Exploring Childhood Play and Adventure

This week, my daughter joined a wonderful group of girls in a local explorers club here in Bellingham. It is a thoughtfully designed and inspiring program that runs through December, blending environmental service projects with hands on (and feet in!) exploration of Whatcom County’s  coasts and woodlands.

Bellingham, like most small cities and large towns across the country, has a growing number of sports and activity programs available to young children. The Explorers Club for Girls is a relatively new offering in the area and I’m really impressed. It stands out from the growing number of youth activity programs found on community events pages across the country. It has real substance.

Like modern intentional living communities being developed (in growing numbers around the world) by the vision and desire of  individuals seeking to [re]create collaborative, cohesive communities; something that occurred naturally years ago — many of today’s youth activity programs attempt to [re]capture the spirit of play and adventure which occurred naturally in neighborhoods years ago.

Many children today are involved in several after school or weekend programs throughout the year; be they community theater groups, soccer teams, themed day camps, arts and crafts classes or whatever else is offered in towns and cities around the country during any given season. Unfortunately — organic, naturally occurring, creative neighborhood play is becoming less common as the number and variety of organized, structured activities being offered increases. As a result, many neighborhoods are empty after school and on weekends.

There are some obvious reasons for the shift from unstructured, creative neighborhood play to participation in organized, structured activities. During the 1970s, when I was popping wheelies on my banana seated, sissy barred chopper down Lockwood Drive, only one-third of families in America were dual-income households. Because mom or dad was around, most children went home after school and spent the afternoons and weekends coming together with neighborhood friends to create adventure on their own. We explored on our bikes, played capture the flag in the woods, built forts and played until the street lamps came on.

Today, over sixty percent of households are dual income. In many families, there simply isn’t anyone at home when the afternoon school bell rings. Some parents, who are at home, are reluctant to  allow their children to explore their environment unsupervised today — even though national crime rates are lower now than they were when children ran the streets freely when I was a boy in the 1970s. Regardless, some parents today have a perception that it is dangerous to let children explore their surroundings today without an adult close by. As a result of these and other factors, more children are emigrating from their local neighborhoods to neutral fields of play so they can participate in structured programs than they were when I was growing up. I refer to this in Games We Played;

Children today are shuttled back and forth, to and from organized, structured activities. There are coaches, uniforms, instructions, skills assessments, fees and commitments in modern play. Houses are no longer connected by the footprints of children, and many neighborhoods are quiet today. Children no longer have to invent games; they just have to participate in them. They don’t make the rules, the abide by them. They don’t pick the teams, they join them. (page 156)

The Girls Explorers Club is an exception in that it provides rich experiences that most children can’t access locally (or spontaneously) in their local neighborhoods or without adult guidance. The service projects alone make clubs like these so worthwhile for all children. These experiences inspire children, bond them with their peers, build confidence and create lasting memories. The boy scouts, girl scouts and other such programs are similar.

I hope that children today find a balance between participating in organized activities and creating their own adventures in life. I hope that they still jump over bushes to knock on a friend’s door, with a ball in their hand and a game on their mind. I hope that they have a desire to explore, whether they are a member of an explorers club of not. I hope that there are still balls and pucks and sticks and bats and ropes lining neighborhood streets today. I hope that forts, hideouts and other crudely built fortresses are being built in the woods. I hope that the goals are still marked by the shirts and hats of the players and that the bats are being made from old mop handles and not bought in stores. Most of all, I hope that the footprints of play will connect houses in neighborhoods again.

Autumn is here! Open the door and let the children play.

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