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Director’s Annual Commentary

Autumn 2001: The Importance of Free Play


One morning early in the summer as the administration team met on the porch of the Main Lodge for our morning casting of the day's schedule, someone remarked, "Are both nurses on duty this afternoon? Notice we have Gus's all campus capture-the-flag" on the agenda." This game, very popular, entails lots of running pell-mell through the woods with those inevitable bumps and bruises requiring side trips to the infirmary. "When I was a kid at camp, capture-the-flag required stealth," I remembered. "To be successful, a guy had to sneak up on the flag without being detected. No one ever got hurt." With that recollection, ensuing discussion brought into being a new Kingswood game, named 'stealth," naturally. I"ll spare you the details of the rules (participants were constantly tweaking them anyway,) but the boys loved Stealth. Large numbers of campers appeared every time we played. Many darkened all visible skin with charcoal from the fire pit and all wore camouflage gear of some description. But, as the number of participants soared, injuries lessened. Boys were enamored of the surreptitious slinkering through the deep dark forest. The general feeling among the boys was that in Stealth we had created Kingswood's best game yet.

The point of this Stealth story is that boys truly enjoy low regimentation activities with some, but not too much, structure. In just the week or so since we've been back in Maryland, I"ve stumbled into several articles which underscore this refrain. Here's a comment from Cal Ripken, which appeared in the paper: 'society has changed. Everything's more organized for kids now, even birthday parties. So creativity and imagination get lost. You don"t invent your own games. There's not so much free play. It's like you"re making little professional players by age 12. You can see it trickling down. That's too bad. But why speed up that natural process so much? We want to find ways to get more fun and freedom back into that 5-12 age group.

The day the Little League age scandal surfaced, Washington Post journalist Sally Jenkins lambasted the Little League organization itself, proposing to get rid of it entirely. "The kids will play on without us," she wrote. "Children used to make their own fun. They went into a field, drew a few lines with chalk or flour, and chose up sides. And you know what? It worked. They quarreled, made up, and hardly ever lost perspective the way adults do. Children and adults should stay out of each other's circumferences when it comes to games. There should be a decent interval between the crib and the grim business of high school sports, at least one form of play in this world that is not managed by grown-ups to the point of corruption.

In yet another Post article on young adults, writer Lynn Smith quoted the Harvard dean of admissions, who remarked that "he has seen a consistent growth in anxiety levels among college students over the last two decades. The cause, he believes, is too little freedom, rather than too much. Overscheduled and controlled throughout childhood by their parents, many students are burned out and unable to be introspective about their own futures.

At Kingswood, we believe kids indeed need freedom, not in its absolute sense, but with parameters – common sense rules and timely supervision – which set limits without spoiling the good, clean fun. Far and away the most popular times of day at camp are during B block and after-dinner sponsorships. B block kicks in at about 4:30 PM, after the more defined slate of early afternoon activities winds down. Now, boys become free to go anywhere they choose in the supervised areas of campus. To be sure, lifeguards are stationed at the waterfront where a tight reign always prevails, but at least boys are given prerogatives to swim, fish, take out a boat, go water skiing or tubing. Then, too, some instructors may informally hang out at their venues where kids can drop by to see what might be cooking. But, for the most part, the staff falls back into a "zone defense," (Honestly, that's what we call it!) to be certain adult eyes and ears have the campground thoroughly scoped. "We could change our name to Camp Tetherball," joked one counselor while another insisted at least one Frisbee was airborne at all times during B block. This time of day is nearly always blissful and on the rare occasions when the tranquility suffers a breakdown, staff men can be counted on to intervene and set the course straight again. Kids need more B block in their lives. That they campaign for it any chance they can – on weekends when the schedule is more flexible, after trips return to campus, on bad weather days – is most telling. Boys know "Big Brother is watching," and that's fine with them. But, in B block, no coach, teacher, or parent is laying the weight of the world on their shoulders and that, trust me, makes all the difference to them.

Evening sponsorships usually reassemble the boys into larger groups with gaiety and a certain lightheartedness as the prevailing sentiments. The plan and psychology behind sponsorships is elementary: counselors offer activities they feel like doing. Nick La Porta, soccer coach extraordinaire by day, was fond of offering board games during the evening hours. Gus Wood, a water ski instructor who absolutely refused ever to give up on a client, recharged his batteries with games like the aforementioned Stealth or Frisbee lacrosse. The Wipfler brothers, Rob and Mike, mired in camp admin detail most of the day, could be found many an after-dinner leading ultimate Frisbee or touch football pick-up games. Stefan Lorenz, jackrabbit during daytime activities, was a reading or letter writing specialist on many occasions as the sun waned. I could think of other great sponsorships, but suffice it to say that every counselor had his thing, promoted it unblushingly, and boys flocked with glee toward each offering. As a young man, my personal sponsorship was always softball. I must admit, however, that in summer 2001, I was one-upped by my baseball men and boys who featured a game they called "javelin ball." Played on the little league field, pitchers soft tossed tennis balls, which the batters, armed with tennis rackets, drilled incessantly to all corners of the arena. Both offensive and defensive gems abounded. One evening, in my meanderings, I saw more action in five minutes of javelin ball than can be found in any complete Little League game. Standing there, amidst the shouts of unrestrained jubilation, a thought came pouring into my consciousness. "You know, Bob," I heard myself muttering, "Kingswood's got it just about right."