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Lenore Skenazy

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The Extracurricular Game Changer: Pay Me to Ignore Your Kids

Posted: 09/10/2012 12:00 pm

Starting Sept. 12, I'm offering a new eight-week, $350 after-school class almost guaranteed to make the participants, ages 8 and up, happier, healthier, smarter -- and skinnier, to boot. It meets Wednesdays 3:45 to 5:15 p.m. in Central Park (85th and 5th), and the premise is simple.

I won't be there.

I'll be in a Starbucks nearby, and I guess I'll have my cell phone with me, in case anyone really REALLY needs to reach me. But otherwise, the kids are on their own. In fact, that's the whole point: The kids are on their own. Their job is to play. My job is to let them. I'm charging a fee because -- why not? And anyway, that's what parents are used to: Pay for a class, enhance your child's life.

Ah, but has that been working? For the last few decades, child development experts have been telling us that the crucial thing missing from kids' lives is exactly what used to FILL them: Time with friends of different ages, playing outside, on their own.

"I Won't Supervise Your Kids"™ is different from soccer and ballet because the kids have to figure out what to do with themselves. If the participants are anything like my own kids, this could be the hardest part at first, because until now, some adult has always been telling them what to do, when to start, how to do it, and now it's time for snacks. God forbid there's no time for snacks.

My program has no time for snacks. Kids can eat dinner when they get home. If you remember anything from childhood, it's that most of us were having so much fun playing, we forgot to eat. Now it's the other way around.

One reason so few kids are playing outside is that their parents are afraid to let them out, even though crime is LOWER now than back in the '70s and '80s when they were playing outside as kids themselves. (Look it up!) But another reason is that a lot of times today, there just aren't any other kids out there to play with. At "I Won't Supervise Your Kids," there will be.

What good things happen when kids play, unsupervised? First of all, they go wild. They run. Kids play more actively (and burn more calories) when their parents aren't hovering. That's good for their bodies.

They use their imaginations. That's good for their minds.

They use their outdoor voices. That's good for anyone living with them.

They have to make their own rules -- that's leadership training. And they have to decide what to do if someone breaks those rules -- thereby learning to negotiate, communicate and compromise. Future college admissions officers will be impressed.

Best of all, free play is Mother Nature's way to teach kids "self-regulation," otherwise known as "executive function," otherwise known as "not being a jerk." It gets its kick start this way: A kid goes up to bat and strikes out three times. If he's playing with his mom, dad or nanny, maybe they give him a fourth swing, or fifth. If he's playing with his peers, they yell, "You're out! Go to the back of the line." And he now has two choices: He can throw a tantrum. Or he can go to the back of the line.

Kids generally love playing so much, they'll do anything to continue. So they pull themselves together -- with difficulty -- and begin the process of growing up. Thus it has always been: Play makes a child ready for the "real" world of school and work.

Parents enrolling their children will sign a one-sentence waiver: "I do not expect anybody, much less Lenore, to supervise my children at this thing." They can pick up their kids at 5 p.m., but after a few weeks, many of the participants probably will want to walk home on their own.

I don't even think I'll charge extra to let them.

 
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