a healthy environment for children is a healthy environment for adults.


or Adults need to make mistakes, too

A few weeks ago we ran April vacation week camp. The camp had 30 – 35 kids on a given day and ran really smoothly. We finally made liquid nitrogen ice cream (!): Peanut Butter Orange ice cream tasted surprisingly good.

In the middle of the week, I was describing camp to a visitor we had — a friend of a friend and also a kindergarten teacher. I found myself remarking that the more I ran camp, the simpler it seemed: we provide a bunch of fun and creative activities and materials and then let kids do what they want to with them, be it take part in our offered activities, make up their own projects with our materials, or play. The more I’ve seen this model work, the simpler it all feels to me, both in description and in execution.

I then brought up a point that I’ve known for a while but had never articulated: I think that camp is as healthy a place for children as it for adults, and the fact that adults loosen up at camp, relax, and let their creativity out to play is just as important as camp’s effects on children. This insight has stuck with me because while it’s quite apparent once stated — a good educational environment is a place that’s healthy for both children and adults — it’s one that I’ve never seen any educational theory take into deep consideration. A lot of effort, of course, is put into carefully crafting the child’s experience; but from what I’ve seen, not much is put into the adult’s.

One idea that is quickly realized in most theories of progressive education is that in order for children to become confident, creative thinkers, they need room to make mistakes. Kids need room to share what they’re thinking, try things out, and figure out for themselves what’s right and what’s not. Usually, this takes shape by taking issue with grades and tests — things that punish a child’s half-formed ideas or confusion instead of working with them.

Accepting this as reasonable, one of an adult’s key roles in a good educational environemnt should then be to inspire kids to be confident and creative through making mistakes and learning from them (and not fearing them.) If an adult is going to do this well, an adult has got to do all the same things themselves: they’ve got to feel secure in trying things out, see what’s working well and what’s not, and then revise whatever is that they’re doing. At the core of all of this is the simple idea that adults need to make mistakes, too.

Winding back to April vacation week, we finished the week with a field trip to George’s Island — one of Boston’s Harbor Islands. Ferries had yet to start running out to the islands for the summer, and we had to charter our own boat. This meant that when we got to George’s Island, we were the only people there: we were free to play on the beaches and in the forts by ourselves.

I figured that being by ourselves was a rare and excellent chance to play group games with the kids in the forts, some of which were nearly completely dark. I introduced the kids to a game I’d learend in Wales called Vampires. I’d learned it while visiting my brother and attending a conference his company was running on children’s play. As could be expected at such a conference, everyone stayed up late in the night playing kids’ games, and Vampires had been the clear favorite. The gist of it was that one person in the group was secretly a vampire, and people hid from him every round. The game had a mechanism for randomly assiging people to be by themselves or to be paired off with one other player, and the vampire could only bite if he found someone hiding by themselves or had been paired off with a human. After 10 or 15 minutes — once the game’s rules became intutive — it became an incredibly engrossing game. It was terrifying, energizing, and ridiculously addicitive.

On George’s Island, our first game had 6 children, ages 6 to 12. While we’d used dice in Wales to assign roles, we had none, so we used 2 coin tosses instead. The game sort of worked for the first fifteen minutes: the kids got the running and hiding bit, but the idea of assigning roles each round was over their heads, and took an awkwardly long amount of time. It still felt like the kids could get into it until we were joined by six more kids.

As the group grew, the game became too stilted between waiting for roles to be assigned each round, every 5 minutes or so, and explaining the rules to new players. In Wales, the game was richly atmospheric: you quickly became obsessed with how to walk as to not make a sound, how to stay perfectly still in the dark so that a vampire three feet away wouldn’t detect you. Here, the atmospheric hallmarks of the game were a six-year-old boy running around yelling “I’m the vampire! I’m the vampire!” and another girl, eight or so, “biting” everyone in sight, not having understood that she was supposed to keep her identity a secret. Littler kids ran around and yelled and older kids got grumpy that the rules weren’t being respected. The fun dissolved quickly and we decided to go get lunch.

I was really dissapointed that the game hadn’t gone well. I knew that some kids in that group would have loved the game had it gotten off the ground, and I started wondering why it hadn’t gone well. I asked a parent who had helped me run the game for his thoughts (mentioning that having played it succesfully with half-drunk adults in Wales, it hadn’t seemed so unreasonable to translate the game to kids…) We soon hit on the idea that with kids this young, expecting them to hold a secret in for half an hour was really hopeless. Their drive was to turn the game into one of running around, yelling, and being scary, and that’s probably what it should have been — some kind of simple variation on tag in the dark.

This all seemed really, really obvious to me when we finished talking about it. Between playing in rounds, keeping secrets, and assigning roles, the game was way too complicated for kids this age. While this was obvious to me after reflecting on why the game didn’t work, it hadn’t been two hours prior. As I continued to reflect on the game, I began to feel grateful for the chance to try it out. At the start of the game, I’d thought it’d be fun to play, and had the opportunity to go with my instincts and try the game out. When it hadn’t, I’d had the chance to reflect on what went wrong and understand what I could have done better. I didn’t have to fear judgement about what would happen if the game didn’t go well: I was able to try the game out whole-heartedly and learn from it whole-heartedly.

So, children need to make mistakes and adults need to make mistakes too. Thinking about how an adult should feel and what they should be doing in a good educational environment, is new and exciting for me. One of the first questions it’s brought me to is how do you make adults’ feel comfortable trusting their instincts and trying outnew things? Kids tend to have less barriers here than adults, and camp is an environment that really supports and encourages kids to seek out what they love doing and then try it. One really exciting question here is what would a similar environment look like for adults? What would camp for adults look like?

I’m going to stop for now, but will write more later on where I think this thoughts leads (particularly on the theme of “camp for adults.”)


One Response to “a healthy environment for children is a healthy environment for adults.”

  1. 1 camipco

    The vampire game sounds awesome. But I know the feeling, I’ve been there with adults too, where you played a game successfully, and have imagined that it’ll work with this group, but find that for whatever reason it just isn’t taking. One sign that I always ignore to my detriment is when someone describes it as “too complicated.” My instinctive response is “no, you’re wrong, this game is really simple.” But that’s not the piont: “too complicated” is code for “this group just isn’t in the mood you need for this activity.” It’s real hard to abandon the dream, though.

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