Edgy Mama: Free-range kids, local-style

Free-range isn’t just for chickens anymore. Nowadays, free-range also refers to a way of raising kids.

To briefly recap from a column I wrote a few weeks back: Free-range parents tend to give their kids lots of age-appropriate independence. They step back and let the young ‘uns learn from experience. The basic idea is to “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”

Since writing that column, I’ve learned there’s at least one group operating under the auspices of the free-range philosophy here in Asheville. They call themselves the Free-Range Childhood Program: A membership-based resource-sharing cooperative. That’s quite a mouthful. As far as I can tell, it means a place where mostly homeschooled children can run around with other kids of all ages, engage in “non-coercive” and self-directed activities, and learn experientially along the way.

Two local moms, Rosetta Star and Mary Ellen Phillips, started the program in June. Both have four young children whom they’ve mostly homeschooled. “We believe that children, given freedom and choice in their lives and decisions, particularly in those areas that affect their lives and their community, will become really healthy and mature individuals,” Phillips says. A WNC native, she recently returned to the area after stints living in India and London.

“The root of our philosophy is to help children along without trying to organize all their plans and activities and thoughts,” Star says. “We’re not a school or a daycare or a camp. We’re a childhood enrichment community.” Star is the owner/founder of popular vegetarian restaurant Rosetta’s Kitchen in downtown Asheville. She and her family are about to embark upon a six-month sabbatical, so she’ll be away from the new program for a while. (Imagine two adults, four kids, and three dogs living mostly from a largish vehicle in central America. Now that’s free-range.)

“While it took two to germinate this place, I’m very confident that Mary Ellen can keep the cooperative going capably while we’re gone,” Star says. She’s also leaving Rosetta’s Kitchen in the hands of an employee-run cooperative.

The Free-Range Childhood Program currently occupies a hand-hewn log cabin on 14 acres near the line between Asheville and Fairview, but Star and Phillips are looking at other locales that will give the program room to grow. Currently, around 15 families are involved.

Families must apply for membership. When accepted, they can trade time, resources or money in exchange for having their kids free-range it. The program’s currently open five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for children aged 4 and up. Fitting with the general philosophy, kids can attend variably — part- or full-time. “Tardy” is not a word you’ll hear there. Four staff members and a couple of interns, in addition to parent helpers, oversee the program. The (non-bartered) daily rate is $30, though Phillips says she’ll be setting up weekly and monthly rates.

The point, it seems, is to offer an educational alternative for children who may not thrive in more traditional or structured environments. And to give those who spend time in those environments a break from them. And to give homeschooled kids a place to socialize. As Star points out, the free-range learning style may not work for all kids, but it seems to give some of them something they may not get elsewhere.

“This really works for me — it’s active education, and it helps me ‘cause I can’t sit still for long,” says 12-year-old Luka. “It’s not like anywhere else. I mean, there’s a teenager over there with no shirt playing an accordion.”

Of course, this is how much of the world raises children and has done for thousands of years (well, not necessarily with a shirtless teenaged accordionist). And that’s part of the point of free-ranging. Because as the world has changed, and our perceptions of its dangers have intensified, more protective parenting styles have evolved. But is this what’s best for future generations? I’m not sure.

But I do know that Phillips and Star want to give kids a chance to experience freedom and learn self-reliance. Seems like a proactive approach to me.
For more information, visit freerangechildhood.blogspot.com.

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