Childhood Summers are Dead. Let’s Bring Them Back!

Can I teach kids how to play freely at our 'neighborhood summer camp,' then gradually fade into the background so that they can have *real* childhood summers with no adults around?  We'll see...  photo credit: lyndhurstnj.org

To those of us who think of childhood summers as carefree times for neighborhood fun, free of schedules and direct adult authority, children have no summers anymore.

Sure, school still ends every June and the weather still gets hot (except in San Francisco ; > ), but neighborhoods are no longer filled with children’s yelps and laughter on summer days. In fact, for the most part, they’re completely dead, as dead as they are during school days in the winter.

Of all the unfortunate aspects of childhood in 21st Century America, this fact depresses me more than anything else.

So for two weeks in June, I’m going to try an experiment that, I hope, will be the first step in bringing back summer for kids. I’m going to run a summer camp right here, in my neighborhood.It’s called “Camp Yale.” The second part of that name is the street we live on, Yale Road. It’s the first part of this name that is a bit problematic. The term “camp” conjures up for me the image of adults – fun adults, mind you – leading children in their play. My goal is to get kids playing outside in their neighborhoods on their own, without adults around.

I realize that, in 21st Century America, you can’t just bring a bunch of kids together who have never played on their own before and expect them to figure it out without some guidance. They need someone to teach them the ropes.

Decades ago, when I was a kid, adults didn’t teach us how to play. Older kids did. Unfortunately, older kids – nine and ten and eleven and twelve year-olds – are all booked for summer camps all summer, so I and a few other adults will try to fill the “bigger kid role” for Camp Yale’s two to six year-olds.

The real trick will be to figure out how to transition the kids to semi-free play, and then to totally free play. In other words, we need to do such a good job that eventually, the kids won’t need us around to play anymore. This will undoubtedly take a lot more than just one two-week camp session. It’ll take reinforcement throughout the year, plus perhaps another Camp Yale or two.

Ultimately, if we’re completely successful, not only will our kids become adept at free play, but in a few years they’ll teach the younger kids in our neighborhood how to do it with minimal intervention from us adults. Only at that point will we be able to say we have a real kid culture here.

So, how am I organizing this first Camp Yale, and what will we do on a day-to-day basis? I’ll take those topics up in a near-future post.

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4 Responses to Childhood Summers are Dead. Let’s Bring Them Back!

  1. iriswaymom says:

    I’d love to do this in our neighborhood (one of the playborhoods mentioned on your site, so we’ve got the makings for it), but could you provide some guidelines? For instance, how do you get over safety fears…do we ask at-home parents to leave their front doors open and IM the rest of the group’s parents when they’ve got the group in their yard? Or do we keep them in one yard at a time asking different parent to be ‘on watch’ every day? Also, what do you think the minimum age is for kids to participate? Intriguing stuff…would love to hear more.

  2. iriswaymom says:

    Also wanted to add…have you read ‘Outliers’ yet? Malcolm Gladwell does a whole section on childrearing via structured activities vs. free/neighborhood time, how these parenting approaches divide along class lines, and the ultimate social effect of these choices on kids. His take is different from yours, but very relevant to your efforts and worth a read…

  3. Mike Lanza says:

    iriswaymom – Re safety fears, well, since my kids are 5 and under, we absolutely do need at least one adult around, usually more. I haven’t taken a crack at the “camp” for older kids that would require less adult supervision. In any event, you should let parents and/or nannies hang there if they want. Once they’re there for a day, they will probably get comfortable. Asking at-home parents to leave their front doors open is a good idea, too.

    Our minimum age was walking age (1), but we had adults around.

    Email me for more thoughts (I have a ton!!!) at mike@playborhood.com.

  4. EbTerry says:

    Hi, I live in apartment complex and the things that i have seen children do of the sign of bordem is disturbing. I have seen children climb on the gates, the fences. I have seen children run across the street without looking both ways. Adults are always talking about, what we need to do with the children, or blaming the children. Its not there fault, I think these kids are very closed minded, there parents forgot to teach there children, how to have a fun, playful, imagination:Like there parents use to. I need some help some guidelines, I am a big kid myself, i love children and i would like to start a neighborhood play, to keep these kids active and there blood pumping. For fun, so please If you have any Ideas email me. Eteastside04@yahoo.com