The Importance of Playing Like A Child
This past summer, I worked at a summer camp. Oddly enough, I didn’t quite seek out the job myself. A friend of my mother’s and her family own and operate a beautiful picnic facility that holds weddings and events, and I agreed to meet with her about a job opportunity. She offered me a position ten minutes into the meeting, which I now realized was an interview, asking when I could start. I assumed I’d be working as a server or setting up tables, but to my surprise, she told me I would instead be a camp counselor. Being the socially anxious person I am, I did not interject nor argue and instead succumbed to the fate of my summer. But my stomach churned. I did not particularly like children and I had sworn off a summer camp counselor job after I had worked years before as a young high-schooler with ruthless pre-teens and attention-needing elementary schoolers. But a job was a job.
On my first day, I arrived promptly at 7:45 A.M., settling in for my nine-hour shift amongst towering redwood trees and incoming hordes of children. The camp is nestled in the outskirts of the Santa Cruz Mountains where creeks flow year-round and swimmable springs permeate hiking trails leading into Sanborn County Park.
I quickly learned that this summer camp in particular was not “modern”, for lack of a better word. It is currently run nearly identically to how it was run in the 70s or 80s when the family themselves worked there, with only minor changes to the scheduling to accommodate larger numbers of children and new activities as they’ve arisen through the years. Our activities were not like what you'd find at say a Stanford camp a half hour north where eight-year-olds learned to code, but old-school, traditional, and a bit rugged. We painted rocks, raced rubber duckies down the creek, went on creek walks, hikes, had watermelon eating contests, played capture the flag, had water balloon tosses, canon ball competitions, and during water week, we even set up a makeshift slip and slide made from the distinguished giant tarp, dish soap, and a hose. At first, I wasn’t so sure about all of this. I fully expected to drudge through the days, always wishing to go home instead of spending my days out in the sun.
I assumed that as the new counselor unknown to the campers as opposed to some of the favored senior counselors, kids would not flock to me if I simply stayed out of the way. I was wrong. I was given a group of 4-6-year-olds in my first week and they wanted nothing more than to be close to me. We played duck-duck-goose together and I was deemed “goose” more than my fair share of times. My initial thought was, “This must look so silly, a twenty-year-old chasing around kindergarteners”, and I resisted fully playing. But the children were so excited, practically jumping up, hoping to get tapped on the head so they could run around the circle.
They giggled and cheered as the game continued. I watched the other counselors play with their groups, some playing sneaky statues with groups of older kids. They played fully and freely, and suddenly, I felt like the odd one out, only putting in a half-hearted effort to my own game of duck-duck-goose. This feeling continued throughout the day as I watched the other counselors dive into the pool, play dodgeball, and make lanyards as I sat by, merely observing.
Some of the smaller children in my group, the youngest not even knowing how to read, wanted to be chased around, while others wanted to just sit in my lap at free play as I watched kids tumble and frolic on the grass. They asked me how old I was, what my favorite color was, and if I had a superpower, what it would be. I cannot remember the last time someone asked me my favorite color. Their little eyes gleamed up at me as if I was a goddess, and I’d never felt such an innocent form of love before. I didn’t know what it was about me they seemed to like, but when they’d pull my sunglasses from my face to wear them themselves or ask me how to start a friendship bracelet, something inside of me softened.
After a couple more days of feeling oddly left out, I felt a pulling to fully give in to the rough and tumble nature of summer camp; dirt, scratches, sweat, and all. The others seemed to have so much fun doing it, and I wanted that too. I would be here for the majority of my summer after all, so I might as well try. And so, I decided to surrender to Saratoga Springs summer camp, beginning an unlikely journey of self-discovery.
After my first week, something peculiar happened. When I awoke to my alarm the next Monday at 6:45, I didn’t feel a sense of dread for the coming day, but rather, something comforting and unfamiliar to me. I knew I would walk into work, greeted happily by young children and I would be spending the day doing more playing than working (or so it had begun to feel). I worked for six weeks at the camp, and a part of me wishes I could work a week or so each month of the year to ground myself and keep the childlike wonder alive and well in me.
In my first few days, I brought all the wrong things; a towel, lotion sunscreen, running shoes, and no pens. I came home from work bathed in sweat, my socks caked with dirt, and an unused towel stuffed in my backpack. The next week, I opted for Crocs, suitable for creek walks and water activities alike, no towel and instead air drying by the pool, plenty of sharpies (which I have since lost) for shirt signing, and spray sunscreen that could be applied on the go. I still came home sweaty, but that was part of the deal. I was now in full camp counselor mode.
Over time, I accumulated many trinkets that I kept with me in my fanny pack (which we were all obliged to carry with us at all times). I had a powerful Magic the Gathering card gifted to me by a ten-year-old boy who’d taken a liking to me, a lizard made of string and beads from a young girl, multiple lanyards and bracelets, and a piece of paper with the phonetic translations of Russian numbers one through ten. Many of the kids at the camp spoke Russian, and they were trying to teach me some basics.
After that first week of merely going through the motions of camp, the second week felt freer and a whole lot more fun. I decided to fully take part in the happenings and games of camp, playing water balloon “nuke ‘em”, swimming in the pool with the kids, and guiding them through our egg drop competitions. I quickly realized that fully embracing camp was the only way to do it. If I was not fully in it, my days at work would be much more boring.
A favorite activity of mine became the Noman Hike, nicknamed “The Cheez-It Hike” by the campers, as they got Cheez-Itz at the hike’s summit. As a camp, we did the hike every Friday with sometimes close to one hundred and fifty kids. Simply getting one hundred and fifty kids to do one synchronized activity is an endeavor in itself, but assuring they safely get up and over rocks, through streams, and over bridges is another challenge entirely. Although some dreaded this hike, I grew to love it for its beautiful scenery and particularly, for the swimming springs on the way up.
We gathered the kids in an attempted single file line, telling them to wear swimsuits and creek shoes. The kids marched along with counselors dispersed throughout the line, focusing on navigating their small bodies through piles of rocks atop the flowing creek. While some children did not want to get their feet wet, myself and the other, more adventurous children liked to take a more direct route, walking through the creek itself. I was wearing Crocs after all, so I might as well put them to use.
Although I could not pinpoint it at the time, feeling the cold water rush alongside my legs and watching the campers splash through the water, catching water bugs, and pointing out deeper areas of the creek brought me back to my childhood. I had not played in a creek, or even stood in a creek in years. I’d ironically categorized such activities as childlike, or not necessarily suited to me, as they got me quite dirty and I typically desired to remain clean. Such activities didn’t present themselves in my daily life so I thought, “Why do it?” But I was surprised to feel a sense of joy, and excitement even at just existing in nature and feeling it move around me without any larger agenda.
About halfway through the hike, we would arrive at the spring where the kids would submerge themselves in the cool water with mini waterfalls pooling into the sunken area. Greenery enclosed the area, giving the spring a dreamy blue-green hue. Competitions often arose amongst the kids to see who could catch the most water bugs, who could find a crawfish first, or who could stay in the water the longest. This grew to be one of my favorite times of the week. The children turned the spring into a magical area for play and discovery, finding beauty in mundane things I had nearly forgotten about as I’d hurried to grow up. On my first Noman Hike, I watched the kids play in the spring in awe.
The creek at the main campsite became somewhat of my safe haven. I began my mornings at the creek and always tried to station myself there during free play. I became heavily invested in what I deemed “Creek Politics” which consisted of all the drama and current happenings at the creek. A recurring creek activity in particular both puzzled and awed me.
Oftentimes, the kids built dams in the creek from rocks they had dragged from the sides. Sometimes the dam building would extend throughout the entire day, other kids being recruited from other games or areas of the camp to aid in the construction. It was an immense effort and I admired their will. Aside from the main dam at the creek’s head, there were numerous smaller dams behind it to stop the flow of water that may have escaped the first, all manned by separate “teams” of campers. I watched with curiosity all day, waiting for something to happen. Surely, there had to be an end goal for this dam, but what this was, I was unsure.
Finally, at the end of free play one afternoon, the first in a long line of children extending down the length called “Release the dam!” and all down the line the kids began to remove the rocks hastily, cheering and whooping as an impressive amount of water began to rush downstream. The children hollered and high-fived each other, celebrating their success. In these few momentous moments, the water surged, splashing the children’s legs and sometimes reaching their waist. I realized that this had been the end goal, a whole day's work for one brief moment of joy watching water flowing eagerly and strongly.
I was dumbfounded. There was a simple pleasure in the matter that I found strangely beautiful, and I realized that the goal they’d been striving for all day was simply for a small moment of pure fun. As with my other earlier experience in the creek, I was humbly reminded that not everything has to be done for some greater purpose to better yourself or your standings. Some things were meant to be enjoyed for the process, for the carefreeness of it all. When was the last time I had done something just because it was fun?
These instances at the creek were the first of many that permeated my summer with awe-stricken moments. As the weeks progressed, I grew more and more fascinated with the way the children played. I loved watching, and now participating, in both the structured activities and free play where the children’s minds would run wild, creating things I would have never thought of.
In a way, it felt like I was reliving parts of my childhood; the giddiness of not being found in hide and seek, the pure delight I felt when I launched myself down the giant slip and slide, and the freedom I felt when we would reach a cove on a hike and were given the chance to explore. In my daily young-adult life, I would have never sought these things out on my own. But as it was put in my lap, I found that I was being given the chance to rediscover something lost; to find joy in an unexpected place. It wasn’t just reliving my childhood, but it felt like uncovering a part of me I had buried long ago. My inner child simply yearned to play. I found myself becoming excited every time we began a game and I realized that I had missed it. Deeply.
For these six weeks, I shed the daily worries I typically carry, let go of expectations that I have to “act my age”, and simply enjoyed my days. It made me feel alive. At camp, I could run around just for the sake of it, tumble and do cartwheels on the grass, engage in stick sword fights, do silly dives into the pool, climb trees, dance, and immerse myself in a swimming spring without worrying about whether my clothes would get wet and dirty. At some point, it dawned on me that nothing was stopping me from doing these things in my daily life. I wondered, What’s stopping me? I always wanted to feel this free.
I had always heard the saying, “Never grow up,” but it wasn’t until this summer that I truly understood how important it is to maintain a sense of childlike wonder, playing as if your soul depends on it. Which is very well might.
I was talking to my therapist about my time spent at camp, noting how it had seemed to absolve me of the pressures of daily life. I returned from my days not feeling burdened, but instead, lighter. She told me to find ways to build unstructured play into my own life. Camp would end at some point, after all. Since then, I have been making a conscious effort to engage in activities that allow me to play in the same ways I did at camp. I’ve been taking myself on hikes where I can explore and nestle myself in small oases, simply enjoying the sound of free-flowing water. I’ve taken up backgammon, a game introduced to me at camp, and taught it to new and old friends alike. I could spend hours playing it. A friend and I wrote silly songs together, rhyming off each other's lyrics. I am still looking for more ways to play in my life and I feel I certainly still have work to do, but I am trying.
As someone who struggles to take a break from work or “productive” activities, it will always be an uphill battle for me to engage in such playtime. But the freedom it brings me is worth the fight.