I remember the endless swath of time that summer brought when I was a young child. Unstructured free time in nature, with neighborhood kids, and my family. I also played alone, exploring the back roads on my bike and the woods on foot. At the age of seven, I would be gone for hours, playing in brooks, creating forts under the shelter of giant boulders, climbing trees, making up stories in my head, and writing poetry.
These days, we are hard put to find children at play in this kind of open-ended, unsupervised milieu. Their play is planned, highly structured by adults, and often close-ended. When left to their own devices, kids often choose tablets, smart phones and video games as their go to. Child life specialists and hospital play specialists know the value of deep, open-ended play that encourages self-expression, exploration, self-regulation, social development, and problem solving. My friends at the Klicek Foundation in the Czech Republic provide these play opportunities at their summer camp for children and families affected by illness and loss. This year, they invited me to partake in a unique camp experience, and I immersed myself in the healing environment of Camp Klicek, which has been in operation since 1992.
Children after a long-term therapy (and sometimes even patients under treatment, if their health allows it) take part in the camp, as well as their friends, siblings, parents and pets. Several bereaved families come too.
Our camp activities began as an attempt to offer a two-week stay in beautiful natural surrounding also to those children who couldn’t participate in a “normal” summer camp. We have always tried to create a friendly, open-hearted and open-minded atmosphere in our camps, and we hope that the camp program gives its participants enough opportunities to have fun, to do some useful work, to talk about things that are important to them, to simply be with friends.
The camp games and plays (mostly non-competitive) follow the make-believe story of a man who decided to spend some time with nature and is thus confronted with new situations and thoughts and starts to meditate on his own life and on the civilization he lives in.
Children live in big Indian “tee-pee” tents which are able to accommodate up to six inhabitants and have a fireplace inside.
Since 2000, we organize our camps on a meadow just behind the respite hospice building at Malejovice – thanks to this, children whose condition requires special attention can also participate in the camp program, backed by the safe environment of our house.
Indeed, I found myself amidst a remarkable mix of campers and staff, a combination of people and circumstances that is hard to imagine anywhere else. The youngest camper was seven years of age, the oldest, twenty. The children’s diagnoses differed significantly, as did their abilities, disabilities, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. There were children undergoing treatment, survivors of serious illness, siblings, friends, parents, and bereaved parents who had lost a child. The camp leaders, Jiri and Marketa, are purposeful in their choice to bring children and adults together where they might not otherwise interact in larger society. Watching connections form between the campers and staff of varied backgrounds was a blessing on so many levels.
The focus of our days involved living in nature, eating good, healthy food, exploring tough topics such as “What is evil?” and “How can we make the hospital experience more pleasant?”, and above all, building community. The virtual lack of technology at camp was so refreshing. I felt myself detoxing from my smartphone addiction as I wrapped myself in nature, old fashioned, simple play, and grand company.
Many friends have asked me what it was like for me to be surrounded by children who spoke Czech. Did I learn any Czech? How did I communicate with them? Well, I was immersed in a foreign language – of that there is no doubt. Most children spoke no more than a few words or phrases in English, and my Czech is abysmal. But the children understand more English than they speak, and play is a universal language. The children’s welcoming of me was profound, inviting me into play, making me feel immediately part of the group. “Frisbee?” “Will you play?” “Come play football.” “Ping pong?” “Draw.” Once engaged in a game or project, there was much good will and laughter as we all tried our best to communicate.
I too, grew my Czech vocabulary one word and gesture at a time. I made it my goal over the week to learn everyone’s name – a challenging feat with names that were not familiar to me. But with each name and greeting, I could see the rapport growing, the shy kids responding, the teens warming. Some of my favorite moments were when I would board the 1970’s retro bus for a field trip, and a kid would smile at me and pat the seat beside them to show they’d been saving it for me. Or that wonderful moment, when the quietest camper, one who spent much time alone and looked down or sideways rather than meeting your gaze, took my hand as I stepped off the bus and walked quietly with me to our destination.
It’s the small stuff, really.
Children berry picking on a picnic in Czech countryside
Klicek Foundation cofounder Marketa leading us in a trivia game in the camp’s mess tent, where we ate all of our meals.
In my next several posts, I will dive deeper into some of the activities we did, the games we played, the lessons I learned.