When you’re a kid, there’s nothing quite like playing outside. From Kick the Can to afternoon sessions of make-believe in the park, outdoor play holds the unspoken promise of adventure. Free of the comforts and confines of the home, it’s a blank canvas on which kids’ imaginations are given life, where alleyways become dungeons and front porches become fairytale castles.

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Yet most experts agree that children today spend less time outdoors and have fewer opportunities to engage in unsupervised outdoor play than ever before. After decades of latchkey kids, “stranger danger” and family unfriendly urban design, the “wilderness of childhood,” as author Michael Chabon calls it, is disappearing. Given how significant outdoor play is to kids’ health, wellbeing and development, many wonder what impact this is having and whether the quest to keep kids safe can sometimes do more harm than good.

One response to this phenomenon is the recent rallying cry around what some are calling the “free-range kids movement.” Although the term itself comes from a book by syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy, the ideas at the center of the movement describe a much broader attitudinal shift taking place among parents and other caregivers. A significant component of the free-range kids approach involves a rejection of the general state of fear that has gripped North Americans around the idea of letting kids venture out into “the public” unsupervised. In its place, the movement promotes giving children more freedom and autonomy, which includes reclaiming public spaces and opportunities for outdoor play.

Many parents see outdoor play and gaming at odds with one another in discussions of children’s health and wellbeing. Even exer-games are occasionally criticized for keeping players indoors and in front of the screen. Nonetheless, there is a lot of overlap between gaming culture and the free-range kids movement. Above all, they both recognize the importance of play within children’s lives and healthy development.

The Digital Wilderness

The celebration of play and the wilderness of childhood has been a cornerstone of game design since the 1980s. Shigeru Miyamoto often describes his games as inspired by a childhood of exploring the grassy hills and caves that sprinkled the countryside surrounding his hometown of Sonebe, Japan. His most successful and widely loved games capture much of the charm of childhood exploration, including the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda series. Miyamoto remains a big proponent of outdoor play, mentioning in interviews that his number one rule about his own kids’ gaming is, “If it’s nice, then go play outside.”

In the absence of other options, games can even provide opportunities for types of play that homebound kids might not be exposed to otherwise. Henry Jenkins, USC professor and pop-culture critic extraordinaire, describes videogames as offering one of the only chances that many among the current generation of kids will likely ever have to experience the kind of “complete freedom of movement” he and his friends enjoyed as children in the ’60s. Back then, kids could wander through the neighborhoods of suburban sprawl and find the little pockets of forest and vacant lots that would become their secret playgrounds. Today, kids are rarely allowed to wander anywhere, and there are very few secret places left for them to discover, let alone access at will.

Although gaming is rarely (if ever) seen as equivalent to outdoor play, it can provide a provisional solution. If kids aren’t allowed or able to explore the real topographies of their neighborhoods and city blocks, they can still experience the joys of traversing the digital landscapes of Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom. “Videogames did not make backyard play spaces disappear,” Jenkins explains. “Rather, they offer children some way to respond to domestic confinement.”

Why Go Free-Range?

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Yet the larger problems posed by the disappearance of those backyard play spaces remain, and kids today are starting to show some pretty serious symptoms. Rising childhood obesity rates, vitamin D deficiencies and plummeting fitness scores are some of the most obvious indicators that a life spent indoors and sedentary is detrimental to children’s health. Physical inactivity and diminished opportunities for outdoor play are also linked with kids reporting higher stress levels and more frequently feeling sad, lonely and bored.

In addition to the enormous benefits of sunshine, fresh-air and increased physical activity, outdoor play promotes children’s health in other ways as well. Healthy cognitive and physical development are both hugely dependent on regular contact with the physical environment. The manipulation of things, unstructured exploration of one’s surroundings and exposure to new and different sensory stimuli all contribute to the complex processes of identity formation. Add some other kids into the mix, and those backyards become crucial forums for socialization and the building of formative peer relationships.

If the parents and caregivers at the heart of the free-range kids movement are at all successful in rescuing the concept of outdoor play from a culture of distrust and fear, the next big challenge will be to re-design – or at the very least, re-designate – public spaces to make them more play-friendly. The magnitude of this task should not to be underestimated. Three decades of shutting kids out of public spaces “for their own good” hasn’t produced a very playable urban landscape. The stores and cafes that seem inviting when you’re an adult can be boring or even unwelcoming to young children, and the sidewalks and concrete vistas of urban and suburban childhood are designed for function, not fun. There are fewer playgrounds, fewer wooded areas and less access to empty lots and open spaces – not to mention that children’s limited experience playing in these spaces might make the transition a little bumpy for everyone.

Seeing Stones

Just as games have historically provided kids with alternative modes of exploration, games might also be able to help in the reclamation of public spaces for play. Games like Bulpadok’s The Hidden Park for the iPhone and Aspyr Media’s Treasure World for the DS tap into the technological capabilities of mobile game devices to generate a new type of portable playground. Drawing on trends established in alternate reality games, this new crop of outdoor gaming titles incorporate real-world exploration into gameplay through the use of GPS and wireless communication. Buildings, park benches and cul-de-sacs become the secret hiding places of fantastical creatures and treasures. As such, they provide kids with shared tools for re-defining their relationships with urban and suburban landscapes.

Imagine this emerging genre as the digital equivalent of a “seeing stone.” The seeing stone shows up in a number of modern fairytales, including Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s The Spiderwick Chronicles and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. A primitively carved totem, its key feature is the eye-sized hole in its center. By looking through this hole, the children in these stories are able to see aspects of the world that are usually invisible to humans: magic, fairies, portals to other dimensions, ghosts and goblins and even other people’s souls. The idea that the world around us is much more magical than it seems has clear links with childhood traditions of outdoor play and make-believe.

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Digital games can perform a similar function to seeing stones by subverting the mundane character of things like streetlamps and trash bins. When playing Treasure World, any neighborhood with a concentration of Wi-Fi hotspots is transformed into an endless playground. The game converts wireless signals found throughout the real world into in-game treasures, which kids access by detecting the signal with their Nintendo DS. The café becomes a pirate’s hat, while a walk around the block produces the stardust needed to fuel your spaceship.

You can find a similar emphasis on discovering the secret and the enchanted within the everyday in The Hidden Park. The application uses GPS and pre-programmed maps to draw players into a treasure hunt that involves tracking down magical, endangered animals. When located, the animals and other magical objects appear as animations mapped onto digital photographs the player takes with the iPhone’s camera. The game also draws on user-generated content, enabling players (or their parents) to create their own maps using the game’s “Park Builder” feature to add to the original list of maps created by Bulpadok.

Of course, what we’re really talking about here is imagination. What the free-range kids movement actually aims for is sufficient space and opportunities for kids to create imaginative games, play themes and storylines for themselves. Games like The Hidden Park and Treasure World aren’t a substitute for non-digitally-enhanced outdoor play. They could never replace the unbridled creativity and physical activity that come with a regular diet of spontaneous adventuring and Double Dutch marathons.

But what is promising about these seeing stone games is the way in which they open up space for those more imaginative and autonomous forms of play. By breaking down existing definitions of what an urban or suburban landscape is, how it should be experienced and what kids are expected to do there, games like The Hidden Park put forth a direct challenge to the idea that public space is inappropriate and dangerous for kids. Once this space is opened up, so is the play potential. That’s really all that outdoor play and the wilderness of childhood have ever needed to thrive.

Sara Grimes is a doctoral student in communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and blogs at Gamine Expedition . Her favourite outdoor game was and always will be flashlight tag.

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