Lost Learning: The Age of Bubble-Wrapped Kids
BY LENORE SKENAZY/School Administrator, June 2019

Parent Lenore Skenazy has gained a national following for her movement that promotes loosening the tight reins on children’s personal activities.
Most veteran educators, indeed most adults, fondly recall their childhoods spent playing outside with friends, climbing trees or riding their bikes until the streetlights came on. Another generation from now, those activities might sound akin to helping mom churn butter or running off to trap muskrats.

The culture of childhood is always changing, of course. Yet for many of today’s kids, any semblance of independence has been replaced by supervised, structured activities from Kumon to karate.

Recently, I interviewed about 20 suburban elementary school students, asking them what would they really love to do on their own — what would thrill them?

“I want to go to judo by myself,” one 3rd-grade boy responded.

“How would you get there?” I asked. “Bike? Skateboard? Walk?”

He looked a little perplexed. “I would open the car door. Look boooooth ways,” he said with a pantomime. “And then I would walk into the class while my mom parked the car.”

His dream of independence was about 87 seconds without his mom.

Sheltered Lives
If he was the only one dreaming like that, he’d just be some sad, sheltered kid. But in fact, he is pretty representative. Today, about 11 percent of youngsters walk to school, according to Safe Routes to Schools. Upon dismissal, or “pickup” as it’s now known (a telling neologism), legions of youngsters head to another adult-led activity. Of course, nothing is wrong with learning chess or lacrosse or another skill. But there is something very wrong with kids losing almost every chance to make something happen on their own.

“Nothing we do, no amount of toys we buy or ‘quality time’ or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away,” Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, wrote in his book Free to Learn. “The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”

During free play — also known as goofing around — kids are tasked first of all with coming up with something to do. That’s creativity. If they make a tree house, that involves risk assessment and bravery. And if they get into some arguments and have to work it out, that may be the most important social-emotional skill of all — learning how to get along.

When well-meaning adults are always ready to jump in and smooth things out, they actually are thwarting a key developmental process, says Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University and co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind.

Haidt explains it like this: Some things are fragile. A glass falls on the floor and breaks. Some things are resilient. A plastic cup falls and does not break — but it doesn’t get any better, either. But some things are “anti-fragile” — they need a bit of resistance, a challenge, to grow and thrive.

Fighting Fragility
Three anti-fragile things are the immune system (exposure to germs develops antibodies), muscles (weight training makes them stronger) and ... kids.

Kids are born with brains ready to be wired by thousands of experiences, including some scrapes, confusion, betrayal, frustration and fear. But when they don’t get a healthy dose of these, thanks to a sort of bubble-wrapped childhood, they don’t get the chance to become anti-fragile. They remain fragile.

Fragility makes kids more vulnerable to feelings of anxiety and depression. Both Gray and Haidt see a connection between the decline in free time/free play and the rise in childhood mental health problems. That’s one reason the three of us joined forces to create Let Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to making it “easy, normal and legal” to give some independence back to children.

Our school initiatives are simple. There’s the Let Grow Project, in which students are given the assignment to “go home and do something by yourself, without your parents.” (Parents comply because it’s homework!) and the Let Grow Play Club, which encourages schools to open for mixed-age free play. An adult remains on premises, but not organizing the games or solving the spats. The result is pretty close to what kids used to experience playing outside on their own.

Inherited Anxiety
Parents today have it tough — they’ve lost the age-old independence guideposts our parents had. They don’t know what age they can possibly let their kids do anything on their own, so they just don’t.

They say insanity is inherited — you get it from your children. But anxiety is, too. Kids get it from being treated as if they’re in constant danger. Their fragility reinforces the parental urge to overprotect. They’re locked in an anxiety spiral.

The best thing for both generations turns out to be giving parents a little push to let go — an actual assignment — so they can finally see for themselves how safe and successful their kids can be on their own. Pretty soon those youngsters are ready to start trapping muskrats.

Or at least walk a couple blocks to judo.

LENORE SKENAZY is president of Let Grow and founder of Free-Range Kids in New York City. Twitter: @LetGrowOrg