The Simple School Project That Sets Kids Free

Dear Readers:  School has begun, which means that at least one group of sixth graders is about to undergo an enormous, transformative experience. Hint: It does not involve filling in any bubbles with a #2 pencil.

It involves getting out into the world. As I’ve mentioned here before, every year, Joanna Drusin, an English teacher at a magnet school in Manhattan, has her students, age 11, do a “Free-Range Kids” project. That is, they can pick one thing that they think they are ready to do (that’s legal!) that, for some reason, they haven’t done till now.

Once they get their parents’ permission — and some kids can’t, which is why this project is extra credit and not a requirement — off they go to do the kinds of activities that might sound simple or scary, depending on how much local news you watch. Some walk the dog — alone. Some walk to school — alone. One made toast — alone. Here are some excerpts from the kids’ essays. This first is from a girl named Audrey:

“Going home by myself gave me many different feelings. I found it fun, because I was finally able to take the bus all by myself! Also, when I got off, I walked to my building — eight blocks in total. My fear of going home alone disappeared. I am so happy I forced myself (and I also forced my parents) to go  home alone. Now I am allowed to do it every day!”

See? Transformative. Here’s one from a boy named Andrew, whose mom allowed him to get a snack on his own:

“After the eternity of waiting, the school day is over. I think to myself: ‘Where to start? So many things to see!’ I figure that if I was going to be a new and independent me, I should try new things. So I go to the falafel place and order falafel with sour cream and salad. I have never eaten sour cream before. I feel nervous and I hate that. It is all because my parents always keep a really close eye on me. I’m so accustomed to them watching me that not being watched is abnormal. The pita sandwich finally comes. I have one bite of the sloppy mess and think, ‘OH. MY. GOD. FANTAAAAABULOUS!!’ It was one of the best meals I ever had. I eat until I notice my plate is empty.”

And now from a boy named Dan, who’s exaggerating his fears…I hope:

“Being 11, I feel more independent than ever. I have decided to risk my life and make an egg sandwich, all by myself, and eat it too. This task is harder than it may seem. I am going to use a flame to cook eggs, all independently…. I transfer the eggs to the pan. I am a little nervous now, since I can easily touch the flame right then and there.”

He manages to make the eggs, as well as the toast, even though, “in the process I could easily burn myself.”

He survives and eats the sandwich: “Yum.”

Last story, from a girl named Jane. See Jane go!

“Everyone says that when you’re on an adventure, you’ll travel far. I don’t believe this to be true. In fact, today my adventure led me to a neighborhood cafe, Cosi. I have been begging my parents to let me go somewhere on my own. Today, they finally caved. They send me off, cell phone in hand, and told me to have fun. I felt as if I was a bird who had broken free of her cage.”

Naturally she has to call her parents the second she arrives safely. But, it’s a start. All these adventures are. Maybe they seem small, even silly, but in a culture that has created mountains of fear around every childhood experience, these kids have started their climb. Pretty soon, they’ll be ready to fly. – L

To make an omelette -- or confident kid -- you've got to break some eggs.

To make an omelette — or confident kid — you’ve got to break some eggs.

40 Responses to The Simple School Project That Sets Kids Free

  1. Michael F September 16, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    hmmm…I do some of this for my 8 year old, he wanted to go to his friends for a playdate and asked me to call. I know the Dad is a free-range guy so I just told him to walk down, it’s 4 houses down our street to his friends house. Around a corner sure, but it’s a quiet street and I am ok with letting him walk down. He complained it was too far to go alone, so I walked with him taking our 3 year old as well and we walk, crossing the street safely and looking both ways (both kids) but when we get there the oldest didn’t want to knock, so the three year old runs up and rings the bell. Friend comes to the door then they go play…done.

    Not completely by himself but at least we didn’t call first!

  2. Mindy Cahill September 16, 2013 at 8:46 am #

    I am shocked that these scenarios are considered adventures for 11 year olds. Maybe it’s because don’t ‘t live In a city like NY, but I’ve bee teaching for 17 years and have 3 children and I’ve never personally met children that are this ridiculously overly-protected. I’d dare say I’d have an extremely difficult time finding an 11 year old that would consider cooking indecently or going alone to a store or friend’s house a major accomplishment. Possibly a 7 or 8 year old

  3. Andrew September 16, 2013 at 8:50 am #

    I wonder how long it will be before the non-free range parents complain that the free range kids are getting extra credit and their kids aren’t?

  4. Donna September 16, 2013 at 8:56 am #

    “finding an 11 year old that would consider cooking indecently … a major accomplishment.”

    I kinda hope that my daughter, when 11, doesn’t have any interest in cooking indecently, let alone think it is a major accomplishment.

    Sorry, I realize it was a typo. I just laughed when I read it.

  5. Rebecca Menes September 16, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Sixth Grade! More power to the teacher, but this is sad. I could certainly make an omelette by the sixth grade — and I had enough confidence in myself to know I wasn’t going to stick my hand into the flame and leave it there (“Oooh, what’s that burning smell?”) By the sixth grade I was commuting from Staten Island to Manhattan to go to a magnet middle school.

  6. Edward September 16, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    As a teacher, Ms Drusin must have an approved course plan for this school project from her Principal/District officials.
    A PLAN that could be distributed to other schools – from a TEACHER – not some annonymous internet blogger contributor.

    I’d be willing to contribute $500.00 to such a distribution effort.

    Any other regular contributors here care to put their money where there blogging is?

  7. Katja Rowell September 16, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    This is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Thank you for what you do!

  8. lollipoplover September 16, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    While I applaud any effort for kids to do things out of their comfort zone, I also weep for our youth.
    “I have decided to risk my life and make an egg sandwich”

    I may parent on the other end of the spectrum, but I had to draw the line with my 12yo this weekend when he and his buddies wanted to construct an America Ninja Warrior course in the woods and asked what number to call for an ambulance if someone fell out of a tree. Yeah, no. Just keep it on the groundI said.
    But an egg sandwich? And Cosi?
    Oy.

  9. Brenna September 16, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    These are 11 year olds? Really?? I weep for the future, if that’s the case. I just got my 7 year old two cookbooks, because she was tired of just making grilled cheese sandwiches and mac-n-cheese for dinner when she wants to cook. We reviewed hummus again last night, and she’s soon going to make that on her own, too. Food processor! Whirling blades – the HORROR! She’s also learning to use the sewing machine and the iron.

    Listening to the tone of these kids’ reports is heartbreaking, too. I hope their parents read them and realize how much they’ve been stifling their own kids.

  10. m September 16, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    Wow, to think I had a summer job when I was 12, working at a camp whose attendees were 3-5yrs…

  11. Papilio September 16, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    But why isn’t it required? Now parents who want to say no to everything still have that possibility, instead of having the obligation to sit with their child and talk about it until they find something to do that they’re all fine with.

    In my country, kids in 7th grade and up get themselves to school, period. 9 out of 10 cycle. The less practice kids have cycling, cycling alone (to school/friends/hobbies), cycling long distances (if they live far from the new school), cycling the new route to school, etc etc, the less safe they’ll be. Parents know that.
    In other words, even if parents don’t want their kids to grow up, the school/culture forces them to let go.

  12. Christina September 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    OMG, my heart just broke a little for these kids. My boys are 6 and make their own toast (including toppings). Are they messy? Oh, yeah – but that’s what the wet wipes are for (thank you Costco!), have they burned themselves? Yes – once, and then started paying attention to the toaster when it’s on. I imagine all too soon they will lose that little smile they get when they ask for toast and I tell them to help themselves, but hopefully not until I teach them how to use the slow cooker! 😉

  13. nancey September 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    This is a great idea. Of course if you live in Maine or NH, the challenges will be a little tougher. I met a couple of 8th graders at the pool once. One of them was attempting to dive off the high diving board as part of her challenge. No parents in sight, just one friend helping another by teaching her to overcome her fears. It took a while, but she did it finally! I hope the NYC students learn from these small challenges and continue to push themselves.

  14. Ali September 16, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    The boy has never tried sour cream before…because he’s under the watchful eye of his parents. My heart broke a little for him.

    I’ll take this as an opportunity to pat myself on the back since both my kids make their own breakfast and lunch during the school week. (2nd and 4th grade) They have tastes that run different to my own like olives, for instance. My DS loves olives, I hate them, but they’re stocked in the fridge just for him. I can’t imagine trying to keep my kids so stifled that they eat the same things I do and do only what I tell them to do. That’s no way to live.

  15. Brenna September 16, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    And it only leads to this:

    http://www.today.com/money/heres-career-tip-leave-mom-dad-home-8C11147746

  16. Beth September 16, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    @Edward, Lenore is anything but an anonymous blogger. Her name and photo are right on the top of the site, for pete’s sake! Her site also contains information about her speaking engagements, her TV show, and her house calls. I’m not sure where you got the idea she’s anonymous.

  17. Edward September 16, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

    Beth,
    I mean US, the comments are pretty much anonymous and it’s where a lot of ideas come from. A school board must have documented proof from reliable sources and the’re more likely to accept that from a professional teacher than us. And certainly Lenore’s endorsement would be a big plus.
    Lenore is well aware of my high regard for her efforts.

  18. Stephanie September 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    I’m so glad my kids have done most of this. I still have to push for them to go to the store or something like that on their own, but it’s a bit of a long walk, so they haven’t pushed for it. They always walk to school on their own, and today even have some friends coming home with them who don’t live within walking distance of the school, so it will be a first for those kids. I keep reminding my kids to invite their friends over to play, not only because they need more time with friends over, but because it’s a charter school and only a few of the kids live close enough to walk to the school, so I like seeing who will let their kids walk less than a quarter mile without supervision. 3rd and 6th grade, but I don’t get takers very often (don’t know how often the kids invite their friends, though).

    My kids’ next goal in the kitchen is to get comfortable with the oven. They’re sufficiently fine with the stove, but still find the oven intimidating. Hoping to have a quiet homework day soon so they can make cupcakes. I figure that should be motivation to deal with the oven.

  19. martha September 16, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

    @Edward,

    I don’t have $500, but I do have $20. If someone put up a Kickstarter campaign for this, I bet a lot of bloggers would post the link.

  20. Rachel September 16, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    I think that’s around the age I first started baking cookies by myself and the only holdup was cracking eggs. They’re yucky and messy and bits of shell could get in your batter! So if that were the issue for eggboy I’d be pretty understanding. But a magnetic attraction to flame? A little disturbing.

    I’ll keep this project in mind if/when my kid stalls on the “try new things” track.

  21. rhodykat September 16, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    I read this just after I let my 8yo take his first “significant” bike ride alone. Over a mile. County roads. No sidewalks. Kicking and screaming because I insisted that the helmet strap be tight and the helmet on his head correctly, else he lose the privilege in the future. What saddens me is that the first thing all the kids above went after was food…shows how much the parents control them….eek!

  22. Edward September 16, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    Let me explain my money offer a bit more.
    The original post is intended to show us all a success story. But the only two words in it that jumped out at me were “teacher” and “school”. I’ve previously commented on this site that these ideas we have need to get to the kids in there schools. This is after all where the visiting police officer teaches them about “strangers”.
    In emails to Lenore I have lamented that I can’t think of a way to help her cause from my personal circumstances.
    A professional educator with a working plan in a school needs to get that plan out to every school. And if developing a proper presentation package and shipping it out is all that’s stopping that, I’m willing to put up that $500.00 to get it started.
    As I said above, that plan must be done by a teacher. I’ll bet there are school boards that have liability insurance clauses stating they must use approved professional curriculum.
    As for Martha’s idea of using one of those crowd sourcing/funding sites – someone with a lot more internet savvy than me will have to look into that along with the programs developers and Lenore of course.
    And finally; I don’t normally have $500.00 to toss around like this but I’m supposed to be enjoying a week long vacation in Florida right now but had to cancel it.
    Also, as I’ve told Lenore before – I know this lady with a cause.

  23. Andy September 16, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    The list of things these kids were allowed to do is both encouraging and sad. Take a solo bus ride? Try a new menu item? Make an egg sandwich? These were seen as perfectly normal things to do when I was a kid, not achievements. What has our society done to our kids? Time to hit the bottle again.

  24. Karen September 16, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    Wow. I let my 11-year old daughter, start to finish, make banana bread, scramble or hard-boil eggs, cut and saute mushrooms, bake cookies, use the stove, oven, blender, stand mixer….

    stay home alone for short stretches of time, play outside in the neighborhood for hours on end….

    So, I’m doing it right, yes? Despite the fact that I’m an apparent anomaly?

  25. Kenny Felder September 16, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    This is one of the coolest things I have ever, ever heard.

  26. Gina September 16, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

    @Lollipopover: Thank you for today’s chuckle.. 🙂 Your son wanted to know how to call an ambulance???!?!?!? I LOVE IT!

  27. Taradlion September 16, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

    @Nancey- not sure challenges are “tougher” in NH…different, maybe. What is challenging to one kid, may be easy for another. My son (born and raised in NYC) has been jumping off high dives (and HIGH jumping rocks) since he was six. This was long before he started going alone to the store(s) across the street here in NYC (age 9), but age six is around the time he rode his bike around the block with his cousin when we were in “the country” (small town) visiting Grandma.

    Every kid is different, my daughter at 11years old was riding the NYC subway solo to and from school and to meet friends (something most kids from NH arent going to do on their own) but, unlike my son, she was nervous on the high dive.

    While I agree, some things on the list probably should not be challenging for any 11year old, like cooking an egg (my son loves to cook and has been making his own eggs since age 7), environment (where you live) and what kids have experienced are factors.

  28. Susan2 September 16, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    I think this is a great idea, and I love how the teacher made it into a fun assignment rather than just chastising parents for holding their kids on too tight a leash.

    I also think the commenters should cut the students’ parents some slack. I know adults who won’t travel into Manhattan alone, so the fact that parents don’t let their 10-11 year old kids do it isn’t that weird to me. We don’t live in Manhattan, but do visit fairly frequently, and I only let my kids go a block or so without me. I live in a much smaller city, and only around age 9 did I let my kids wander off our street without me, and most other parents consider me very free range.

  29. Laura W September 16, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

    I love this challenge! I think it’s really cool to see into the mind of a child, and see what they think of as freedom. I think I’m doing great and that my kids are pretty free range, but there are areas in life that my guys would probably be able to handle, but I just haven’t thought of allowing them to try. What an awesome teacher for giving the challenge!

  30. Cynthia812 September 16, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    Taradlion- Maybe I was reading it wrong, but I assumed Nancey meant it was tougher to find a variety of things in a rural setting. Like, you can’t walk to the corner store if it’s 5 miles away, or go to the museum if it’s in the next town over and there’s no bus service, that kind of thing.

  31. charlene September 16, 2013 at 10:44 pm #

    I love it! As soon as my kids showed interest I started teaching them how to cook. Now at 6 my son is making refried beans and chips for a snack and scrambled eggs when he wants them but I don’t have time. Our goal as parents is to teach our kids to be self sufficient and ready to take care of themselves before they are 18. My grandfather lived on his own when he was 12. If my kids can’t take care of themselves by 18, and they don’t have some sort of disability, I have failed!

  32. Staceyjw September 17, 2013 at 4:41 am #

    Love the idea, but I admit I am a bit shocked by the projects they did. (I also think the egg one is a come on.) If these kids were in preK, or kindergarten, that would be different, but 6th grade? That’s nearing baby sitter territory! My 3 yr old is probably more capable than most of those kids, and he just tuned 3 in August.

    We live in apartments, and he walks to his friends house a few doors down/ across the parking lot, to see if they can play. They do the same. He loves his bike, and ALL the kids play/ ride bikes in mixed age groups of kids age 3-10. *No parents are riding with them*- parents of the littlest ones (like me) will watch (all kids) from the sidelines (from windows/doors, or sitting on sidewalk), and many more adults and parents are within earshot, and also paying attention. The kids also watch each other, and if my DS/DD stray even a little, another kid is sure to alert me.

    He is also very independent in the home, and loves to help, and “do it myself!”. You can see the pride of accomplishment on his face when he does a task without help. He has a decent list of chores to do around the house, from laundry and taking out trash to feeding animals and clearing the dinner table. He can also: make a PBnJ, get himself/DH/DD a drink, fully dress himself with shoes, help me with cooking (stirring, measuring), sort recycling, and so much more.

    If he gets into our first choice school, he will be walking or biking the .5 miles, *just like I did* in Kindergarten. It’s actually on our street, but you do have to cross a major road- it’s near identical to the route I took at age 5 (he will be 6). He would be too small for a city bus at that age, but walking/biking is fine. Hopefully, he will have another kid to walk/ ride with!

  33. Jen (P.) September 17, 2013 at 9:03 am #

    @Brenna . . . wow, so many disturbing things here (http://www.today.com/money/heres-career-tip-leave-mom-dad-home-8C11147746), but the equivocation in the employers’ comments really stands out to me–as in “I THINK . . . it can hurt the candidates’ chances” and “I THINK that situations like that might actually be hurting your chances to land the job that you want” and “when a parent goes beyond coaching and is actually calling the company on a child’s behalf, that CAN start to hurt the child’s reputation.” I’ve yet to encounter a parent interfering in his child’s professional life, but if/when I do, you can rest assured the disapproval will be communicated more clearly.

  34. Papilio September 17, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    “@Edward, Lenore is anything but an anonymous blogger. Her name and photo are right on the top of the site, for pete’s sake!”

    Eh… That photo could use an update though… It’s like 5 years old? Different haircut. Different glasses…

    *expects to be kicked off this blog in 3… 2… 1…* 😛

    This photo http://tinyurl.com/k2h2qky makes me smile back 😀

  35. Lauren September 17, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    I have to agree. Some of those projects were way too easy for 6th graders. What the heck is happening to our kids! I grew up overseas and in 6th grade, the entire grade raised money then went on a 2-week safari to Kenya! Yes, there were chaperones, but we weren’t constantly being watched. We wandered around on our own because we weren’t complete idiots.

  36. Taradlion September 17, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

    @Cynthia- maybe. I re-read, but was responding to ” I hope the NYC students learn from these small challenges and continue to push themselves”…not that I disagree that making sn egg sandwhich is a small challenge for 6th graders in NYC or anywhere.

  37. Ange September 18, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    Good grief, some kids lead sheltered lives. My daughters have pretty much had the run of the kitchen for years – one of them loves cooking and does all our family’s baking. The older one doesn’t much like cooking, but both have made their own lunch since they were about 7 or 8 years.

    Just the other day when I mentioned to my friend that my 17 year old was on school camp, my friend asked had I packed her bags – she still does this for her 17 year old. I was stunned. I just assumed my daughter was competent enough to pack what she needed.

  38. David Buchner September 20, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    This is great. 🙂 Another thing I notice, is that these kids are pretty darn good writers. Those were fun to read.

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