“The Free-Range Kids ProjectÂ [now called The Let Grow Project] sent waves through our parent community — good waves that educators like to see, because it gave our kids a chance to become more independent.” –– Michael Simpson, Head of Lower School, Greenhill School, Dallas
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The School Project that Changes Parents as Much as Kids
(This article appeared in The Atlantic)Â
by Lenore Skenazy
Most school field trips are to places the students might never go on their own: a museum, a play, a nature preserve. The idea is to open kids wide to the wonderful world. This past spring one grammar school in Silicon Valley started sending kids to a very different, but equally mind-blowing place: their own neighborhood.
On their own. Without an adult.
The idea was to get children walking around, playing outside, biking to the libraryâ€”just normal kid stuff. Or at least, what was normal kid stuff. Today, only 13 percent of U.S. children walk to school. One study found that only 6 percent of kids age 9-13 play outside in a given week.
Thatâ€™s not just sad, itâ€™s a radical new norm: childhood spent under constant adult supervision, and, often enough, in a car. The results wreak havoc on kidsâ€™ bodies, the environment, and any parent with hopes and dreams beyond the minivan.Â With national attention focused on climate change, childhood obesity and â€œleaning in,â€ less chaperoning seems like a win-win-win solution: decreased emissions, increased exercise, and more time for moms (and dads) to focus on something other than how slowly the after-school pick up line is moving.
And considering the crime rate today is lower than when most of those parents were growing upâ€”itâ€™s back to the rate it was 40+ years agoâ€”why shouldnâ€™t kids be doing anything on their own? At least, kids in neighborhoods not wracked by shootings and drugs, where going outside unsupervised presents a real danger? Thatâ€™s where the Free-Range Kids project comes in.
Quick backstory/disclaimer: The project is named for my book and blog, Free-Range Kids, which I began after a column I wrote for The New York Sunâ€”â€œWhy I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Aloneâ€â€”went viral. A sixth-grade New York City public school teacher read it and asked me to visit with her students.
Meantime, she gave them the assignment: Do something like Lenoreâ€™s son did. Something new, on your own, that you feel ready to do. Just first make sure your parents approve! And so her students did great things: They took their younger siblings to soccer, made dinner for their familyâ€”one kid even got herself out of bed and to the bus stop on her own, no prodding, after years of making her mom beg her to get up and get going. And after that breakthrough day? She got up on her own every morning.
Of course, kids could conceivably propose crazy ideas. One year a boy made a raft that leaked as he sailed his local pond. He lived to write the essay. But since parental approval is required, parents can and should modify plans that are dangerous (or just plain dumb).
My favorite kid decided his project would be to pick up his younger brother. So when school let out, he hopped on the city busâ€”first time ever on his ownâ€”and started the ride. But â€¦ nothing looked familiar. In fact, things keep looking weirder and weirder. He had no idea where he was going and, as he admitted to the class, finally he got so scared â€œI was ready to scream at the bus driver!â€
And considering the crime rate today is lower than when most of those parents were growing up, why shouldn’t kids be doing anything on their own?
Instead, he held it together and asked the bus driver what was happening. The driver said, â€œOh! You meant to go downtown but this is the uptown bus! All you have to do is get off, go one block over, and take the bus going the other direction.â€ He gave the boy a transfer.
As he was telling the class this story, the boy said, â€œActually, I still have it.â€ He got out his wallet and showed us the slim slip of paper.
â€œWhy do you carry it with you?â€ I asked. After all, it represented a day of terror and humiliation. (I didnâ€™t put it that way.) The boy just shrugged. But then, of course, I realized what the transfer really represented: freedom. Independence. Courage. Heâ€™d been scared out of his wits, on the verge of a public tantrum, but he had triumphed. The transfer was proof. His golden ticket! It gave him the confidence to go anywhere from now on, because he knew that even if he screwed up or felt scared, heâ€™d be okay.
â€œNow imagine if his mom had come with him,â€ I said to an auditorium full of Silicon Valley parents at a lecture I gave there last spring. â€œSheâ€™d have gotten them on the right bus, no problem. Would the boy remember that afternoon â€¦ forever?â€
Afterward, the administrators at Oak Knoll, one of the local grammar schools, came up to me and said: We want to do a project like that. Oak Knollâ€™s theme for the year was confidence and clearly The Project dovetailed perfectly. So the school sent its 700 parents an email announcing the undertaking, along with some materials by me saying basically the same thing youâ€™ve just read: Kids donâ€™t get a chance to do much on their own, but when they do, it changes them. So why not encourage your son or daughter to do a completely voluntary, ungraded Free-Range Kids Project?
I donâ€™t know how many kids begged their parents, â€œPleeeeease!â€ but about a third of the parents signed on and, reports co-principal Kristen Gracia, â€œIt was a huge success.â€ With the schoolâ€™s endorsement, even anxious parents were willing to loosen the reins a little. They let their kids ride their bikes to the park, play at the playgrounds unsupervised, take hikes, bake cookies, run errandsâ€”for a couple weeks, the highest tech place on earth was a throwback to 1972.
But the most amazing part was not the transformation of the kids or even the neighborhood. It was the transformation of the parents.
â€œThis has really changed our lives!â€ wrote a mom named Gina on a post-project survey the school sent home. Sheâ€™d allowed her fifth grade son to go to the store by himself and when he came back quickly, as sheâ€™d requested, she had proof positive that he was willing to be responsible. Since then, she wrote, â€œAlmost all that we do now is an opportunity to be Free-Range. We did many â€˜Projects.â€™ He baked brownies alone, he comes home now on his bike after school, and he is responsible for his swim bag (if he forgets his wet suit, oh wellâ€”soggy, cold and wet for practice!). Thank you!â€
Miracle-Gro for confidenceÂ
A third graderâ€™s project involved talking to the cashier in a shop (ok, the American Girl storeâ€”look, itâ€™s Silicon Valley). Sheâ€™d never done this on her own before but the whole thing, she wrote, â€œWent great and fast!â€ Her mom, Melissa Engelkemier, added that she could see the effect on her daughterâ€™s confidence, even at school. â€œBefore, there were a couple of times people had asked her if she wanted to do a book review on KNOLâ€â€”thatâ€™s the schoolâ€™s closed circuit TV show. â€œBut sheâ€™d said no, because she was too nervous. But afterward, she was asked to do an announcement of the volleyball game, and she said she felt she was brave enough to make the announcement to the whole school.â€
The project was so successful in so many homesâ€”â€œThank you for organizing this!â€ wrote one mom. â€œCan we do it more often?â€ wrote a dadâ€”the school will be doing it again this year.
â€œItâ€™s like we provided them a new lens to look through,â€ says co-principal Gracia. â€œEven parents whose kids didnâ€™t do the full project started asking themselves, â€˜Why am I afraid? Is it something I really need to be nervous about?â€™ It was very powerful.â€
The Oak Knoll kids went to 1972 and came back changed. Thatâ€™s a field trip they wonâ€™t forget.
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