Have you ever run a long distance and felt a “runner’s high?” For me, it’s always kicked in at about five miles or forty minutes. At that point, I get a feeling of euphoria, and the feeling of any little aches and pains goes away. If I run less, I don’t get that feeling. It’s not as if, if I run two-and-a-half miles instead of five, I get 50% of a runner’s high. I get 0%. Nothing.
I’ve come to realize that children at play can achieve something like a runner’s high when they play, which I’ll call a “player’s high.” Kids achieve a sort of euphoria, but the most noticeable thing to us parents is that they start to generate new things to do seemlessly, from one activity to the next. Their play becomes self-sustaining, almost totally serendipitous. Anything they do is fun merely because they’re doing it. Boredom, or any traces of it, vanishes. It’s similar to a “flow” state for children that I speculated on previously.
When our kids get in this state, our lives get better, too. They’re happy, they’re managing their own activities, and they’re not sitting in front of a screen. What’s more, I would argue that they learn a great deal when they’re in this state, too. These days, my two older boys are achieving this “player’s high” state regularly at their hangout in a creek bed. While all kids have the propensity to get in that player’s high state, some rarely do, if ever. These kids, say their parents, always need some sort of external stimulation. They either need to be in front of a screen, at some sort of structured activity, or with someone who comes up with all the ideas for what to do (usually an older child or adult). If they aren’t in one of these situations, they get bored, and they might even cause trouble somehow.
Achieving this player’s high state is natural ability that all children have, but lose from disuse. (Many adults still have it, too! I think I do…) I have a strong hunch that kids who regularly get a lot of external stimulation – e.g. TV watching or structured activities – lose this ability faster than kids who don’t. They become psychologically dependent on external stimuli.
The good news is that it’s very hard to completely extinguish this ability in kids. (For some adults, however, it’s pretty much gone…) Kids who are less in touch with their player’s high capacity need to be forced to get there, perhaps in a situation contrived by parents. Once they get there once, it’s easier to get them there another time. After a few days in a row of player’s high, they might start to get into that state immediately, as soon as they start playing.
Two moms in Palo Alto, CA recently brought their entire neighborhood of kids into a player’s high state for an entire week – i.e. five weekdays. Diana Nemet and Jennifer Antonow ran a neighborhood summer camp for 44 kids that was wildly successful. On Monday, the kids were tentative and antsy, particularly in the morning. However, on Tuesday, they hit their player’s high groove. For part of the time, they all participated in the main activity led by counselors, but they also flowed from activity to activity on their own. They played ping pong. They threw around oobleck, a gooey mixture of corn starch and water. They hula-hooped. They munched on snacks.
The rest of the week went like Tuesday. “It was like magic,” said Nemet. “They really didn’t need us parents around. Every kid played nonstop.”
Imagine, 44 kids playing on their own for three hours a day, five days, loving every minute of it, with no need of a TV or a soccer coach to tell them what to do. And, the whole time, the kids were building relationships that they could carry on into their everyday lives in their neighborhoods. In other words, this wasn’t a one-off summer camp experience in some faraway place. It sowed the seeds for an improvement in these kids’ everyday lives for the upcoming months.
Wanna know more? Stay tuned. I’ll be writing a blog entry or two about this wonderful neighborhood summer camp experience, Camp Iris Way.