Free-Range Kids

Parents, Let the Coronavirus Quarantine Be an Excuse To Give Kids Some Free Time

You don't need to plan every minute of their day.


Not to be a Free-Range Pollyanna, but one possible (small) upside to this world-wide pandemic could be that kids become more independent—and less anxious—if we let them use their time differently.

Bear with me, and with research psychologist and fellow Let Grow co-founder, Dr. Peter Gray.

Gray points out that over the past generation or so, kids have been losing their "internal locus of control," the feeling of being in control of their lives. Obviously, when you don't feel in control of your life, you are more likely to feel depressed and anxious. And in fact, childhood anxiety levels have been shooting up long before the virus hit. Almost one in three adolescents has an anxiety disorder.

That may have to do with the fact that childhood free time has been evaporating, thanks to the belief that kids left unsupervised are in danger of being hurt physically, emotionally, or educationally. This is true across the economic spectrum and, increasingly, across the world: The idea that kids need intensive adult supervision and structure to succeed, from their first baby movement classes (as if they wouldn't otherwise wiggle) to the extracurricular arms race.

But with the world in the throes of a deadly virus, and school and after-school activities canceled everywhere, there's nothing official for kids to do. It's like they have been thrown back into a 1953 summer (except with Tik-Tok). This is an opportunity.

Yes, yes, obviously now their parents are closer than ever. Nonetheless, this period we're in is very different from the typical school/lacrosse/tutoring/homework/reading log days. Now the parents are busy, the day is long, and lots of time is up for grabs.

I'm hearing about kids making up games, digging holes (very popular), drawing, making videos, talking to their friends online, playing outside, playing video games (obviously), sleeping more (that's great!), cooking, and even organizing their rooms. That's the power of boredom mixed with free time. Instead of being marionettes, the kids are figuring out who they are and what they like to do.

At Let Grow, we had been promoting almost this same idea (minus the deadly pandemic). One of our main school initiatives is the Let Grow Project. (Here's a video.) Basically, the project is a take-home assignment where kids are told, "Go home and do something that you feel ready to do but haven't done yet—and do it on your own." The idea was to get parents to back off and let their kids go ride their bikes, walk to school, babysit, or almost anything else. The point is to remind both generations that kids are capable.

The amazing thing was that the more kids started to do things on their own—even something as simple as making lunch—the more their anxiety went down. This video of 7th graders who completed the project is pretty remarkable. The kids all admit to having been exceedingly anxious: One girl said that before she started doing things on her own, she had grown so nervous that she could barely even talk to anyone. But being forced into a little independence literally gave her back her voice. Another kid was too scared to walk to school until the project. After that, at about age 13, walking to school became normal.

Parents gain confidence too. There's nothing like seeing your kid do something you thought you had to do for them.