IMPORTANT! The Free-Range Kids Project for Schools

Readers adzrbdkdtd
— This is a piece I wrote for the New America Foundation that got picked up by the Atlantic. Thrilling! I am very hopeful that  if schools start endorsing this project, it sends the message to parents and the community that Free-Ranging is more than legit. It’s transformative for everyone involved. PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD! – L.  

Silicon Valley Parents Send Their Kids Back to 1972, 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 library — just normal kid stuff. Or at least, what WAS normal kid stuff. Today, only 13% of US children walk to school. One study found that only 6% of kids age 9-13 play outside in a given week.

That’s not just sad, it’s a radical new norm: childhood spent under constant adult supervision, and, often enough, in a car…. Considering the crime rate today is LOWER than when most of those parents were growing up — it’s back to the rate it was 40+ years ago — why shouldn’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? That’s where the Free-Range Kids project comes in.

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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 Sun“Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone”—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 Lenore’s son did. Something 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 family—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….

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My favorite kid decided his project would be to pick up his younger brother. So when school let out, he hopped on the city bus — first time ever on his own — and started the ride. But — 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 “I was ready to scream at the bus driver!”

Instead, he held it together and asked the bus driver what was happening. The driver said, “Oh! 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.” He gave the boy a transfer.

As he was telling the class this story, the boy said, “Actually, I still have it.” He got out his wallet and showed us the slim slip of paper.

*

“Why do you carry it with you?” I asked. After all, it represented a day of terror and humiliation. (I didn’t put it that way.) The boy just shrugged. But then, of course, I realized what the transfer really represented:

Freedom. Independence. Courage. He’d been scared out of his wits, on the verge of a very 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, he’d be okay.

“Now imagine if his mom had come with him,” I said to an auditorium full of Silicon Valley parents at a lecture I gave there last spring. “She’d have gotten them on the right bus, no problem. Would the boy remember that afternoon…forever?”

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 Knoll’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 you’ve just read: Kids don’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 don’t know how many kids begged their parents, “Pleeeeease!” but about a third of the parents signed on and, reports co-principal Kristen Gracia, “It was a huge success.” With the school’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 errands — 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.

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“This has really changed our lives!” wrote a mom named Gina on a post-project survey the school sent home. She’d allowed her fifth grade son to go to the store by himself and when he came back quickly, as she’d requested, she had proof positive that he was willing to be responsible. Since then, she wrote, “Almost all that we do now is an opportunity to be Free-Range. We did many ‘Projects.’ 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 well — soggy, cold and wet for practice!). Thank you!”

A third grader’s project involved talking to the cashier in a shop (okay, the American Girl store — look, it’s Silicon Valley). She’d never done this on her own before but the whole thing, she wrote, “Went great and fast!” Her mom, Melissa Engelkemier, added that she could see the effect on her daughter’s confidence, even at school. “Before, there were a couple of times people had asked her if she wanted to do a book review on KNOL” — that’s the school’s closed circuit TV show. “But she’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.”

The project was so successful in so many homes — “Thank you for organizing this!” wrote one mom. “Can we do it more often?” wrote a dad — the school will be doing it again this year.

“It’s like we provided them a new lens to look through,” says co-principal Gracia. “Even parents whose kids didn’t do the full project started asking themselves, ‘Why am I afraid? Is it something I really need to be nervous about?’ It was very powerful.”

The Oak Knoll kids went to 1972 and came back changed. That’s a field trip they won’t forget.

 

Can you really send your kids back in time?

Kids, you’re going back to my childhood today. 

 

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12 Responses to IMPORTANT! The Free-Range Kids Project for Schools

  1. julie October 15, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    I assigned kids independent reading projects in my class. They had to take an idea from the book they were reading and create an experience from it. No dioramas no collages allowed. The response was amazing. A student who invited her mother and grandmother to a tea party where they discussed how Nancy Drew had changed over three generations, a student who took the bus downtown to shop,some cooking,rock climbing.. but my favourite…. a boy who read The Last Man in the Woods..who decided to spend the weekend alone in the woods behind his house with nothing but his pocket knife and a camera to document his adventure…his mother thanked me so much for opening her sons imagination to the possibility of his strengths.

  2. no rest for the weary October 15, 2014 at 11:50 am #

    On the one hand, I am glad for this getting press and if one more nervous parent opens themselves up to the reality of what growth and progress actually look like for grade-school-aged kids, well, that’s a great thing.

    On the other hand, I just shake my head with disbelief, again, at how such simple, basic aspects of living have become off-limits to a whole generation… until their PARENTS are ready for them to experience them. Which might be… never.

    I have a 13-year-old son. He has enormous drive and talent as an athlete. We live in a smallish town where adult-run sports clubs are so rent by politics that the kids have trouble reaching their full potential, so I have been scanning the horizon for other opportunities.

    Like being a boarder at a sports academy about 6 hours away. Or billeting with a coach in another country while attending a high school where there is a super-high-level team and excellent training in his sport.

    I asked him if he’d be ready to do these things next year. His answer was an unequivocal YES. I told him that it is rare these days to have the combination of a KID who is ready to leave home, an opportunity for the kid, and, most importantly, to have a PARENT who is “ready to let the child go.”

    I told him that many parents of his fellow athletes here would NEVER consider “letting their child go.” That if they heard I was willing, they would say, “I love my child too much to let them go.”

    I said to him, “I love you too much NOT to let you go, if it is what you want, and you are going to be pursuing your dream to do what you love. We don’t have to be in the same town to have a close relationship.”

    I also told him that some kids from around here get to college in Division One schools, they have scholarships, and they flake out because, well, see above, in Lenore’s post. Two thirds of the kids in that school DIDN’T take the challenge (er, I mean their PARENTS didn’t take the challenge). And what of the schools where there isn’t even an invitation to do something like this?

    I told my son that if he has already successfully lived away from home as a high school student, he will be that much more attractive to D1 schools considering athletes for their programs.

    When it comes down to they hyper-competitive world of sports, the kids who have been allowed to develop into ADULTS are going to have the edge.

    P.S. This is my child’s dream, not mine. I come from nerds and musicians. I wanted him to be in musical theatre and circus arts. But he wanted to be on a sports team from pretty much the time he could walk. This, to me, is what parenting is: to support a kid to find his authentic role to play in life, regardless of our own goals, fears and apprehensions we might be tempted to lay on the kid. It’s their life! We have a sacred role to play. Protector, yes, but I think of it as “protector of the dream.” To do what I can to help him navigate this world, not shy away from it!

  3. Doug October 15, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    Lenore, this is great and I will propose it at my kids’ school. Just this weekend we all went to the park and they wanted to stay longer than me, so they did, and guess what, they walked home safely and without incident, except that they ran into some friends they met at camp who might be moving in down the street.

    I am surprised that in your arguments for free ranging and how low-risk it is you do not cite the fact that just about everyone now carries a phone (with a high-definition video camera) in their pocket, so alerting authorities is that much easier than when we were kids. Is there a reason for not noting that?

  4. Miha October 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

    This story takes me back to being a summer camp organizer for a coed camping (tents, cooking, fie) for 8-12 year olds: The high light for everyone was an organized haik (rooted in scouts movment in germany, …)for the kids getting send to a 3 day+2nights scavenger hunt in the area, having to be a group, solving clues and find (a little pre-organized) sleeping modalities in the farmers barn, …
    The parents, who we re-met in an after the camp get together months after the camp, told us amzing stories about their kids doing dishes, cooking, being so grown, etc…. Was fun for evryone

  5. Reziac October 15, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Yes! This is how it’s supposed to be!

    I think I mentioned in another comment a little girl I saw shopping at Walmart, all by herself — probably just getting ready to enter first grade. She examined the primary school supplies, evidently found them all wanting, and eventually selected nothing. Already a careful shopper and capable of being responsible for herself.

  6. Steve October 15, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    Lenore, this is great.

    I hope that that “1/3” of participating students jumps up to 2/3 the next time. The momentum is bound to “shame” non-participants into feeling left out. And when you have one school doing this, other schools will hopefully follow. Schools are good at following, but not innovating.

  7. lollipoplover October 15, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

    “It’s like we provided them a new lens to look through”

    You gave them permission to use their brains.
    Being trusted to do something on their own is one of the best ways to build confidence. Giving kids freedom, baby steps really, to bike to parks and play with friends outside, builds their executive function to handle situations without requiring adult interventions. This is called growing up.

  8. Jen October 15, 2014 at 3:36 pm #

    One thing I want to mention in regards to kids not walking to school anymore: a lot of kids no longer live within walking distance. With more and more schools closing, the districts are getting a lot larger. We live more than 5 miles from the elementary school and we don’t live in a rural area. So I am wondering if the statistics are a bit skewed by that? Just an idea…

  9. hineata October 15, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    Agree with No Rest For The Weary – this is both great and sad at the same time….Thank goodness kids having the freedom to be out in the street is still normal in most of the world. Now, those same kids actually getting out into the streets is another story!

    It does all pay off in the end, though. Boy, who just turned 18 a wee while ago, will be off to tertiary study in a few months. The other day he mentioned getting accepted into a couple of programmes. I realised then that apart from proof-reading one application, and signing a paper I think, I have had nothing to do with the process. Of course, maybe getting into universities in the States is more complicated than here, but I keep reading about all the work parents do to get their kids into ‘school’. Start ’em young, and even the nervy types (which Boy still is) should be able to do things by themselves….

  10. serena October 15, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    Wow, this is a throwback for me because I actually grew up and went to school very near Oak Knoll. We were in the Las Lomitas school district which is the district next to Oak Knoll. Even back in the 70’s and 80’s that whole area was like Mayberry. We even went away for the weekend a couple of times leaving the front door or garage door open y accident and returned home to a house undisturbed. It seems weird to me now that helicopter parenting happens there because I guess I thought things would never change in my hometown. But I’m very happy to see so many people embracing the free-range ideal there.

  11. Crystal October 16, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    Yes! More stories like this please!

  12. JP Merzetti October 16, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    The national statistics reflecting the percentages of kids who walk to school and play outside are horrific.
    Much of this is dictated by the design of the public realm.
    (Increasingly adverse to pedestrianism.)
    But not all.

    This past summer, I returned to my hometown. What I remembered as a smallish and very walkable city is still virtually intact, and architecturally well-preserved. What was very noticeable by its abscence – was kids on the street. Locals filled me in. Except for one or two Roman Catholic ‘separate’ schools….most kids within the city proper are now bussed to larger regional schools on the outskirts.
    But being summer holidays, this didn’t explain completely the lack of kids out and about. The place felt like a ghost town. Lots of traffic….but the great hoardes of kids roaming around town, as it was when I grew up – were gone.
    It felt so strange. It is still an infinitely walkable place. So all this “walkability” is just…going to waste.
    Ironically – I walked. Must have put in about 50 miles.
    (at about the same rate I did as a kid.)
    What I should have done was rent a bike!

    Upon reflection from this experience – I realized something that was driven home powerfully. Kids on the street give a certain life and vitality to a community. Nothing can replace this. It is like the community saying to itself, “We are multi-generationally present, engaged, included, and involved in a constantly changing evolution.”
    I believe this is important.

    So where were all the kids? Chauffeured, at home engaged with techonology, otherwise not physically active and independently mobile. In a place easy to be so.

    But the difference: When I was a kid, had I been shy and retiring, or unmotivated – I would have been shooed outdoors by irritated adults. A child’s place was out in fresh air, not underfoot.
    The result was 40 or 50 “adventures” a week.
    We didn’t even really think of them as adventures. It was just a natural and normal existence.

    I recall a number of years ago, in the smallish town of Monticello, Iowa – allowing my two stepsons an unaccompanied excursion down its main street…for about a half hour. They were 11 and 9 at the time. And had never before had that experience. After that, their confidence and desire to do this (in their own smaller town) increased in leaps and bounds.
    Perhaps that’s part of the problem. Rather than this evolving at a natural pace from a young age – when it is sprung on kids who are older – it seems like such a drama, when in fact, it’s perfectly natural, normal, ordinary (or should be!)

    The story about the little girl as a discriminating WalMart shopper….made me laugh. That kid will go far!