Filling a vacuum — literally
Sometime in the misty past, parents possessed a sort of road map. Collectively they pretty much knew at about what age their kids could or should start running errands, getting places by themselves, babysitting, etc.
The 1979 book, “Your Six-Year Old: Loving and Defiant” even included a list of milestones for parents to consult when their child was about to enter first grade, including:
Can you child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives?
Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?
Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?
Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?
Where has all that independence gone?
Unfortunately, decades of living in a culture obsessed with scaring parents about unlikely dangers has erased this kind of checklist from our collective memory. So kudos to the Milburn school district in New Jersey for helping parents and kids re-normalize some childhood independence.
They’re doing this by assigning The Let Grow Project throughout the year. The Project – which is free, download it here – gives students the “homework” assignment: Go home and do something new, on your own, without your parents. It comes with a list of suggestions – climb a tree, make breakfast, visit a neighbor — but of course, the possibilities are endless.
A cheerful way to tackle student anxiety
The permutations are endless, too. The Project can be tweaked a million ways by educators and counselors. What Milburn’s middle school guidance counselors Dominick Pisa and Lauren Bach did was to assign a different type of Project each month: A month for kids to do some Projects helping at home, a month for kids to explore the neighborhood, a month for kids to do something kind for the world, etc.
“We had been working as a round table with several different districts’ counseling departments,” says Pisa. A recurring theme was student anxiety. “We said, ‘Let’s do something that helps.’ I had just been to the Let Grow website, so I said, ‘As a matter of fact, there’s this thing going on on Long Island” – Let Grow’s pilot site – “and everybody’s really into it. It addresses the idea of resilience and anxiety, but it wasn’t all about the anxiety. It was really what we thought the kids were missing.”
“Kids are so stressed in regard to academics,” adds Bach. “They are aiming for perfection.”
The goal was to give kids back the confidence that comes from some independence.
Getting student buy-in
To get the sixth graders psyched to participate in The Project, they invited the coolest people on earth to present it: eighth graders. “It was the endorsement of the older kids that really sold it,” says Bach.
And the result?
Most recently, in help-around-the-house month, kids started doing chores they hadn’t done before: Setting the table, washing the dishes, doing the laundry.
These are simple tasks, but there is something about being a helper, not just a getter, that makes anyone feel good. Being seen as more competent and grown-up by their parents is another big boost. But maybe biggest of all was the chance to do something for school that was not academic. The Project allows teachers, students and parents to celebrate real-world firsts, not just A’s in algebra.
“Even small things were accomplishments,“ says Bach.
Next month’s Let Grow Project is all about health. If you start seeing a bunch of happy kids running around Milburn, NJ, literally, you will know why. They’re running toward independence.