those who tell us we’re not in danger.”
MH: Are you sure you don’t just want attention? You found your way to make a living?
LS: I do want attention! And I am trying to make a living! I want to keep bringing attention to this idea, which has been completely written off, the idea that kids playing outside afterschool is a waste of their time or is danger. I’m here to say that it’s neither.
MH: We all know the stories about kids went outside, alone, and it was dangerous.
LS: Okay, here’s a statistic that I think is appropriate for today. After 9-11, people were canceling their flights, a huge drop in the number of people who flew for the next year. They were driving instead. But, and we all know this, there’s actually a higher risk of death by automobile accident than there is of dying in a plane crash. But car crashes don’t command much media attention, but they will report any plane crash.
Anyway, this guy did a study and found that, in the year following 9-11, when people flew less and drove more, there were about 1,500 more fatalities in car crashes than in the previous and following five years. Yet we haven’t dangerized driving our kids in cars. No one is saying, “What? You’re telling me I have to drive my kid to the dentist!” But if I say, “I’d like your kid to play outside unsupervised,” well, obviously that gets peoples’ goat. But the No. 1 way kids die in the U.S. Is as car passengers. (Incidentally, both riding in a car and playing outside unsupervised are extremely safe!)
MH: Um, Stranger Danger?
LS: I’d like to counter that with another rhyming phrase: Worst-first. As in, worst-first thinking. As a society, we’re encouraged to think of the worst that could happen and proceed as if it’s likely to happen. I’m trying to point out the steady drumbeat of terrifying news vs. the very wash-out good news that these are the safest times in human history to be a child, especially in America.
MH: Does the $350 include any kind of mid-session snack break? Is there a surcharge for organic or gluten-free options?
LS: No snacks. No snacks! When we were kids, we played so hard we forgot to eat. Now, it’ the other way around.
MH: When they pick teams, will you ensure a balance of age and gender? Also, can parents request their child not be picked last?
LS: Not going to ensure that. One of the cool things that kids figure out right away is that if they pick all the bad kids for one team and all the good kids for the other, it’s going to be a really boring game. When they’re free, without some supervisor stepping in to remind them to share or to be fair, is that they get a little social finesse. Everyone wants it to be fun. And sometimes your kid will be picked last. The idea that no child should be picked last, well …
MH: Well, where would we get the future generation of comedians, for one? You know, Central Park is enormous. How will you designate the play area? Will you partner kids who don’t have GPS-enabled cell phones with those who do?
LS: It’s New York. There’s always a kid with a cell-phone. And I’ll have my cell phone, I’ll be in a nearby Starbucks. They can call me if they need to.
They can’t call me if they’re picked last though.
MH: If a child is wait-listed for afterschool Mandarin on Wednesdays and her name gets called, can parents be refunded the difference? Or can you move this project to Tuesdays to accommodate real after-school enrichment activities?
LS: There’s enrichment in MY class, so no. There’s confidence that comes from doing something on your own exultation you and a bunch of kids playing follow the leader, making up the rules. For awhile you’re the leader, next it’s someone else. That’s a lot more exhilarating and fun and confidence-building than something where they’re getting a trophy.
MH: No, seriously, $350 to not supervise a pack of kids? Will you give the barista $5 to not bring you a latte?
LS: I believe in paying for what you get (by the way, I’d never pay $5 for coffee — I get the Tall and fill up with cream at the counter). And remember, anyone who wants can come for free my no-questions-asked scholarship policy.
Is it crazy to charge money? Maybe. But this is a way to get people talking about it and thinking about how free play is not a waste of time that it has value. Free play has sort of disappeared. We’ve lost something. There’s a reason that kids liked to play by themselves outside. Until this generation, it was their default mode. It’s programmed into our species, into us.
I’m hoping that we can get back to that with these wacky schemes of mine. Let’s let them have a childhood. Let’s remember that childhood is important and that we’re living in safe times. Let’s let our kids have a childhood, instead of outsourcing to mom and the coach.