Outdoor Activity Balances Leniency and Neglect

Outdoor activity is essential to the mental and physical development of children, but children may not get enough outdoor playtime if parents fear their decision to let their children play outside alone will be reported as neglect. Unfortunately, due to a lack of resources, some parents must choose between letting their children play outside alone or not at all. 

Child Protective Services cannot always distinguish between neglect and more lenient  parenting practices. The systems in place to protect children from neglect can sometimes have adverse effects, especially in vulnerable communities that are more strictly monitored by authorities.

False reports of neglect are harmful to the accused families and distract from actual cases of child maltreatment. A report called Rethinking the Parenting Paradigm includes a health assessment of child protection policies in Montgomery County, Maryland from 2015. The results showed that:

  • Fear of being reported to child protective services is one reason why parents limit outdoor freedom. 
  • There is a higher risk of being reported for neglect than of actually being found neglectful. 
  • Certain vulnerable populations are at higher risk of being reported and investigated, while not necessarily having a higher likelihood of neglecting their children or of leaving them unsupervised. 

The amount of time that children spend playing outdoors has significantly decreased over the years, and that time has a direct impact on long-term health. The average American child spends as little as 30 minutes of unstructured outdoor play a day and spending half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago. The lack of outdoor play is connected to long-term health issues such as obesity, anxiety, depression, and other developmental concerns.

Public debate on acceptable styles of parenting is polarized, and spans between two extreme styles of parenting: “helicopter” and “free range.” While responsible parenting allows for a wide range of behaviors, parents that exercise “free range” are more at risk of getting involved in child welfare systems.

The Ohio Children’s Trust Fund defines neglect in broad terms: not providing a child with food, shelter, medical care, education, supervision or clothes. But without laws that distinguish between neglect and “free range parenting”, child protective services may unintentionally harm the children it seeks to protect.

This is an area that CPS should continue to refine to provide the most valuable care to those who need it most.

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