The Care and Feeding of Free Range Kids | Dr. Heidi Skye
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The Care and Feeding of Free Range Kids

Unsupervised tree climbing. Walking to the store alone. Letting your grade schooler light the campfire. Drinking from the creek. These are scenes from the lives of free range kids. The term “free range kid” wasn’t in the vernacular when my kids were young so I didn’t know that letting them saw firewood with a hacksaw would become an actual thing in a parenting movement. My kids were more half ranged than free ranged but I did err on the side of letting them experience things that had risk (watching when they accidentally set the yard or themselves on fire). And I did not helicopter around when they were cutting construction paper.

Since I am interested in health consciousness I started to think about the care and feeding of free range kids and how it benefits them for life.

Feeding a free ranger includes letting them experiment and eat stuff from gardens and off the neighbors’ trees. Variety is a good thing as it teaches kids their tastes and creates a less picky eater. Let your kid order the sushi or the anchovy appetizer. (Yes, I get it that eating in a restaurant isn’t super free range, but I do live the real world.) Let them crack the eggs and get shells in the scramble and spill the milk. It encourages experimentation, direct experience and promotes learning which are the core tenets of raising a free range kid.

Eating things where they come from is a healthy lesson in the cycle of life. I know the dozen apples I ate when we went apple picking in Michigan each fall growing up are still the best tasting I’ve ever had. I know how the ripe ones come off the branch versus ones that are just not quite ready. I’ve bitten into an apple and found a worm squirming and enjoying its meal. I know how heavy a bushel of apples feels at the end of the day. I loved climbing the spindly wood ladders in the orchard. Scraped knees and the occasional wipe out were part of the fun. My parents were not concerned as I did this (thanks mom and dad!).

Growing a garden no matter the size is one of my all time favorite free range activities. We had a small garden and raised chickens in suburbia. We ate the veggies straight from the ground and with a simple brush off of the dirt (no sanitization procedures here) and crunched the carrots. My son named the chickens and helped collect eggs and tend to them. It was devastating when our first one was killed by a predator but a memorable lesson in death. The fact that he ran out the next morning to check that Betty (our Rhode Island Red hen) was indeed gone taught him more than any story I may have read him at 6 years old.

I’m also a firm believer of allowing kids to get cuts, scrapes, bruises and noggin eggs throughout childhood. (What, let your kid get hurt???!!) I did and I survived. And clearly you did too. Yes, there is risk when your kid swings on the tire swing into the river. And there is risk in driving her to see the Nutcracker in the city. Or going snowboarding. Letting our kids feel their bodies, its strength, its limitations and its injuries are invaluable. It’s connecting them with life’s natural limits. It allows the interface of fear and injury and then repair (which if you follow my blog you know comes only from the intelligence of the body not the bandaid). Most of us have had a broken bone and lived to tell about it. Undergoing the healing of anything (cold or cut) with waiting and regaining health is a great lesson in time and process.

Dirt is also a huge part of free range parenting. Or I should say the accumulation of it on our kids. Jumping in piles of leaves, making a ginormous sand castle at the beach and just plain playing in the mud puddles are glorious sensations all kids should have.

The grit and grime and crud also inform our bodies of what is self and what is not.


It’s an important part of growing our immune systems. Our microbiome needs and craves stimulation – the forests, dirt, oceans, playgrounds and backyards provide the microbes which populate our insides. Dirt drives our internal evolution. And a productive day of getting dirty – the evening bubble bath – is one of childhood’s great pleasures. Even if the water turns muddy.

Experiencing life as it is, unprotected and raw, is the way of free range parenting. Even though my kids are teens it’s woven into our lives. My daughter rides rescue horses and they are unpredictable. She has fallen off and landed in a puddle when one spooked. My son goes to Mexico with his youth group and tends to kids in an orphanage, lays bricks and goes to the dump to feed and deliver medical supplies to the people who live there. I’m pretty sure it’s filthy there. And my eldest teen is a member of the local Search and Rescue team. I gasped when she recounted the story of how she got to ride in the rescue helicopter! She was bright with pride and I was taken with her courage.

Risks are real and so are rewards.


A hyper sanitized, over protected child fears the world and keeps it at arm’s length. They grow into an adult who tries to avoid interaction with it and control all its variables and risks – an impossible task. Fear becomes the operating program. I’m in the trust camp. As the grow they trust themselves and do not expect others to be the barometer for assessing situations. Because they were trusted to experiment and learn. Trust that the scrape will create a scab and heal, that the flu moves through our bodies, that animals and people in our lives come and go. Noticing our emotions ebb and flow, and the learning experience of burning your hand when lighting a fire, are more important than their avoidance. It’s not pain free but free. And who doesn’t love freedom?


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1 Comment
  • Connie Smith
    Posted at 14:42h, 19 July Reply

    I am all for kids playing in the dirt and mud. The one thing I feel is important is to wash fruit and veggies from the grocery store. I think of all the hands that have touch the food and where those hands have been. Pickers in the fields have to urinate and do they go right there? How about a BM? I have seen so many people with a hacking cough into their hands and then pick through the fruit and veggies. I also wash the out side of my watermelon…just a quick rinse. I think kids and adults should wash hands before eating. I know I sound like a fear freak. It is just the world is different today will all the different diseases (Ebola) and non resistant bacteria. I watched my great grandson enjoy an complete mud bath and massage out side and it was delightful. I just have a couple of things I like to be cautious about. Swinging, riding, jumping, sawing…anything fun is important and for children to experience their world around them. I do agree with what you say. I am a nurse and there is too much hand washing and I get it is important in hospitals but sometimes it is a bit overboard.

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