ITHACA, N.Y. – “Think about your favorite place you played when you were a kid,” Rusty Keeler, co-founder of the Just Play Project, asked a group of grown-ups gathered for a community discussion about free range parenting. “Did your mom know what you were doing all the time?” he said to chuckles.
Keeler has been working to bring unstructured outdoor play to Ithaca’s kids for years, and his efforts got a boost in early November when Mayor Svante Myrick proclaimed Ithaca “a free range kid city.” The proclamation affirmed the city’s commitment to letting parents grant kids unsupervised playtime. It also left a lot of people wondering what exactly a free range kid city is.
Community members came together Thursday, Nov. 29 at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center to brainstorm safe ways to encourage free play. About 30 parents sat in a discussion circle while a couple toddlers crawled underfoot, making toys out of plastic cups and paper plates, and older kids played across the hall.
In response to Keeler’s prompt, one parent recalled roaming her childhood neighborhood until the streetlights came on. Another remembered taking a city bus, unescorted, to art classes, and getting help from strangers when she got lost. Another said he learned “irresponsibility and responsibility at the same time” while testing what he could get away with as long as he came home in time to finish his chores.
As parents remembered the bygone days of their youth, they said kids now face more barriers to free play. With so many after-school and summer programs, one parent said there are never kids on the playgrounds near her house from 2 p.m. until sundown. Another complained that it’s hard to pull kids away from their screens. Multiple mentioned a “culture of fear” that keeps parents from letting their kids take the bus or go to the park or walk to a friend’s house without a chaperone.
As one parent pointed out, crime is lower than it’s been in decades. Still, several people at the meeting acknowledged that statistics can’t assuage parents’ worries that something bad will happen to their kid.
So how can Ithaca buck these trends and foster free play?
Keeler and Beth Myers, the Just Play Project’s co-founders, shared projects they’ve been working on and encouraged parents to brainstorm new ideas.
JPP pilot programs have already brought free play to some of Ithaca’s parks and schools. Summer Play Days brought kids to Northside and Southside parks for child-led play, supported by teen “playworkers,” in partnership with the Ithaca Youth Bureau.
The Reimagining Recess program has brought “loose parts” like wood, cardboard, tires, boxes and so on to elementary school playgrounds to encourage creative, collaborative play, in partnership with the Ithaca City School District.
At the 210 Hancock Street apartments, JPP partnered with Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services and Northside United to create a playground designed and planned by local kids.
Myers jotted new ideas on a poster as parents thought about ways to spread free play throughout the community. Maybe parents could put “free play” signs in the front yard, one suggested, so kids in the neighborhood know they’re welcome to drop by for playdates. Another offered that block parties could be a good way to get to know neighbors and share contact information. Several participants said they would work to spread the word about the developmental benefits of giving kids unstructured time, so people who let their kids play unsupervised aren’t seen as bad parents.
While the proclamation declaring Ithaca a free range kid city was the latest achievement for local free play advocates, it is not legally binding. The proclamation does not change any of the procedures in place for reporting or investigating child neglect or abuse.
Kit Kephart, the Tompkins County Department of Social Services Commissioner, was on hand Thursday to explain what would happen if a 911 call came in about kids playing, walking or biking unsupervised.
Noting that such calls are rare, Kephart said police will only respond if there is reason to believe a child is in imminent danger. Otherwise, the call goes to the New York State Office of Children and Family Services central register before it is passed on to the county’s Child Protective Services office.
Kephart said CPS’s goal is not to intervene unless necessary. “Our approach is always to work respectfully with families and to help families be successful and safe,” Kephart said.
CPS always has to knock on the door if they get a report about a family, she told the group, but she said their first response is, “Tell us what’s going on.”
Tompkins was one of the first counties in New York to adopt a Family Assessment Response model, a process that offers an alternative to opening a CPS investigation when a call comes in. Unless serious risk factors like domestic violence or addiction have been reported, Kephart said a FAR team would check in on child safety and family needs if the office got a call about an unsupervised child.
“Tompkins County Department of Social Services must always take a child safety first approach to every call that comes in. We always try to support families by helping to identify needs and link families up with support services that help kids to be safe and well cared for,” Kephart said.
While the proclamation declaring Ithaca a free range kid city does not change any rules around child supervision, Keeler said he hopes it will make people less likely to call 911 when they see kids out and about. “Nobody’s changing procedures, but we’re hoping it’ll change the mindset,” he said.
For details of CPS policies and tips on assessing when kids are capable of being left alone, see the Office of Children and Family Services website.
Those interested in sharing free play ideas with the Just Play Project can contact Beth Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: Kids use a nature play zone created by JPP and the City of Ithaca’s Parks and Forestry Division at Wood Street Park. (Photo provided by Rusty Keeler, JPP)