When Can Kids Play Alone? Two UT Experts Weigh In

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The story of an Austin mom and UT graduate who got a visit from the police and Child Protective Services after allowing her son to play outside alone has touched a nerve across the country.

Kari Anne Roy, BA ’98, blogged about what happened after she says she let her 6-year-old son play at a park bench about 150 yards from her house. A concerned neighbor brought her son back to her front door, and later a police officer and a CPS agent showed up to interview her and her three children. “My kids reported that she asked questions about drugs and alcohol, about pornography, about how often they bathe, about fighting in the home,” Roy wrote, describing the experience as deeply upsetting. “My children aren’t allowed outside until we can sell our house and move to a more hospitable neighborhood. Though I wonder … do more hospitable neighborhoods even exist anymore?”

The post went viral, with a Dallas Morning News op-ed calling the incident a sign of “our growing police state” and the Today Show asking, “What’s too young to play outside alone?”

There are no clear answers to that question, says Monica Faulkner. Faulkner, a UT social work professor who studies child welfare, says she used the story as a teaching moment in her class on social work and the law. “One of the most commonly asked questions is how old does a child have to be to be home alone, and nobody has an answer for that,” she says, “because it depends on the child, the family, and the specific situation. These are fuzzy, subjective issues and people are uncomfortable with that.”

Child Protective Services is required to investigate all the reports it gets, Faulkner says. “The mom and the agency both did what they were supposed to do, and the mom was understandably irritated with her neighbor. That said, I think this is a healthy discussion to have, for us as a society to have these conversations about where the line is,” Faulkner says. “It does shift over time what is considered to be neglectful and what isn’t.”

According to Joe Frost, those definitions have shifted dramatically. Frost is a professor emeritus in the College of Education and an expert on the history of play and child development. “We know that spontaneous play and structured play affect children’s growing brains differently,” he says, “and kids are getting a lot less spontaneous play than they once did. They’re going straight inside when they get off the school bus instead of going outside to play. It’s very worrisome that now on average, 8-to-16-year-olds get 7.5 hours of screen time a day, and we don’t fully understand what all that screen time is doing to their development.”

But Frost also sees reason to be optimistic. The strong public interest in stories like Roy’s, as well as the rise of alternatives like adventure playgrounds and the Free Range Kids movement, signals a rising desire not to overprotect American children, he says. “I think there’s a growing understanding, among professionals and the general public, that kids need unstructured time and time to play in nature.”

 

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