There was a time, back in the 50’s and 60’s, when boys and girls learned a lot of valuable les- sons and social skills in the “neighborhood”. Kids learned how to set up games, to play fair, to be inclusive, to share, to settle disputes without violence, to teach and to learn from each other, and to use their imaginations to solve problems and create entertainment for themselves. And they did all that without an adult anywhere in sight (though they were usually within shouting distance). The neighborhood wasn’t perfect. But the lessons were generally good ones, and allowed kids to develop self-sufficiency and confidence that is hard to get any other way.
The neighborhood would be pretty mind-boggling to a kid today. We thought nothing of hop- ping on our bikes and riding across town a mile or so to a friend’s house for the day. We went out and played until the streetlights came on, or– in my neighborhood—our parents blew a whistle code (three longs two shorts) to tell us to come in. On Saturdays, we got together some friends and went out in the woods, where we built a fire and cooked a grilled cheese sandwich, a hamburger, or a hot dog. Our parents knew where we were, within a few miles. We set up neighborhood base- ball and football teams, and played on-going tournaments of nightly or week-end games—without referees, umpires, or coaches.
It wasn’t perfect, and some of that wasn’t “best practice”, but there were pieces of it that were really valuable. Without adults around, we did NOT turn into a Lord of the Flies.
We set up our games, divided the teams fairly, and included everyone who showed up. Every- one played all the time—nobody ever sat on a bench waiting to play. And we didn’t care very much who won. If teams were mismatched, we stopped the game and traded players to even them up. We bragged a bit, but we didn’t award trophies to make winning a big deal. Little kids learned from big kids, and big kids let little kids succeed often enough to keep them interested. Girls got to play whenever they showed up, and some of them were STARS! Susie Sherwin was the best full- back ever, and Gail Bruning ran the bases like Willie Mays. We settled disputes over safe and out, incomplete passes and out-of-bounds, with a little wrangling and negotiation, and then the game went on.
Kids don’t get much chance to do any of that anymore. Schools are worried about conflict and supervision, and some have gone so far as to designate “recess zones” and to pre-determine who can be in each zone—no conflicts allowed, and always teacher-enforced. Other schools have simply done away with recess altogether.
Children can’t play unsupervised football and baseball in some nice guy’s empty lot anymore. Parents would be denounced for turning their kids loose the way we were. School principals and parents don’t let anyone walk home from school today. Children may be less safe than they were— or maybe the problems are distorted by sensationalizing media. However, the point is moot. We all know how much of kids’ personal freedom has been lost over 50 years.
We’ve also lost the physical neighborhood. Jane Jacobs, in her Death and Life of Great American Cities, saw it coming. As the sidewalks got narrower and streets got wider, the neighborhood’s activities diminished. First we lost kids riding bikes and playing games, then we lost casual groups sitting and talking, then we lost strolling, and finally we lost parents and grandparents who used to sit on the front stoop to watch the neighborhood go by. With all that gone, the city neighborhood feels empty and deserted. With the economic necessity of full-time, double-income parents, with unsupervised, latch-key children, the suburbs and small towns didn’t fare much better. If you believe with us that losing the neighborhood and its attendant freedoms was a significant loss, the trick is to figure out how to restore parts of the experience for today’s kids - and still be safe.
Summer camp does not fully replicate the old neighborhood concept, but the camp experience takes a step in that direction. It gives children the opportunity to disconnect from their parents, and to deal with prob lems that arise on their own. As a Sangamon family, you have helped your boys take an even bigger step towards independent decision- making and problem-solving. By sending your boys to a camp that truly believes in giving children some time to live and learn on their own, you have sent them a hugely important message. Your son feels the TRUST you have given him... (even to the point of disconnecting electronic communication!) At Sangamon, he gets to decide how his session will be structured, and how his days will be spent. He has no written sched ule to follow, and no requirements to meet. Each day offers him the opportunity to make decisions, and to further evolve his sense of independence. All of that puts him in charge in a way that rarely happens for boys today.
We add an interesting piece to all this with the free time at the end of each morning and afternoon. We think of it as “Neighborhood Time”. For forty-five minutes before lunch and dinner, we close down the activities and open up the camp facilities to the boys’ own creativity. They spread out to the soccer field, the basketball court, and the tennis courts. They lay out the Monopoly and Risk and checker or chess boards and gather around to play. They bring out their guitars and create jam sessions. They go back to the cabin and swap stories and strengthen their friendships. They grab a book and go sit under a tree. They go up to the kitchen and help with meal preparation and dining room set-up. They do all of this on their own. The staff are around, scattered here and there, paying some attention, but doing so unobtrusively. Like Grandpa Johnson on the front stoop, we’re there if they need us, but we purposely don’t make a point of it.
It is informing to look over their shoulders and listen in a little. As in the old-time neighborhoods, kids do the organizing, make the decisions, and negotiate settlements. If we’re going to play a game, how many can play on each team? Whose rules will we use, and why those? Those rules will almost inevitably need interpreting. How are those decisions made? If a new player wants to join, can we work him in? Or does he need to come earlier next time? Or start his own game? Not all of this happens totally peacefully or without controversy. But mostly the problems get confronted and solved. Because they found their own solutions, the boys learned something in the process. Rarely, the solution doesn’t surface, and the outcome isn’t successful. Kids learn something from that too. Most often, they can figure where it went wrong for themselves. If they ask for some staff advice or intervention, we’ll help them think about it.
Instead of preventing the problem from arising, we help them find their own way through the difficulty, in keeping with the workings of the neighborhood.