Most kids, at least in my generation, played some variation of “Cops and Robbers.” Some hid, some chased. The goal was to bring evildoers to justice.
The lawlessness of “Cops and Robbers” was make-believe, of course, but the freedom for kids to play with their friends is becoming illegal in more and more instances. The members of Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School are just the latest gang of supposed evildoers to come under the scrutiny of government regulators.
Their heinous crime is organizing a group of families who volunteer to take turns watching each other’s kids while they play together for a few hours each day. According to the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, this voluntary association of parents watching over children at play (what we used to call a “community”) is nothing more than a front for an illegal day care.
Jesse James, eat your heart out.
The Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School is fighting back by lobbying the D.C. City Council to enact an exemption that would allow play groups like theirs to operate without being subject to onerous and expensive childcare licensing requirements.
Good for them. But why should they have to?
It’s absurd for the government to insert itself into community life in this manner — requiring parents who live in the same neighborhood and trust each other to get permission to allow their kids to play together on a regular basis.
Yet in the name of “protecting children,” overzealous bureaucrats are weakening communities and denying children formative childhood experiences by undermining the voluntary associations that were once commonplace in neighborhoods across the country. Ironically, they’re making the world less safe for kids.
At some point during one of our marathon games of “Cops and Robbers,” the nearest parent would shout from their window informing one of us that it was time to go home. That kid’s parents had no idea where he was at that moment, but they never feared for his safety because they knew that other parents in the neighborhood were watching from their windows.
Even when someone got hurt, we’d run to any one of a number of nearby homes for a Band-Aid without fear that a monster lurked inside. The Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School is even more formal than the loose network of parents in my childhood neighborhood (the kids wear matching yellow vests when playing in the park, for crying out loud), but they still found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
As kids, we were free to play without fear and develop valuable life skills like conflict resolution and resourcefulness because we had relationships with our neighbors. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that less than 1-in-3 people know all or most of their neighbors. The OSSE and similar agencies didn’t cause this trend, but its actions are a symptom of a bigger problem. The more disconnected we become from those who live closest to us, the bigger the vacuum we create for government to fill with rules, regulations, fees, and fines that limit basic liberties we once enjoyed. Those liberties include simple things like playing outside.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement to bring some common sense back to child welfare laws. This movement isn’t being led by high-powered lobbyists or issue advocacy firms but by voluntary associations of parents who want nothing more than to give their kids a good old-fashioned childhood.
Last March, Utah became the first state to pass legislation specifically designed to claw back some of these lost liberties. The so-called “free-range parenting” law exempts from the definition of neglect, “permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.” These “independent activities” include such radical pursuits as riding a bike to school, going to the local playground, and, yes, playing outside.
More than three decades ago, the Supreme Court affirmed in Parham v. J.R. the historical presumption that the “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children.” This presumption is being steadily eroded as state authorities take on more power to second-guess the decisions of loving, hardworking parents who want nothing more than to give their children a happy childhood.
D.C. and the rest of the nation would do well to follow Utah’s example and give kids the freedom to play.
Andrew Brown is director of Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Families and Children.