The following article was written by Colleen Fawcett, LCSW, Wilton Youth Services.

Lady-Bird Johnson, the former First Lady, wanted to improve the dilapidated physical condition of our landscapes. “Where flowers bloom, so does hope,” she said. Furthermore, she believed beauty could improve the mental health of society. Lady-Bird wanted “masses of flowers where masses passed” so she devised a plan to plant wildflowers in masses, and nurture them until they were established and able to seed themselves. In other words, she cultivated wildflowers. Her legacy of conservation and beautification lives on today in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the National Wildflower Research Center, along our highways, in our Redwood National Park, and in our nation’s capital.

What do wildflowers have to do with children and play? We no longer see masses of children playing outdoors. Play sets are often empty–in fact, my brother-in-law has taken to gathering unused play sets and turning them into chicken coops and goat houses. Come to think of it, I hear more today about the importance of free range meats than I do about free range children.

Free play has declined greatly in the past 50 years and our children are paying a high price. Through free play children learn.  They learn to think creatively, make decisions, see from another’s point of view, negotiate differences, and solve problems. They learn to exert self-control, regulate emotions, and manage fear and anxieties.  Free range–allowing children a great measure of independence to move about on their own–has declined too. We are now seeing high rates of anxiety and depression among our children and adolescents. Dr. Suniya Luthar’s recent work here in Wilton showed higher than average rates of depression and anxiety among our adolescents, with almost 30% of our high school students reporting serious levels of internalizing symptoms with the most pronounced problem being anxious-depressed.

Wilton Youth Council’s (WYC) Free Play Matters Task Force has taken a lesson from Lady-Bird Johnson’s wildflower success. We are working to bring awareness to the critical importance of free play, and to inspire the creation of more of these opportunities for our children. We have found the need to cultivate these opportunities in artificial ways at first, such as organizing old-fashioned block parties, creating after-school free play programs for kids, and creating pedestrian and bike-friendly roads.  Just like cultivated wildflowers, artificially created free play and free range opportunities for children are beautiful and worthwhile.

WYC’s Free Play Matters Task Force is thrilled to be bringing Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids:  How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (without going nuts with worry!) to Wilton. Her book, blog, and movement are dedicated to the fact that our kids are more capable, safer and smarter than our culture gives them credit.

Please join us Monday, April 30 at Wilton Library from 10-11:30 a.m.. A recording of this event will be shown one time only at 7 p.m. at the library on the same day. The event is free, but online registration is recommended. This event is co-sponsored by Wilton Youth Council, Miller-Driscoll PTA, Cider Mill PTA, Middlebrook PTA, and Wilton Library.

Anyone interested in joining the Free Play Matters Task Force, please contact Colleen Fawcett, LCSW at 203.834.6241 or via email.