What Am I Good At? Building Self Esteem through Play at Camp Klicek in the Czech Republic

Time to Explore:

The long days of summer, with the sun rising at 6:30 AM and setting close to 10:00 PM, lend themselves to unhurried, lengthy swatches of time. These hours can hold many opportunities for children and adults to engage in unfamiliar activities and discover new skills. Time for free play and exploration is a commodity during our workaday, technology-filled lives, but Camp Klicek in Malejovice, Czech Republic provides exactly this to children and families affected by illness and loss.

In the photo above, two seven-year-old boys get their hands on a saw, as they break down a tree branch in preparation for the campfire that all the campers will enjoy. Besides being fun, the boys are building their muscles and coordination, getting some great proprioceptive feedback, practicing cooperation and self regulation, not to mention problem solving. Their self esteem gets a healthy boost as they accomplish something new and contribute the the camp community. These are some of the attributes of spontaneous play that adults should take note of as we consider the developmental, social and emotional needs of all children

Structured Games

Sometimes structured games can lend themselves to learning through play that is so much fun that kids forget that they are learning. On this day, the campers were divided into three teams, and each team had four tasks to compete. They had to find a way to measure a liter of liquid, a kilo of sand, the length of a meter, and the span of a minute, all without the use of measuring devices. The camp was alive with children gathering sticks, pouring water, scooping sand into sacks and counting out loud and in their heads, as the teams competed to see who could get the closest to the actual measurement.

Group Play

On another day, volunteers from the Accace Corporation brought a day of activities to the campers. In the morning, they set up tables in the summer garden and mess tent, including paper arts and crafts, flower pot decorating, a drink mixing table with great recipes for virgin mojitos, margaritas and pina coladas, and a beauty salon station with face, body, and nail painting. Kids explored their artistic sides and wore their art with pride.

In the afternoon, the company volunteers set up an activity course in the forest, replicating what is entailed in working for a big company. My favorite station was the accounting department, where the employee had to take a fist-full of invoices and chase after the client to whack them with the papers to make them pay their bills!

And the other one I loved was a station where kids were taught the art of communication. They were told that communication is the lynchpin of success, and in order to practice communication skills, they had to stand on one side of an easel and describe a picture to their coworker on the other side, who had to paint of draw what that person was describing. It was a tough but very fun challenge for the kids.

In yet another station, the children ran through the forrest balancing cups of coffee they had made for their boss, trying to get to their boss’s office to sign power of attorney documents without spilling a drop.

Sharing Skills With Others

Many of the campers had their own skills to share and teach. Here are several of them, starting with an 18-year-old who made up a rap song on the spot.

One 14-year-old camper had a lot of skills, including bugle playing, fire breathing (So sad I didn’t get that on film!!), and archery. Here he is teaching another teen how to shoot a bow and arrow.

This young magician taught us all how to get a 100 Crown bill out from under a beer bottle without touching the money or the beer.

This artist created a virtual masterpiece depicting several scenes on one ceramic pot.

And even the youngest of the campers showed their talents. Whether it was my lunch-mate practicing his English, or a shy kid joining in on a new ly introduced American game of “Happy Salmon”, the kids never ceased to amaze me with their willingness to take risks, learn and share. I watched with admiration as this 6-year-old moved with the utmost patience and precision in a game of pick up sticks.

Nothing raises kids up to their potential the way play does. You can see the pride glowing as their self esteem grows by the second. And I feel so blessed to witness and participate in this play at Camp Klicek! Happy Summer!

Self-Regulation through Play

imgres-1            imgres

I posted a question poll on  Twitter yesterday to try something new.

What kind of play promotes self-regulation – open ended free play or board games?

At first glance, those of us who work with young children will shout out happily: FREE PLAY! Why? Because it allows children  to explore their environment at their own pace and interests. It provides many opportunities for them to problem solve and access their imagination and creativity.  It gives them feed back loops to build vital connections in their developing brains. It helps them make meaning and gain mastery over childhood challenges or traumas. As Lev Vygotsky said:


No question. It is great stuff.

But my tweet was a trick question. Structured, close-ended games and toys also have their place in a child’s development of self regulation. When a child is in a stressful situation, sometimes a familiar game like CandyLand or Checkers might help them calm down and feel safe. If a child has played about something that made them feel vulnerable in some way, playing a close-ended game, doing a puzzle or coloring in a coloring book after more open-ended play can shore them up and help them get back to baseline. Board games teach turn taking, frustration tolerance, how to be a gracious winner and how to  lose without losing it.

When we think about how to best support a child’s developmental and emotional being, it pays to provide many different types of play. Sensory play with water, sand, shaving cream, oobleck or play dough is wonderful for toddlers and preschoolers. Constructive play with blocks, legos, cardboard boxes, any raw materials, is great for preschoolers on up. Dramatic play with play dress up materials, puppets, dolls, play food, miniature figurines, etc. speaks highly to preschoolers and young school aged kids. All children need to move their bodies, run, jump, balance, climb and take moderate physical risks in order to gain mastery over their body in space. Preschoolers can be introduced to board games, but the rules need to be flexible and adults should know that it is fine for a young child to change the rules so that they win. When children reach the age of 6 and 7, they can begin to learn to play by the rules and practice winning and losing. Games without toys such as tag, hide and seek, Mother may I, Simon says, kick the can,  and capture the flag teach invaluable lessons in social interactions, and teach kids to rely on themselves for entertainment.


We can learn a lot through observing a child’s play choices. We can see what they are drawn to and comfortable with, what challenges, pleases or frustrates them, and we can introduce new and less familiar activities to scaffold their growth. We can provide play time and attention as caring adults, and we can also make room for them to play on their own and with peers. Children need time to muck around and explore without an adult agenda always steering their play.

However you slice it, the more playtime a child gets, the more opportunities there are for cognitive, emotional, social and motor development. Advocate for play to be included every day in Pre-K and Kindergarten, and for recess to be part of the daily curriculum through grade school. Kids focus better on academics when they’ve had time to play out their sillies. Keep them growing a head taller than themselves at every turn, and you will be on the right track.

imgres                 imgres-1