In Praise of Neoteny

Today the word of the day is neoteny. It’s really a term from evolutionary biology, but it describes the retention of childlike attributes in adults. You might think of a grown up who has a “baby face,” or is generally “cute.” When you are talking about these kinds of physical features, we tend to think it’s a good thing to have “young looking skin” or the “energy of youth,” for example. Neotenic people are usually attractive. Being neotenous is mostly a good thing.

Camp Fun for KidsBut what about personality traits, attitudes or approaches to the world? What about these ways of being childlike? Think about what life is like as a child. The world is magical, full of curiosities, almost always kind and wondrous. As kids, we spend so much time being creative and playing. We feel so many more things— joy, excitement, anticipation, and the broad sensuous world around us. All of this probably makes it so easy to make friends (“Come on! Let’s play!).

You’ve also noticed what usually happens when we grow up. We get serious, we latch on to patterns of behavior, we get scared, we feel the need to protect what we believe, we accept responsibilities and feel pressure to perform and “be” someone in particular. As adults, we spend almost all of our time, mostly alone, working to stay organized and fighting opposing forces. We’re all too consumed by those adult things we’ve grown to accept as important, and it ain’t easy.

It’s no surprise to see that being an adult trumps those childlike traits. Sadly, to grow up often means losing touch of what we used to be, those aspects of being human we loved as kids. As adults, we have a harder time feeling what makes the world wonderful, a harder time making friends, and a much harder time playing and having fun. Of course there are exceptions to this, but that’s the point. They are exceptions, and that’s too bad.

Let’s remember the value of being childlike even as adults. Let’s be joyful as we’re responsible. Let’s be creative when encountering opposing beliefs. Let’s be friendly and playful, cooperative and excited about learning new things. Let’s strive to foster our innate neotenous instincts. Certainly, all good things.

Bringing this back to camp… Summer camp is a place where kids can really be kids. It’s a special time when they are encouraged to play, make friends, be creative and explore the world around them. Separate from the forces of home and school (which are fundamentally about forming “adults”), camp provides a wonderful opportunity to strengthen our “kid selves.” Camp is joyful break from all that training, and that’s a big part of why it’s so fun.

Maybe we could say, camp helps you learn how to be a really great kid so that later in life you’ll be a really great (happy, content, remarkable) adult. Camp’s power to strengthen these “kid traits,” I suspect, will be a big part of that success.

Girls of all ages

Childrens Outdoor Experience

Another article has come our way (thanks Bird!) about the value of outdoor experience for kids. It’s “Time Outdoors Gives Kids a Big Boost” by Tom Stienstra of the San Francisco Chronicle. The article is about an initiative in California to recognize a “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights,” a document declaring that every child should have certain opportunities connected to the outdoor world. It lists ten things every child should do:

  • 1. Discover California’s past.
  • 2. Splash in water.
  • 3. Play in a safe place.
  • 4. Camp under the stars.
  • 5. Explore nature.
  • 6. Learn to swim.
  • 7. Play on a team.
  • 8. Follow a trail.
  • 9. Catch a fish.
  • 10. Celebrate his or her heritage.

And quotes Gov. Schwarzenegger.

“Parents could start by applying the lessons to themselves and sharing the outdoor experiences with their children… I believe that learning outdoor skills should be a required class.”

The connections here to summer camp, of course, are strong. After all, it’s what camp does every day— we splash, play, climb, camp out, explore and discover, celebrate and learn… all in the context of being outside. It would be great to see some of this implemented in schools, but at the very least, we know that camp is a great start.

Childrens Outdoor Camp and Games