With some community buy-in, today's kids can have a '70s childhood.
How to create a Let Grow Community
I live in one of the few towns in America determined to give kids a normal, old-fashioned, go-outside-and-play childhood. It’s not that we never left the 1970’s — we’ve worked to get here.
Oddly, I can trace our town’s spark of passion for Free Play back to Europe in 2012. Our family was moving from Switzerland to the countryside outside of London (our third international move in five years). With an eye toward coming back to the US soon, we enrolled our kids in an American International School instead of the local schools they had attended abroad.
“Children Shall Not Climb Trees”
But as I read through the orientation materials, I was taken aback by two things. One, they supplied an ADD medication form for each of my three children. And two, the safety rules on the premises stated that kids were not allowed to play with sticks or climb trees. My concern began.
Sure enough, when we moved back to America and threw ourselves into “going local,” the whole family suffered.
Recess was a constant thorn — from how short it was, to rules about wearing coats and gloves, to safety limits on what the kids could and couldn’t play with, to the worst: recess being taken away due to bad weather or a classmate’s poor behavior.
Well, at least the kids could play after school, right?
Not easily. Organized sports and activities left little unscheduled time. And even when my kids were free, their classmates weren’t, so there was literally “no one to play with.”
37 Drop-Offs and Pick-Ups in One Week
And it wasn’t just my own kids who were suffering. Through my volunteer work as a parent support group facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and as president of the Wilton Youth Council, I saw the breadth and depth of anxiety and depression in children, teens and young adults — their social and emotional struggles, the drugs they were taking (including opioids), and, tragically, the increase in suicide.
Meantime, I ran myself ragged ferrying my own kids around. One memorable week I counted thirty-seven drop-offs and pick-ups from activities, sports and school. I was exhausted. When a local mom posted about her much-needed, mid-activity-shuttling cocktail on social media, I knew it wasn’t just me — and that it wasn’t healthy.
Free Play to the Rescue
I dove into researching recess and play in America. What I found was enlightening, powerful and disturbing because it turns out the vast majority of American kids weren’t getting what they needed. Conversely those outlier schools that were making recess a priority were not only seeing improvements in behavior and well-being, but improved grades as well!
When a colleague and I attended a powerful presentation by Dr. Peter Gray on the alarming impact of “Play Deficit Disorder,” we realized that we needed to do more than just host a parent education event. We needed to shift the culture. That was in 2016.
In 2017, we organized a Community Conversation Breakfast with another presentation by Dr. Peter Gray, this one on the “Importance of Free Play.”
Our little team of four blanketed the town with personalized invitations, outlining the benefits of play.
Who to Invite to a Change-The-Neighborhood Presentation
School & District Administration
Parks and Recreation
Local Police & School Resource Officers
Town’s Social Services
Local Youth Sports Organizations
All Local Youth Serving Organizations
Girl Scouts & Boy Scouts
All Community Organizations
Volunteer & Philanthropic organizations (Rotary, Kiwanis)
League of Women Voters
Local Prevention Councils
Local Mental Health Clinicians
Places of Worship
Elected State Officials
PTA Board Members
Boards of Education, Selectmen & Finance
Social Services Commission
Planning & Zoning
After the talk, we had incredible buy-in, most notably from our district superintendent, who announced, “I’m in.” We founded a “Wilton Free Play Matters Task Force” with the mission to inspire and educate the community about the critical importance of play, and to help create more play and “free-range” opportunities for children.
Next: Make Some Committees, Assign Kids Some Fun!
We divided ourselves into three committees:
Dr. Gray introduced us to Let Grow, the nonprofit he had newly co-founded, and we were thrilled to have some actionable next steps. The task force continued its mission by:
Writing letters to the editor of local media, sharing our mission and inviting community members to join us
Attending PTA meetings to share our mission and invite parents to join us
Inviting Lenore Skenazy to speak and inspire parents, teachers and the Board of Education with her “antidote” to anxiety: more free play and free time
Assigning “The Let Grow Project” to all students, Pre-K – Grade 5. The Project has kids “Go home and do something new, on your own, without your parents.”
Starting Let Grow Play Clubs – keeping school open for mixed-age free play. Supervisors did not organize the games or solve the spats.
Running a book discussion on How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Having superintendent Dr. Michael Hynes present on the importance of free play, free time and recess, and how his school incorporated the Let Grow agenda.
Screening “In Search of Greatness,” and hosting a discussion afterward
Running a “Bike Rodeo” –– a course, safety inspection and guided bike ride with police around town
Hosting Morgan Leichter-Saxby to present and demonstrate how to bring more free play into kids’ lives
Throwing two town-wide, old-fashioned Big Block Party Weekends (June & September), connecting neighbors outside and creating more opportunity for free play
The Secret Sauce?
And it worked! Kids are really outside more now, going to stores, riding their bikes, playing. Our success can be attributed to:
Understanding that culture shifts require time and patience
Approaching this issue collaboratively
Believing that everyone — schools, parents, and police wanted to make changes, and were all doing the best they could with the knowledge and challenges they faced
Addressing the very real barriers of parental fear of judgment, safety, state mandates, curriculum expectations, behavior issues at recess, busy schedules and distance between houses
Repeatedly connecting the dots between what parents and schools were struggling with (anxiety, depression, school refusal, behavior issues, learning challenges due to anxiety, substance use) and striving for (academic excellence with grades and test scores and skills for future success) with the fact that all these issues could be prevented, alleviated or strengthened — with more free play
Asking adults to reflect on their favorite childhood memory. Usually they recalled being outside, with other kids and no adults
Our collaboration empowered parents and schools to value and prioritize play and gave parents permission and strength to let go a little — without the fear of judgment from others.
It gave the whole community a chance to reach out and connect with each other, as well as a new vernacular: “That’s a Let Grow kid” or, “Time to Let Grow, right?”
Now we are a community that better understands the very real risks of overprotecting our kids. Our town – and our kids – are stronger for it.
About the Author
Vanessa Elias is a mental health activist, certified parent coach, speaker, and writer featured on NPR, PBS, and in the WSJ. She is the founder of Thrive with a Guide, LLC and serves as a group facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Block Party USA is her passion project. Vanessa helps parents achieve healthier family relationships and lasting, meaningful connections.