I’ve been privileged to spend summers on Cape Cod, where, every six hours, the majestic Cape Cod Bay swings out over a mile into a spectacular low tide. Massive tidal flats emerge, as far as the horizon.  When the sun is overhead, shallow tide pools shimmer between the flats; under cloud, they take on a gray metallic sheen. Gentle tidal currents swirl the water. If the sea wind is brisk, baby waves might kick up a little foam where the flats meet the water’s edge. Sea grass, a brilliant green, waves in patches by the shore. A famous staging ground for migratory sea birds, the flats are likely to be dotted with gulls, terns, plovers, and sandpipers. As the flats open, clams, mussels, and crabs crawl out from their sandy dens.

In high summer, the flats is the perfect place for immersion in the life of the seashore.  If you walk far out toward the horizon, the sandy beach recedes from view, beach umbrellas turn to dots of color, and the sun worshippers on their beach chairs fade away.  In every direction now is just glimmering water, wavy sandbars, seabirds, and sea creatures.  So, am I communing with nature in all its sea glory?  No, the psychologist in me is watching children and their grownup minders wandering the flats.

There is a lot to see. Some families have dragged out beach chairs, coolers, and lots of other paraphernalia onto the flats.  The grownups have organized ball games or are rigging up kites or supervising elaborate sand castle construction. But mostly, children are drifting off away from the grownups, some of whom turn to their smartphones or beach read or each other for adult conversation.

It’s hard to imagine what trouble a kid could get into on the flats, where the water for miles and for hours is no more than ankle deep. It’s as if the grownups—most of them—have given permission for the flats to become an adult-free zone. Children set the rules and the agenda, or lack of one.  Some kids are out with pails and nets, trying to catch small crabs. Others are squealing when they come upon a horseshoe crab.  Usually, the birds have been there first, so the shells of recently alive creatures are the major find.  But, occasionally, a live crab will scurry away from one’s toes. Grabbing its body and lifting it up while the claws flail is one of the slightly scary thrills the flats promise.  Some children just break into a wild shrieking run over the sandbars and into the tide pools. It’s a rare chance to experience no limits.

A few hours on the flats makes me wonder where else children get this kind of freedom. Where can kids run off the leash, drop the adult imposed structures, and open themselves up to, well, whatever happens?  Where can they get stopped in their tracks by some wild, weird creature they have never seen before? Do children even need such an adult-free zone?  Isn’t the world far too dangerous or just too competitive to waste even a minute on non-productive wandering?

The flats make me a champion of preserving and expanding adult-free zones for children.  Sure, our kids need to be safe, but we can imagine every scary possibility, including exceeding rare ones, to cut off a child’s own risk-taking, spirit of adventure, and sense of discovery. In a recent interview study, parents talked about childhood risk-taking.  Those parents who had experienced significant risks in their own lives were better able to balance concerns about safety for their children with opportunities for adventure. However, those parents who did not experience risks in their lives themselves focused more on protecting their children from harm and from making mistakes. Overall, two aspects of life emerged for the children and their parents: 1) the “telic,” with its emphasis on being serious, cautious, goal-oriented and calm; and 2) the “paratelic,” which embodies being playful, adventurous, activity-oriented, and excited.  Those parents who could balance the two tendencies—making space for their children to take “paratelic” risks—had kids who could move flexibly between these two poles of experience.

Unfortunately, many adults continue to view all risk-taking in childhood negatively and often restrict children’s play, exploration, and autonomy to protect them.  The flats teach that letting children “off the leash” in an adult-free, yet safe, zone is essential to healthy development.

To read more:

Niehues, A. N., Bundy, A., Broom, A., & Tranter, P. (2014). Parents’ perceptions of risk and their desires for their children’s well-being. Journal of Child and Family Studies.

Eibach, R. D., & Mock, S. E. (2011). The vigilant parent: Parental role salience affects parent’s risk perception, risk-aversion, and trust in strangers. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47, 694-697.

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