Johann Hari on The Let Grow Project: “Amazing!”

Kids are online all the time because we don't let them out to explore.

Johann Hari is author of the bestsellers “Chasing the Scream” and “Lost Connections.” His YouTube videos have been watched tens of millions of times. And now he has a new book out, “Stolen Focus,” about how distraction is driving us to distraction.

How can parents help their kids regain or retain a sense of focus in the real world — and a sense of confidence and curiosity, too? Is there a silver bullet for kids who seem a little lost or passive?

As Johann tells Andrew Sullivan on this podcast (hop to 56 minutes in), he believes there is. Johann and I went to visit two schools doing The Let Grow Project. That’s where kids are given the homework assignment: “Go home and do something new on your own, without your parents.” One was a Title 1 (high poverty) elementary school, the other an upper-middle class middle school. Both were on Long Island. (Long Island is our favorite Let Grow lab and launch pad!)

Johann says the experiences left him so amazed and hopeful, he wants EVERY. SINGLE. SCHOOL. to do The Let Grow Project — and its corollary The Let Grow Play Club (schools stay open before or after school for mixed-age, device-free, loose-parts free play).

How it feels to grow up overprotected

He tells the story of one boy, 14, strapping and smart, who had never been allowed to leave the house alone. His parents were too scared he could be kidnapped, even though they live in an upscale hamlet.

Once the young man was assigned the Let Grow Project, however, his parents had no choice: Their son had to start doing some things on his own. After his first few Projects, he decided he would go into the woods and build a fort. His friends helped out.

And now?

That is their club house.

A passive kid reborn

They get no cell phone reception there, and that seems to be part of the draw. They are focused now — on the fun they have, the friendships they’re cementing, the jokes. And on the nature surrounding them.

They are doing something every generation of kids has done almost since the dawn of time — making shelter, playing, bonding.

As Johann tells Andrew Sullivan:

“We’ve got to do this. To deal with attention problems, one of the things we’ve got to do is restore a childhood that our ancestors would recognize as a human childhood.” By letting go, our children can grow connected to the world, not just their devices.

The “Stolen Focus” book has a whole chapter on Let Grow filled with stories of kids basically revived from their tech-induced comas, simply by being given something even more exciting than a phone:

The world, and friends to explore it with.

To give kids back their focus, give them back their independence

Yes, we hope you will witness this breakthrough with your own children. Here is the link to The Let Grow Project Implementation Guide. It is free. So is the Let Grow Play Club Guide. If you’d like to see the “home version” of The Project, here’s our Let Grow Independence Kit. Free too. And, heck, here’s our Let Grow Kid I.D. card for your children to carry in a pocket. (Yep, free.)

Please tell us what happens when you give your kids or students the gift of the real world. Really — send a note to [email protected], or join our Facebook group, Raising Independent Kids. We expect great stories.

Portrait photo credit: Kathrin Baumbach