THE BLOG
06/03/2016 02:00 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2017

The Empty Classroom

An online cartoon depicts a young boy confined to his standard-issue school desk and ruminating out loud, "Given the pace of technology, I say we leave math to the machines and go play outside." That is a sentiment no doubt shared by scores of boys and girls across the country counting down the days - and minutes - until they can ditch their books and bolt for the doors.

Accompanying that depiction is a quote from the late Swedish minister of finance and Social Democrat Ernst Wigforss (1881-1977), who once said (roughly), "If the goal of social progress is for everyone to work at maximum capacity, we would be insane. The goal is to free mankind to maximally create. Dance, paint, sing - yes, whatever you want. Freedom!"

While such freedom will reveal itself in all sorts of meaningful ways this summer, chief among them may well be the myriad of experiential learning opportunities made possible through organized camping. In fact, some 5.5 million campers attending more than 2,400 camps accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA) will benefit from getting up and getting out ... as in outside.

And heretofore (read: school year) that opportunity is something that seems to be in short supply.

Recent pronouncements that young people spend less time outdoors than the average prisoner does add an exclamation point to the importance of the play and summer camp movements. Or more likely a combination of both. How bad is it? According a recent survey of 12,000 parents in 10 countries, one out of two children ages 5-12 spends less time outside per day than the hour recommended for prisoners by the United Nations or the two hours of outdoor time guaranteed prisoners in the United States.

That study, which originated in the United Kingdom, spawned a campaign titled "Dirt is Good." Its introduction warns, "Leading experts have noted that the time that children have for exploratory, hands-on play - the kind where they go out and get dirty - is worryingly on the decline, and that as a result today's children risk losing out on learning essential skills that will set them up for the future."

Those skills include curiosity, resilience and resourcefulness to name but a few.

The antidote? Dirt is Good has partnered with Project Dirt to create "Empty Classroom Day" with a goal of transforming it into global event (known as Outdoor Classroom Day outside the UK) for learning and playing outdoors during school. They note that last year more than 600 schools around the world participated and hope that on Friday, June 17, 2016, Empty Classroom Day will be "bigger and better than ever."

Such efforts mirror many more. Some of which have undoubtedly been inspired by the work of Richard Louv.

Louv is a journalist and author of a pile of books that advocate reconnecting children and adults with nature. These include "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age" and, most recently, "Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life - 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community." Pointedly, Louv says, "The future will belong to the nature-smart--those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need."

In her article for the Children & Nature Network, "THE UNSAFE CHILD: Less Outdoor Play is Causing More Harm than Good," Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, relates the story of a third-grade class visiting the nature center she founded. The children she described as mostly "rowdy, loud and rambunctious boys" became suddenly quiet as they realized "they had the freedom to explore and build in the woods."

To the contrary - and maybe to the point - an adult chaperone, upon witnessing some of the kids creating a structure comprised of branches and logs, screamed, "Put the sticks DOWN! ... Danger! Danger!"

Somewhat sympathetic, Hanscom explains, "As a parent of two girls, on some level, I can empathize with that chaperone's fear. Parental instincts often naturally take over and we shout, 'be careful' or 'slow down' as we watch a child manipulate their natural environment. This is fairly normal and common ... I also know that restricting children's movement and limiting their ability to play outdoors can cause more harm than good."

What is that harm? Sensory deficits that jeopardize young people's ability to grow into resilient and able-bodied adults.

Hanscom cautions, "It is only when adults consistently step in and say, 'no' to everything physical the child attempts that we start to see problems in development. 'No climbing,' 'no running,' 'no playing tag,' 'no spinning,' 'no picking up sticks,' 'no getting dirty,' 'no jumping off the rocks,' 'no climbing the rocks,' we yell when children attempt any kind of risk." In fact, research suggests that there are both negative risks and positive risks - the latter being ones that inure to the benefit of the child, promoting positive youth outcomes and the reduction of negative, potentially harmful, behaviors.

In advance of the impending end of school, Jessica Lahey, a contributing writer for The Atlantic magazine, argues, "The more time children spend in structured, parent-guided activities, the worse their ability to work productively towards self-directed goals." Instead, she promotes unsupervised, unscheduled play time as one of the most important educational experiences we can bestow upon our kids. She says, "It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health." Lahey links such "free play" to the critical development of "executive functioning" - replete with such traits as long-term planning, task initiation, self-regulation, organization, and the capacity to switch from one activity to another.

Similar attributes have also been correlated with academic and workforce preparedness and success. Of course, so has summer camp.

While the strict definitions of free play, including "unrestricted movement, activity, or interplay," or interpretations that tie it to a lack of structure or supervision may not square with the "en loco parentis" responsibilities of camps and those who work there - let alone national accreditation standards or local regulations - it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

Indeed, in that combined world the needs of children to find meaning in self-definition and personal growth through "free-form" play do not preclude the health and safety prerogatives of parents who send their kids to camp.

According to ACA, the outcomes those children will experience include becoming more independent and advancing leadership skills, gaining confidence and improving self-esteem, acquiring social skills and making friends, and developing a willingness to try new things.

Alas, undirected play is not the same as unsupervised play. And, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, child-driven, creative play safeguards against the effects of pressure and stress so overwhelmingly prevalent, and deleterious, among today's youth.

Cause and effect. A beautiful confluence of classrooms emptying and summer camps starting.