Set Them Free

Today is the first day of Spring; the days are staying light longer, the weather is warmer, and many of us feel better as seasonally-affected depression lifts.

I’ve been reading a book by NYU professor Jon Haidt. His topic is broader than this this essay, but two chapters contain some timely advice. They focus on safety, academics, and how free play benefits both.

If you go no further than this paragraph, Haidt makes a compelling case that kids need more unsupervised free play time for our democracy to flourish. So take advantage of the warm weather to get you child out and running about.


Amidst cooking dinner a few years back, I realized I was missing a green pepper. I sent my 11-year old to the store in the ground floor of our building with a $5; she was of course excited to be charged with such a serious responsibility.


Joining the checkout line between two adults, she waited. As the first adult paid and departed the one behind her said, “Your Mom’s leaving dear,” and helpfully pointed forward. “No, that’s not my mom,” she replied.

Thankfully no one called the police, I got the pepper, and we finished dinner. Haidt recounts similar anecdotes to highlight our changing attitudes towards safety. Most of New York is safer than it has ever been, yet a certain fear remains in some of our hearts. When this anxiety controls too much of our thinking, we restrict our children from the kinds of independent experiences critical to their growth.


Families’ fears for academic success also reduce kids’ free time. Our expectations for elementary academics have soared, driven logically by decades of data showing that most kids can’t read or calculate effectively. Increased competition for elite college admissions is another factor, leading parents to fear their children’s “resumes” need to look stelar right from the start. This trepidation affects even wise parents whose children attend ICS, metastasizing into “but if they get a 75 on the 5th grade math quiz they’ll never get into UChicago!”


In place of hanging out in the park, children’s time is filled with homework and tutoring and organized sports and music lessons in a kind of arms race. Harking back to the 80s, Haidt notes that the US didn’t need 20,000 nuclear weapons until the Soviet Union had 19,000. Kids now need a college resume with 11 activities because another child has 10?

We think limiting kids’ exposure to responsibilities or opportunities we had when we were their age doesn’t matter. They’ll grow up eventually, no? Meanwhile they can play a mean Chopin etude and they’ve memorized Pi to 15 digits!

Free Play

Haidt marshals research showing that free play is where our children learn to navigate life, build resilience and develop the negotiating skills our democracy will require of them. He closes with a 2017 speech Chief Justice John Roberts delivered to his son’s 9th grade class:

From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. …. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.


In the make-believe play we encourage at choice time, in the games of tag the kids play at recess, even sharing a table at lunch, we provide our students with the opportunity to make and lose friends, listen and be ignored, treat each other fairly and unfairly. Even cope with boredom and loneliness.

And as the weather slowly turns in our favor, I hope you’ll take the chance to do the same. Get the kids out, let them run and manage on their own. Step back and think about yourself. You’ll contribute to our democracy, their mental health, and yours.

There are additional resources at

Matthew Levey