The Lost Art of Play

I do not remember a day from my childhood during which I was not running around outdoors.  Jumping on my bike and riding a few miles to a friend’s house or school, exploring the ravines and fields of our community, building forts, skiing, camping, playing games of basketball, street hockey, baseball and capture the flag were only a fraction of the occupiers of our time.  Furthermore, from about 12 years on, we did not need an adult to take responsibility for scheduling our social/recreational lives.  We were spontaneous and the phrase “what do you want to do” was always on the tip of our tongues.  Boredom was inconceivable for any more than 10 minutes as two or more children would invariably find something interesting to do.  Springing from this spontaneous form of play came a sense of social confidence, a comfort with the verbal and non-verbal language of socialization and problem solving skills as we dealt with the choice to be made between boredom and adventure.

Two factors enable children to experience a similar richness of activity in the social community of childhood:  A Sense of Comfort with Peers and Opportunity.  The lack of either factor would greatly put the child at a disadvantage and lead to a physical and social stagnation that many children are experiencing in today’s world.

The sense of comfort with peers comes from a variety of factors.  Some of these factors are developmental while some are clearly environmental.  A child’s expressive and receptive language development (verbal and non-verbal- often an indicator of cognitive development) are perhaps the most critical of skills that contribute to a sense of social comfort.  It is language that binds us to each other and allows for common experiences to be shared and a sense of belonging to spring forth.  The language of socialization can be expressed through words or an acknowledgement of presence.  A non-verbal smile, a hand shake or high-five are often a far more meaningful expression of language than a conversation or declarative sentence.

Beyond language, a child’s social history, maturity and personal interests shaped from life experiences are also critical to a sense of social comfort.  Many of the most important life lessons of childhood having to do with the development of social skills and social comfort are learned through the often misunderstood and frequently discounted act of “play”.  When two or more children are together “hanging out” or participating in some type of organized or unstructured activity, they are honing a series of skills that promote their social development.  Interpretation of social environments, non-verbal social cues, persuasive expressive language and active listening skills are just a few of these key elements.  It is important to note that none of these skills can be learned as naturally or efficiently in a vacuum, sitting in front of a computer or a TV.

Unfortunately, much of our society has “evolved” to the point where parents can no longer allow their children to spend countless hours exploring their neighborhood roaming two to three miles from home unsupervised in search of adventure- imagine the opportunities to develop independence that are lost to youth today!  Safety concerns, rightfully so, prohibit this type of unstructured activity and have put a crimp in the style of children for decades.  To compensate for these lost opportunities, we have over structured our children’s free time with everything but freedom.  Lessons, clubs, practices, concerts, etc… provide wonderful enriching experiences and are clearly beneficial to a child’s development, but they do not offer a child a chance to say “what do you want to do” and then go through the creative problem solving steps of making independent and group decisions.  Children rarely have a chance to figure out what to do when there is nothing to do!  This might seem trite, but ask yourself, what happens to children as they grow up and there is no one in their life to answer the question?  The skill of social decision making is not spontaneously mastered and must be practiced for a child/ young adult to be able to become socially independent.

Where can families look to try and recreate a similar type of free play experience for their children?  Where can parents find an environment that provides a comforting level of opportunity and safety for their children while at the same time provides a chance to immerse themselves in a culture that places an emphasis on the art of play?  CAMP=OPPORTUNITY

In many residential camp settings, children are encouraged to make decisions regarding activities in which they would like to participate.  Camps also offer less structured times during the day during which campers are able to “figure out” what to do with their friends.  In their cabin groups, children are immersed in numerous group decision making events throughout the day and are honing their social skills continually.  Whether it is at activities, in the cabin, meal times or simply walking back and forth to activities, a constant social verbal and non-verbal dialogue is taking place and a feeling of social comfort develops naturally with an appropriate level of support and skills reinforcement from staff.  It doesn’t take long for a sense of community to develop and it becomes quite clear that children greatly appreciate and crave a sense of belonging to a social community.

As families seek programs that can provide this Art of Play experience, it is important to keep in mind that not every camp is right for every child.  Families have to seek camp communities that are best suited to meet their children’s unique qualities, strengths and weaknesses.  The chemistry of the camp community is perhaps the most critical indicator for the potential of a successful summer experience.  Due diligence is critical and there are a number of steps to be taken that will help in a family’s search for the best camp for each individual camper.  Stay tuned….

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