kids laughing on the beach

How Much Risk Is Good For Kids? Parents Make The Case For More Adventurous Childhoods

This article is a written review of why parents think kids should play more outdoors these days.

Jason Akel paced outside a junkyard on Governors Island in New York Harbor, where his son and daughter were among dozens of children gleefully dashing around with saws, hammers and nails.

“Hey, Ty, don’t destroy the structure,” Akel called over a fence as his son, Tyler, 12, sawed through a rickety wooden frame.

“I’m not!” Tyler responded, his eyes fixed on the plank he was grinding through. “I’m improving it.”

Children play at the adventure playground on Governors Island.Andres Kudacki / For NBC News

The Akels, vacationing in New York City from Orinda, California, were at the Yard — one of America’s few “adventure playgrounds.” At this one on a former military base just off of the Brooklyn shoreline, children as young as 6 scurry up piles of tires, pull the stuffing out of old office chairs and use tools to create and destroy whatever they wish. No parents are allowed inside.

The Yard is one result of a growing call to expose kids to more risk, a call that has recently played out from online parenting forums to medical journals.

The much-debated question: Can parents’ efforts to protect their children actually hurt them?

Last week, a study published in the journal Developmental Psychology found that helicopter parents — those who hover over their children — can diminish their children’s ability to regulate emotions and behavior. Concerns like these have spurred a backlash against overprotective parenting, with some parents, psychology experts and lawmakers calling for a return to a more laid-back style of child-rearing, with less parental involvement and more autonomy for kids. (This is, of course, a choice of privilege; in impoverished neighborhoods where children regularly encounter unwanted danger and adversity, few parents would actively choose more risk.)

The movement to give children more independence got a boost last month when Utah became the first state to put into effect a “free-range parenting” law.

“People recognize that the pendulum has swung so far in terms of overprotecting kids, that we’re just robbing them of the opportunities that we had to help us turn into good, successful adults.”

That legislation changed Utah’s definition of neglect, so a parent can’t be arrested for allowing well-cared-for children to walk reasonable distances alone — like home from school — even at young ages.

“People recognize that the pendulum has swung so far in terms of overprotecting kids that we’re just robbing them of the opportunities that we had to help us turn into good, successful adults,” said Utah Republican state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, who sponsored the law. “They’re not going to have the skills that they need to navigate the world as adults.”

The free-range parenting movement was founded by Lenore Skenazy, a New Yorker who a decade ago was excoriated after she wrote a column in the New York Sun about allowing her then 9-year-old son to ride the subway and a bus home from a store alone.

Skenazy defines free-range parenting as the opposite of being overprotective: anything that gives children freedom, whether it’s sending them to the grocery store by themselves or not tailing them as they learn to ride a bike.

“It was controversial, but I was urging people to just give your kids an old-fashioned childhood,” Skenazy told NBC News.

What Skenazy dubbed free-range parenting used to be the standard — the way that Generation Xers and those before them were raised, with parents letting kids outside in the morning to play and not expecting them back home until dinnertime. If children got hurt or lost, their parents had faith that they would eventually get home safely — and more often than not, they did.

The switch to more protective parenting happened gradually, but the 1980s was a turning point, marked by high-profile crimes including the 1981 abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh from a Florida mall. At the same time, schools became more rigorous amid fears that American children couldn’t compete globally, and some parents began to jam-pack their children’s schedules with structured extracurriculars.

“Children’s freedom to go out and explore has declined and the amount of time children are spending in school and doing homework and other school-like activities like adult-directed sports and classes has increased,” said Peter Gray, a psychology research professor at Boston College and the author of “Free to Learn.”

As parents with the time and resources to do so began to micromanage their kids’ lives, the so-called helicopter parent was born.

“Basically it’s a society that has decided gradually but overwhelmingly to look at childhood only through the lens of what could go tragically wrong.”

While violent crime has sharply declined in the past quarter-century, Skenazy said many people still parent as though danger lurks around every corner. She blames the constant scroll of headlines about abductions and hot-car deaths, as well as companies that market high-tech devices to protect children, like baby monitors that track an infant’s oxygen level at night. In this environment, it’s no wonder parents don’t leave their children’s sides, Skenazy said.

“Basically it’s a society that has decided gradually but overwhelmingly to look at childhood only through the lens of what could go tragically wrong,” she said.