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‘Out to change childhood’: Schools tell kids to do something on their own

A fifth grader at Ortwein Elementary School showed his classmates pictures of going to a store with his father and paying for items himself using a debit card that’s in his name.

The boy bought three collectibles, which cost a total of $45.

“I didn’t know it would be that much,” he told classmates during a presentation earlier this month.

The hardest part: Figuring out how to sign his name when paying for the items. It took three or four tries and he was trying to do cursive handwriting, but it ended up looking like scribbling on an electronic signature pad.

Teacher Amy Wolfe reassured him, saying signatures often look like scribbling for adults, too.

On Nov. 7, students at the south Las Vegas school were giving presentations about a monthly assignment to do something by themselves. After each one finished, they took questions from classmates.

Projects included learning how to do laundry, cooking meals, and cleaning a sibling’s bedroom and bathroom.

Wolfe asked students why it’s important to build independence.

One student responded that it’s important so “your parents don’t have to baby you until you’re 20.”

The monthly projects are through Let Grow, a national nonprofit organization that works to promote childhood independence and free play.

The organization has free school programs that are being implemented at a handful of Las Vegas Valley campuses.

“Basically, what we do is that we are out to change childhood,” said Let Grow Executive Director Andrea Keith, who lives in Las Vegas. “It has changed drastically in the last generation to two generations.”

Unstructured outdoor play time was once the norm in neighborhoods with mixed ages of children and they were outside until the streetlights came on, she said.

“Now, kids are very much kept safe in their homes,” Keith said.

They’re engaging in adult-directed and adult-supervised resume-building types of activities that “replaced all of that free time and creativity and wonderful experiences that previous generations have grown up with,” she said.

Keith said the organization believes that a lack of free time is a major root cause of anxiety and depression seen in some children today.

Let Grow’s school programs

Let Grow’s school programs are designed to “help parents step back so that the kids can step up,” Keith said.

She said the organization’s curriculum is in about 5,000 schools, and more than 10 local schools have requested materials. She said it used to be a smaller grassroots effort and it was hard to capture data on who was using it.

Let Grow has a “Play Club” program in which schools have either a before- or after-school club with mixed-age unstructured free play.

Some children may live in a neighborhood where it’s unsafe to play outside, Keith said.

Simmons Elementary School in North Las Vegas is piloting the program this school year.

Another program is the “Let Grow Experience,” where kindergarten through eighth-grade students typically have a monthly homework assignment to do something without a parent.

Ortwein Elementary is one of the early adopters of the program, Keith said.

The organization is following the school’s journey and will write some case studies, she said, and a mini documentary will be filmed next year.

Ortwein is already seeing amazing results, Keith said, and a hallway at the school displays which projects students have completed.

“It runs the gamut,” she said. “It is really giving the kids the opportunity to develop the self confidence and build the resilience.”

Students could do something as simple as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or as complicated as getting on a bus and going across town to see their grandmother, Keith said.

“They pick something that works for them,” she said, but noted the organization is not recommending anything truly dangerous.

‘Good feedback from families’

Ortwein Elementary has been using the Let Grow program since August. Wolfe brought the idea to school administrators.

Teachers have a lot on their plate, so the school is beginning with a cohort of educators who expressed interest in participating, Assistant Principal Heather Synold said.

Ortwein students already do project-based learning and Let Grow builds off that, including asking questions, doing research and making presentations, Synold said.

“We’ve heard a lot of good feedback from families,” she said.

Earlier this month in Wolfe’s classroom, Jazlyn Buenavista told her classmates that she learned how to do laundry.

Zachary Austin showed a video he made about the process of making brownies, from shopping for ingredients to the finished product.

The video had captions with emojis and his younger brother made an appearance, asking if the brownies were done yet.

He told his classmates that the hardest part was trying to find the eggs at the grocery store.

Now, he said he feels like he could make brownies again and plans to cook more.

Let Grow wants to reach as many schools as it can, Keith said, adding the aim is to impact parents and overcome “society’s current trend of parents overprotecting and constantly tethering to their child.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on X.

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