This past week I was working as an instructor for some Spring Break camps. I was working with elementary/middle school aged children and I was running a “Sports & Computers” camp. To be completely honest, I hated my time there. It was exhausting, frustrating, and stressful, but most of all, it was discouraging. It seemed like no matter what we did, the kids weren’t happy with it. They didn’t want to play sports, they didn’t want to learn anything on the computers, they didn’t want free time with the equipment, and they didn’t even want to watch any movies we offered up. All they wanted to do was get free time on the computers to play Minecraft or other popular games online. There were obviously many moments where they were having fun playing sports or showed interest in learning a few things on the computer (whether they were aware of it or not!), but even in those times, they were constantly thinking (and asking) about the next time they would get to play video games. It was discouraging for me to think that this generation of kids was that addicted to video games and not even sports could take their mind off of it.
This phenomenon put me in a very negative and depressed headspace. It got me thinking about my own childhood and trying to reflect upon whether or not I was any different than these kids. I tried my best to be unbiased, but even still I couldn’t help but feel like these kids were just headed down an unhealthy road and may be too far gone to come back. Although I tried to stay as positive as I could and convince myself that there are good groups of kids out there, I couldn’t shake this unhappy feeling. I blamed society, I blamed parents, I blamed the video game industry and I blamed the kids. These kids were a lost cause and it worried me for our future. I kept telling myself how I would keep this in mind when I was raising my own children some day and learn from the mistakes that had been done to these kids. I vowed to keep “the child” in my future children and not let them lose their imagination and inquisitive nature so easily.
Throughout the week I tried to fight the resistance a bit. I did what I could to convince the other instructors that we should give the kids free time with the equipment. Some of these times were not as good as others, but for the most part, this unstructured play was the most successful moments of the camp. A few times when we were stuck in a very cramped gym, some of the kids were caught looking to their phones and iPads to entertain themselves, but usually everyone found something to do and kept themselves engaged. I would still have kids coming up to me telling me that they were bored though, to which I would reply with “Well then go find something to do! There is plenty of stuff to play with! Use your imagination and be creative!”. Our most successful example of unstructured play was when I let the kids loose with half a gym full of gymnastics mats. It started out with disputes of who got to use which mats, but after that was sorted out (with a little assistance from me), the kids had a blast. The kids didn’t necessarily forget about Minecraft, but they had fun, worked together, used their imagination, built structures, compromised, and got their sweat on. There were times where I felt like I was letting the kids do some activities that not all educators (or maybe some helicopter parents) would be comfortable having the kids do, but nobody got hurt and the kids made sure to test their boundaries before jumping in head first. This small part of the week felt good…but not as good as what happened on the last day.
On the last day, the organization I was working for had no space booked out for our group to work in, so we had to quickly adapt. We found a park nearby that we could take the kids to so we headed there and set up a game of Capture the Flag. As per usual, the kids complained and didn’t make things easy on us. Participation wasn’t great and the game didn’t get to a very strong level of competition or fun. We came back after lunch with a new game plan for some unstructured free time. In the afternoon, this park was like a whole new place, and the kids were like a whole new group. We brought out some random equipment for them and then set them loose to do as they pleased. There happened to be some construction going on nearby so there was a large dirt/rubble pile in the middle of the park and there was also a very climbable tree in our midst…
All I saw in the afternoon was positives. I saw kids organize their own game of baseball (with sticks in the place of bats I may add!) which to me showed improvisation, leadership, problem solving, and compromising (in the form of self-refereeing). I saw kids speak politely and appropriately to a stranger in the neighbouring c
ommunity garden when they lost their Frisbee over the fence, which illustrated leadership and social responsibility. There were examples of imagination when kids were playing with sticks as though they were swords and when they played “Minecraft” by digging holes in the rubble pile. The rubble pile also provided opportunities for inquiry as a large group of girls went worm hunting in the dirt, and got up close and personal with the Annelids as they examined them one by one. Another example of inquiry was when some kids got to experience the convenience of levers when they worked together to move some giant rocks out of the rubble pile (also an example of problem solving!). And speaking of problem solving, how about when the kids took flag football belts, cinched them up around those giant rocks and drug them to the climbing tree so that they had a step to help them climb onto that first branch, and then, once they had that first step, using the football belts again as handles
after they cinched them up tight around some of the higher branches. The teamwork used in that experience was outstanding! Some kids weren’t strong enough to pull their body weight up onto the first branches (which is sad in itself), but they took the challenge head on and didn’t give up. When they still continued to have trouble, their peers used the aforementioned ideas and helped assist everyone up into the tree. Once kids were in the tree, I saw a lot of risk management as the kids who were brave enough to climb to the top made sure to shake and test each branch before they stepped onto it. I’ll admit, I was feeling a bit uneasy at times, but I kept telling myself I needed to trust the kids, and I’m glad I did because they did exactly what they were supposed to do. Before long, any fears I had of kids falling and hurting themselves vanished. The final positive example of the afternoon was another risk management example in my opinion, and it was when a few boys were wrestling with each other. Nobody got hurt, nobody got angry, everyone just had fun and worked on some fundamental motor skills while doing so!
Unfortunately the afternoon wasn’t 100% positive. The other instructors I was working with didn’t seem to see what I was seeing, and so when the time came that a computer lab was free again for our group, the instructors decided it was time to pack up and take the kids back inside. It killed me inside to stop what was going on, especially when the kids showed no signs of being unengaged with the current activities, but I was only one voice and wasn’t going to undermine my fellow instructors. We headed back in where the kids spent the rest of the day on computers. The day still felt like a success to me though. We successfully got the kids to forget about computers and Minecraft for about an hour. A small win for physical activity (and nature!), but still more work to be done.