“In today’s childhood, confined by structure, stranger danger, and helicopter parenting, free-play has virtually disappeared. Experts are ringing the alarm bell about the dramatic rise in anxiety and depression in young children and teens. What if all this well-intended hovering, fear, and over-scheduling has backfired?”

That’s a question asked in a new documentary, Chasing Childhoodthat was filmed in Wilton and features Wilton residents. Wilton Youth Council’s Free Play Matters Task Force is hosting a free virtual screening of Chasing Childhood, available to stream any time from Saturday, April 17 through Wednesday, April 21, in advance of a special Q&A session with one of the directors, experts, and subjects of the film on Thursday, April 22.

The movie addresses these issues by interweaving three stories.

First, the documentary introduces Lenore Skenazy, cofounder ofLet Grow, an organization that encourages parents to “step back, so kids can step up.” In the film, Skenazy observes and interacts with kids in New York City schools where Let Grow programs have been adopted.

The movie then follows Dr. Michael Hynes, former superintendent of Patchogue-Medford, Long Island who implemented yoga, mindfulness, and more time for play in schools.

Lastly, Chasing Childhood shares the story of Wilton’s Eason family, who experienced firsthand the issues highlighted in the documentary as they raised their daughter, Savannah.

Wiltonians–Sharing Vulnerabilities

Featured in the film is Wilton resident and Wilton Youth Council Executive Director, Genevieve Eason

Genevieve shared that the movie was inspired by a group of parents who noticed that their own childhoods were very different from their children’s experiences. The film highlights that children today have less independence and fewer opportunities for free play than previous generations had. Case in point, Genevieve told GMW, when you ask parents of her generation what their fondest childhood memories are, they often speak of playing outside in the neighborhood unsupervised.

“You hear so many commonalities:  ‘The rule was, we could go as far as our legs could take us,’ or ‘The rule was, we had to be home when the streetlights came on,’” she said.

Parents today look back on their childhoods and appreciate doing things independently but don’t allow their own children the same freedom today.

Genevieve’s daughter, Savannah Eason, was a strong student who attended Wilton Public Schools and experienced pressure to excel in all areas of her life, whether at school, dancing with the Walter Schalk School of Dance, or performing in theatre or choir.

“In Wilton, I think a lot of people feel pressure to do their best and sometimes that translates to be the best,” said Genevieve.

That pressure led Savannah to develop anxiety and depression, for which she sought treatment starting her sophomore year of high school.

“Up until that point, I really sort of bought in the idea that my job was to encourage her to do her best and help her to achieve in that way,” Genevieve recalled. “During her sophomore year, I came to the understanding that maybe that wasn’t my job. There’s plenty of messages in our culture that that’s what she needed to do and maybe my job was to provide some counterbalance to that and to encourage her to take care of herself.”

Savannah’s mental health remained stable until her senior year when she was hospitalized for 11 days after having suicidal thoughts.

She has since recovered and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America as a pastry chef.

The Easons share their story in hopes of illustrating why balance is so important.

“Success comes in many different ways and what matters most is that you’re healthy,” Genevieve said.

“There are some things that if I could do over again, I would do differently and I would focus my attention in different ways. By telling our story I hope that other parents and other families can make better-informed decisions than I was making or just shift their thinking a little bit.”

Eden Wurmfeld, a producer and one of the directors of Chasing Childhood, was grateful for the family’s vulnerability and said she wanted to do right by them.

“Our experience working with the Eason family was profound for me. They were incredibly trusting and open – I felt an enormous responsibility to tell their story sensitively and aptly. I can honestly say that showing them the film for the first time and their positive reaction was one of the best days of my life,” she said.

Genevieve encourages people to reflect on the past year as they transition to post-pandemic life.

“It’s a great time for self-reflection and for families to think about what worked really well for them in their lives pre-pandemic and what didn’t, and what worked for them during this past year and what didn’t, because I think a lot of people found they had more time for things in their family life that they didn’t before.”

She hopes people can strike a better balance and include more playtime, family time, and downtime in their lives going forward.

Free Play Matters Task Force–Wiltonians Sharing Solutions

Eason has channeled much of what she’s learned into helping Wilton Youth Council’s Free Play Matters Task Force, led by Vanessa Elias and Rosalie Witt in its efforts in Wilton to address the issues highlighted.

Witt serves as chair of the task force’s School Committee and has helped bring Let Grow programs that introduce opportunities for independence to Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill Schools.

Prior to the pandemic, Wilton’s two elementary schools opened extracurricular play clubs. Students were able to gather in larger groups than possible at home for the sole purpose of creative and free play.

“We can say to our kids ‘go outside and play’ but if there’s no one outside to play with, they’re going to come back in,” Eason said, praising the club for connecting children to others.

Through independent play, kids learn to negotiate, help each other, cooperate, and problem solve.

Some individual classes at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill implemented a Let Grow project that aimed at exploring kids’ independence at home. Students were encouraged to go home and ask their parents for permission to complete a new household task all by themselves. Students chose tasks like walking the dog, baking a cake, or going into the grocery store alone. The students then reported on their experience the next day to their classmates and teacher.

Eason explained the project allowed both kids and parents to discover just how capable the children are, especially for parents who came to realize their kids could do things they had not given them credit for before.

“Sometimes we hang on a little tighter than we need to and it’s actually ok to let go for a little bit,” she said.

In 2019, members of the task force introduced the issue of the need for free play to legislators in Hartford. Chasing Childhood includes scenes of Eason, Elias and others advocating for legislation that would make it easier for parents to feel comfortable giving their kids more independence. Wilton’s State Sen. Will Haskell, State Rep. Tom O’Dea, and former State Rep. Gail Lavielle were among the legislators who attempted to amend the wording of the child neglect statute to ensure that allowing children certain types of independence would not count as neglect. However, the CT Department of Children and Families could not come to an agreement with the advocates and the bill was eventually pulled.

Setbacks such as this are familiar to Witt, who told GMW that when she speaks to school district leaders and administrators about the positive effects of free play, most are in agreement that something should be done. However, state mandates and the ingrained, high-achieving culture remain burdensome obstacles for the movement.

“When there are established ideas about how society is supposed to function and how families are supposed to function, it’s hard to change those,” she said.

However difficult the challenges, Elias is proud of the work of the task force and of the Wilton community.

“We were one of the communities that were at the forefront of not only recognizing this problem but actually doing something about it,” she said.

Wurmfeld also praised the town’s efforts.

“Through my work in Wilton, I learned about the generosity of the community – and about the juxtaposition between wanting the very best for our kids, having resources to put to that end, and not always having it turn out as you hoped,” said Wurmfeld.

“We have been so impressed and inspired by the WYC and Free Play Task Force,” she continued. “It’s remarkable that the town of Wilton is reflecting on childhood today and actively trying to shift the broader culture. I’m really a huge fan of their work and hope more towns will take on these issues in an active way.”

Although the pandemic slowed the progress of the task force over the last year, it has exciting plans to promote free play this summer.

Elias is in the process of planning the next Wilton’s Big Block Party Weekend, an event she said was even more important in 2021 after a year of social distancing and decreased connection with neighbors. The last block party in 2019 united over 1,200 Wilton residents with the goal of promoting community connection and creating an opportunity for children’s free play.

Elias said most people want to get to know their neighbors but have trouble initiating contact. The block parties “give people permission to be in touch with neighbors without being awkward.”

The date for this year’s block party weekend is dependent on COVID-19 protocol from the state that has not yet been released.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Since first coming forward to talk publicly about her mental health struggles in a 2018 NPR article, Savannah Eason has seen the importance of speaking up about sensitive topics. She received much positive feedback from people who she said thanked her “for saying what nobody else would say.”

Savannah encourages people to name and address the problems that they know exist.

“In Harry Potter, they say, ‘Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself,’ and they’re talking about Lord Voldemort. But I think that sentiment is very true in almost every situation. This whole achievement culture and kids in Wilton and around the country being so unhappy… parents know that’s happening, it’s not really a secret, everybody knows, but when you refuse to talk about it, it’s scarier.”

That’s one important message in Chasing Childhood, she added.

“I would say to parents who maybe are nervous about watching this film, it’s going to be worth it. It’s empowering to know what you can do to make it better,” she said.

The task force is seeking the support of the community in its efforts to change the culture.

“We want people to engage in this movement with us because it’s a matter of our community’s general well-being,” Witt said. “If we’ve learned anything from COVID it’s that our well-being and what we’re feeling really does impact our entire family and then our bigger community.”

Chasing Childhood director Wurmfeld agreed. “I hope the audience will engage in conversation in their community about their own childhoods and about how they’re raising their kids. And if the culture of childhood today is as they want it to be –  if not, what can we do to shift it?”

The Wilton Youth Council is hosting a Chasing Childhood Q&A session on Thursday, April 22, 7 p.m. Panelists include director/producer Wurmfeld, Let Grow founder Lenore Skenazy, educator Dr. Michael Hynes, Genevieve Eason, and Savannah Eason. The Q&A will be moderated by Vicki Abeles, the director and producer of Race to Nowhere and Beyond Measure. Questions for the panel may be emailed in advance.