on the river

I Allow My 6-Year-Old to Play Outside Alone on the River, and It Makes Her Stronger

The Milwaukee River runs through this mom's backyard. Read about what she's learned by allowing her 6-year-old daughter to play outside alone.

Almost 10 years ago, I accidentally stumbled upon an open house announcement. With nothing else to do and although not truly being in the market—but not not in the market—we decided take a look. After all, the house was in a coveted neighborhood. To our surprise, we arrived and found that the ranch was sitting on almost half an acre by a river, something that had not been mentioned in the listing.

As we toured excitedly, seeing ourselves in the setting, another couple seemed to be doing the same with their small children in tow. We assumed they would never be interested. We thought: No one with kids would live on a river—it would be too dangerous! They could never play outside alone. 

Fast forward a bidding war and a decade later, I find myself a single mother with a precocious 6-1/2-year-old daughter, Ava, living on our little patch of paradise. Some days, it feels like we are in the North Woods. But then I remember we are less than five minutes from a large shopping mall and twelve minutes to downtown. So we have our urban escape. And Ava, who has an innate love for all things nature and outdoors, enjoys it to the fullest—sometimes all alone. 

Beaches are meant for exploring. 

Ava was just 5 days old when I first brought her outside in a wrap, letting the sun kiss her tiny face and allowing the breeze to whisper, Welcome to the world. On any day, she would much rather be in a tree, on a treasure hunt for shells on our little shoreline, or helping neighbors plant flowers than inside the confines of four walls.  

Earlier in April as the temperatures climbed toward a balmy 60 degrees, we ventured to the beach. We were able to collect smooth rocks, beautiful driftwood, and laugh as the small waves chased us back and forth. My tiny wanderer insisted that she dip her toes in the water, and I allowed her to, her squeals a combination of frigid surprise and delight.

To my amazement, there was no one else enjoying the views on this sunny day. Yes, we have been told to stay safe and indoors, but the lakefront affords us adequate social distancing. And even long before Coronavirus kept us from exploring, I was still in a small minority of mothers who took advantage of the shoreline year-round or let my child play outside alone. 

When we’re outside together, I’m not one to hover over Ava’s every move, acting as a second shadow. She is within my sight or earshot. She wears sunscreen. And proper sun attire. But she plays. She meets other families. She makes best friends. Her imagination runs wild with the shapes of clouds and stones and logs. I know that if I am a constant and obvious presence, she won’t develop that beautiful, curious side of herself.

Within my own family, we are a bit of an anomaly. At her grandparent’s suburban home, she plays outside on her own in the yard—with permission; my siblings don’t allow this for their children, who are 11 and 13 years old. While I respect their choices, I still see the looks and hear the whispers about Ava’s free play. And Ava hears them as well. But we don’t whisper in return. Instead, we just focus on what works for us.

Playing outside alone keeps my daughter positive and confident. 

Even as we have entered a time of isolation, my adventuresome sprite thrives all the more on the independence that exploration affords her. I watch from the kitchen window, half doing dishes and half dreaming. She carries eight-foot branches over her shoulder and amasses a pile, intent on making a teepee in the next week or so. Sometimes I sit on the patio, so I can hear her voice, carried to me by the wind. Today she uses a fallen tree as a foot bridge to walk out into the river, trusty walking stick in hand. I love to hear how she talks to herself, using words of encouragement as she ventures forth: You’ve got this! or Okay, okay, you can do this! uttered from her lips as she moves forward, one foot in front of the other.

The brown waters gently swirl beneath her feet; her walking stick doubles as a tool to poke at plants around the log bridge, hoping for a toad or catfish to emerge. She has loose parts at her fingertips. Today she ends in an intentional splash, landing into the water, laughing. The dog jumps in too, giving her canine self permission to swim along with her human sister. That was crazy! I hear Ava squeal in delight, and I can’t help but smile.

If I were there, if I were her shadow, arms out to catch her, she wouldn’t have the strong core or sense of self that I see now. I have never lifted her up onto a piece of playground equipment that she could not reach herself. I did that because I did not want to set her up for failure, knowing she could not get down on her own. Allowing her to play by the river is an extension of that. And she’s all the better for it.

I see her developing problem-solving skills, a love of learning, a sense of wonder—and I get to witness it all up close as well as from a distance. She has developed them with guidance and the support of loved ones, educators, and the village that allows her to make mistakes and fall—both literally and figuratively—so she can get back up and learn in a way that gives her pride.

It’s a balancing act to know when to let go. 

As a parent, I know there are times we all have to make difficult decisions and decide when they can and can’t play outside alone. Can we keep them little and under our wing so we know they are always safe? We could. But what does that teach them? Would we be giving them the knowledge? Or allowing them to learn? 

For me, it’s a balancing act of loving Ava enough to nurture her free and wild spirit while tempering my own innate need to keep her confined, which doesn’t mean she’s in situations where she isn’t safe. In fact, there are many articles that actually say kids need risky play, and I see it with her. 

I know someday she will no longer live under my roof. And perhaps she will be someone’s partner or spouse. Or the parent of a precocious child. No matter the relationship, I want her to know kindness. I want her to have excellent decision-making abilities. And the skills to work through basic problems without outside intervention. 

As I watch her navigating up a fallen branch, I know she is, without a doubt, safe. Because she is strong. She is confident. And she always knows I am here, even if it’s not a few feet behind her.

Let Grow asked Ava to go on a walk by herself and pick up anything she thought was cool and put it in her pocket. Then she brought all her treasures to show us, which you can see in this video. Thanks to Ava for participating and also to Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center, for joining in on the fun.