Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Free Range Kids 6

I never would have expected that Boulder would be less permissive than the Beach Cities when it comes to letting kids go Free Range.  But, life is full of surprises.

Recall that, in our area, kids 8-11 can be left alone in the library for up to two hours.  Kids 12 and older can stay alone as long as the library is open.  Only kids 8 and under need to be accompanied.  The Boulder Public Library just instituted new restrictive rules:
No person may leave children, age 11 and under, or dependent adults unattended.

First we would like to clarify for you that children of all ages are welcome in the Boulder Public Library, and, that children are not banned from the library. Library staff are happy to assist children with selecting and checking out library materials, and, providing reference and readers’ advisory service.  The reasoning behind instituting this new rule, which is consistent with many other public library systems across the nation, is, to address concerns about children being left alone in the youth area, or in the library in general, while parents or caregivers were either absent or in other sections of the building.

Our library staff values the safety and wellbeing of children, however, our resources do not make it possible for us to provide constant supervision and oversight of children, especially if they were to wander off inside or outside our buildings.

The libraries are public buildings, and, open to everyone.  Because the library is a public place, a child’s safety cannot be guaranteed.Children may encounter hazards such as stairs, elevators, doors, furniture, electrical equipment, or, other library patrons.  At the Main Boulder Public Library alone, almost one million patrons walk through the doors each year. The safety of our patrons, especially children and dependent adults, is our highest priority.
I don't expect my kid's safety to be absolutely guaranteed anywhere, including inside my messy home (lots of stairs, doors, furniture, electrical equipment and eccentric adults).  I just expect that reasonable precautions are taken after a rational risk-benefit analysis.  Why would the library be any different?

Libraries are libraries, not daycare centers.  Any reasonable parent knows that.  But I want to wander the stacks at the library and let my child wander on her own, too.  That's how kids discover things.

Can you imagine having to hover over your child at the library, and then drag them along with you to the adult stacks?  Library visits would take twice as long.  Since library visits tend to happen after school and before dinner, we are talking about a recipe for total child melt-down.

A British newspaper (I can't find the link found it and added the link) published a visual story showing the shrinkage of range for children over generations.  I also read an education study that looked at sex differences in mathematical and spatial reasoning.  While boys tended to have better spatial reasoning than girls, there was large variability within the sexes.  When they looked at what distinguished the high-performing girls from the rest, they discovered that spatial skills didn't correlate with sex; they correlate with roaming range. On average, boys are allowed twice the roaming range as girls of the same age.

[Addendum: I found many articles on the subject. You can try Spatial Ability and Home-Range Size: Examining the Relationship in Western Men and Women or Sex Differences in Spatial Competence: the ability of young children to map ‘primed’ unfamiliar environments.]

Correlation does not imply causation, and it was a small study. But, cognitive psychologists are investigating if the process of forming mental maps of one's surroundings while navigating through them improves overall spatial reasoning and processing speed.  Could helicopter parenting be a cause of the decline in STEM skills in American children?

I don't need another excuse to avoid driving my kid to school in the morning amid the crazy traffic around the school.  But, perhaps you are sitting on the fence and need a handy excuse.  ;-) Besides, Iris says that the walk is her time to think and clear her head.


  1. What a fascinating correlation!!! I had never heard that, but it makes total sense. I grew up in the country, and had limitless roaming privileges. Seriously, thinking back on it, I could have come to all sorts of harm and my parents wouldn't have had a clue where I was. Anyway, I was very good at math!!! Fascinating! My daughters had very limited roaming privileges (living in SF) and one is not great at math and the other is pretty good. But she was the one who always "took off" and made me think longingly of leashes. Fascinating!!

  2. My kids were free- range, but here on East Coast I met with so many obstacles that it took tremendous stubbornness on our part to insist on it. They are both successful adults now. I think that study is on to something.

  3. That is interesting; however, I read the library guidelines as NOT applying to children wandering through the aisles while their parents are a short distance away in another section of the library, but leaving children in the library while a parent exits the library completely, thus expecting the staff to turn babysitters and assume all the responsibility for the safety for their child. Shocking how often it happens.
    But addressing the point of your post, I had a far greater roaming range than my children did, times have sure changed since the innocent trusting days of my youth. I do have very good spatial abilities and am very good at maths. Would be interesting to know how they handled the control group! there would be soooo many factors to account for!

  4. I am trying to encourage my kids to be free range, and we split up when we get to the library. But as a Boulder library patron, I'll say this even though it makes me sound like a terrible person - I probably wouldn't let my kids under 11 go to the library by themselves strictly due to the high percentage of unsavory characters.

  5. @ Carolyn The intent of the new BPL policy is to require that parents remain with all children 11 and under (can not be in another part of the library).

    @ Meta Megan I totally get what you mean about unsavory characters at the BPL. We get a fair share of homeless people in our local libraries, too. But, most homeless people, are nonviolent and not a threat. Threatening and harassing people will get you kicked out of the library PDQ, regardless of age or homeless status.

    Our libraries are designed to give librarians good sight lines of most of the library; the shelves are arranged in lines radiating from the librarians' desks. In addition, both our main and branch libraries are adjacent to police stations. A child predator would likely choose a softer target than the libraries.

    A child was abducted in our neighborhood ~15 years ago as she walked to school. She was found 30 minutes later, after a neighborhood search alert went out. This led to the apprehension of a child predator that had been loose for over a decade (but in other areas).

    The FBI crime expert sent to talk to the community after the incident praised the cohesiveness and organization of our neighborhood in locating the child so quickly. She said that was unusual.

    My feeling is that we cannot effectively remove ALL risks. But, we can collectively keep an eye out for our neighbors and neighbors' kids.

  6. I am just reading this now and this makes me think. Last year, I started teaching English at my old high school. And I realized and keep realizing that the kids in front of me DO NOT WALK AROUND AT ALL. When I was a Senior, we moved to midtown so I was about 12 blocks from the school and I used to walk there. But I also lived 30mn away and used to take the bus into town. Now, the only student I have who walks around the city is the girl who lives 2 blocks from the school. Obviously, we have a high crime rate to explain the protectiveness of parents but the result is damaging too: the girls don't know the names of streets in NONE of the surrounding cities/suburbs, they have zero orientation. Sometimes I wonder if they know how to cross a street. All this to say that your post was very interesting and highlights another major difference between my country and yours: the kids don't walk because the parents won't let them. We do not have enough public structures like libraries for a government authority or similar to make the decision for us.


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