Writing this as a final (please, let it be the final!) snowstorm of the winter buries Maine under another 12+ inches of snow, it’s a great day to reflect on the summer that I am assured is just around the corner. One more day of shoveling, then maybe we can put away the snowblower and salt for another year. While I am shoveling, a particularly disliked chore, I will be thinking wistfully about the concept of fun. The prospect of fun to be had this summer will keep the ache from my back a little longer, and drive the chill from my toes. I can’t help but speculate as to what might be the theme for this summer’s Festivus’s (Festivii?); what madness will crop up on the Wheel of Chaos; which cabin will pull off the most unexpected LipSync; whose camper video will have the most random; if anyone will laugh at my jokes at camp fire.
Thinking about it though, I am perhaps not being as serious about fun as I should be. Fun, it seems, gets dismissed too easily. The conventional wisdom is that fun is a lightweight, and is not to be talked about with the same gravitas as say, responsibility, or punctuality, or organization! Fun we will get to if there is any time for it. Which there won't be, as we have a very full schedule, because you know...organization.
But if we take a step back, and ask ourselves a question that is way too big for a silly blog, i.e. Whats the point of it all? the conventional wisdom starts to look a little unhinged. Because when you ask someone, whats the point, they never say "to be super organized", or "to be on time!". (Not thats there's anything wrong with that). A common answer is "to be happy". Now happiness doesn't have to be all about fun. But FUN is another way of saying "be happy, now".
At camp, we talk about fun, and happiness as a natural result of fun, a lot. We talk about it in many different ways depending on the situation. Silliness, randomness, joy, um?, or just being at camp. However we talk about it though, we are talking about fun. We are talking about a state in which we find enjoyment from activity or interaction. The context of camp is important, because when we talk about fun, or it's physical manifestation play, we most frequently talk about it in a social/group setting. This might all seem a little circular - we want to have fun because we are at camp; we want to be at camp to have fun. Getting past that, the truth is that there is something profoundly important to be had, in the having of fun.
Studies from the 1960's onwards have shown that lack of play as a child can lead to serious psychological disorders, inability to adapt to stress, poor relational skills and lower creativity as an adult (1). More recently, psychologists have determined that the higher function skills acquired during play - particularly self control (also known as impulse control, delay of gratification), and broad social skills - are essential to a successful career in high school, college and beyond (2,3). While there are certainly issues with the inconsistent quality of graduates within and between schools, for the most part our high schools are producing large numbers of graduates who are well equipped for the academic rigors of college. What many of them are not well equipped with are the coping skills needed to manage stress, social interactions, work load, and independence.
That's all a lot to digest, so I am going to end on just two points: friends and coping with stress. Playing/ having fun, is the clay from which many of our closest friendships are molded. When we take the time to engage with one or more others, and interact in a way that is connected enough to the present situation and the mood of those around us such that we end up having fun, we are sending the message to these people that they matter, and vice versa. Our memory of those people becomes infused with positive emotion, so we seek them out to replicate that good feeling. Over time, the knowledge that there is mutual appreciation, a good association, and a set of positive shared experiences, we start thinking of them as a friend. .
Dealing with stress, in a productive and healthy manner, is an essential skill. Stress can interfere with both productivity and health. It so happens that having friends is a wonderful way of dealing with stress, but so is having fun (with or without friends). As I mentioned when whining about shoveling snow, the simple knowledge that fun lies in the future can be a strong defense against stress. Physical play allows for immediate and lasting stress reduction. Understanding that there is an alternative to stress, that there is MORE to life than the stress of school or work can often be an antidote to stress. The danger lies in forgetting how to play, how to have fun, how to do something enjoyable for its own sake. An adult who has forgotten (or never learned!) how to have fun is likely prone to stress and the many ailments it is associated with. The ability to relax associated with play may be in fact be a life saver.
To finally circle back around to Maine Teen Camp – there is an explicit promise of fun in a summer camp experience. Not so with summer school, or college prep programs, or summer internships. If kids and teens are not given the time and space to have fun in their summers before their work lives begin, when will they learn how to truly have fun? Will they learn what makes them happy? Or will they grow into adults who have forgotten what is really important? The habits formed in our youth guide our adult lives. Camp is about forming joyful, healthy, playful habits, which inevitably create joyful, healthy, happy adults.... The current generation of kids could well have working lives well in excess of 50 years. By definition they only have 7 summers as a teen in which to learn the value of fun. Make each one count.