Raising “Free Range” Kids in Germany

I’m concluding my Christmas holidays now here in America, so it’s natural for me to once again think about how different my life would be if I were living in America instead of in Germany, especially as a mother.

Despite all my good intentions to not shop as much and my otherwise disciplined nature about spending money, I’ve continued the shopping spree which I had started on my last visit last October/November. All of these pre-Christmas, thanks to the economy, and of course post-Christmas sales have been too difficult for me to resist. Along with stocking up for Christmas presents for next year, I’ve been noticing what sort of toys are out on the market for children. My husband and I made a quick stop into Pottery Barn Kids when I first saw “Melissa and Doug” toys. I had previously read references to this brand on several parenting related web forums and sites. They were obviously regarded as nice, so I checked them out of curiosity. Maybe they would make a nice gift for one of our friends back in Germany.

I saw wooden puzzles, a set of wooden food that you could cut with a wooden knife and cutting board, wooden block sets and other wooden and cloth toys. They were certainly nice, especially when compared to the piles of plastic toys which were largely battery operated filling rows of toy bins in my American nephews’ house. In contrast, I realized that we had most of these toys back home and that they were in fact considered “normal” in Germany: Haba, Selecta, even Aldi and Lidl had their own “Made in Germany” brand of wooden toys.

In addition to playing with toys made with more synthetic materials, I also realized that my children were getting less fresh air in America. The reason has been discussed ad nauseum; Americans drive far more. While every situation is of course different, the majority of Americans are dependent on cars to get from point A to point B, such as my (American) family. Furthermore, there aren’t sidewalks in the new development they live in now. I take my girls for walks, and we walk on the streets, which are luckily more like private driveways, but it’s discomforting nonetheless when you are trying to teach your kids about road safety. Plus we have to drive to the nearest playground.

In our small town in Germany, we are able to walk to the city center and walk to our playgrounds. My husband and I have chosen to send our daughters to a Kindergarten with a Krippe (day care/nursery) which is a 20-minute walk away (though I admit we often drive there so that my husband can bring them on his way to work and to accommodate tight nap horizons). There are though three other kindergartens in our neighborhood within a five-minute walk. Of course this is not a possibility everywhere in Germany, but it’s also not unusual for children to walk by themselves to school including to Kindergarten from age six onwards.

These comparisons reminded me of Lenore Skenazy’s book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, which makes the case to encourage your (American) kids to be more independent by doing things such as walk to school by themselves. The book and its discussion made me relieved that this was pretty irrelevant where we live. Despite the challenges of living in Germany, far from home, I am grateful that my kids have escaped the hold of Disney, get to effortlessly play outside daily and can walk to school and Kindi all by themselves without much debate, fuss or effort. We can focus on so many other nicer things in our lives, such as where to go for the next Ferien (school holiday)!