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play at the things that they see adults doing,” he says. “They’re playing at hunting and they’re playing at digging up roots and they’re playing at the various dances of the culture.” In a literate culture like ours, free play often involves words (such as hopscotch rhymes) and numbers (such as scorekeeping). “When chil- dren are learning these things in play, they’re learning them in a context that’s meaningful to them, that makes sense to them,” Gray says. Finally, kids at play learn skills that neither they nor adults can necessar- ily identify. Elkind describes a story told by Maria Montessori, the famous Italian educator. Montessori once encountered a young girl who was so intent on sorting and stacking a set of graded cylinders that she ignored other children who were singing and marching around her. Finally, the girl

stopped and gave a beatific smile. “Montessori says, ‘We don’t know

what she learned, but she learned a great deal,’” Elkind recalls. “That’s the point. We, as adults, may not know what children are learning when they’re engaging in these repetitive activities, but for the child, it’s a learn- ing experience.”

Free Play in Scouting Of course, Scouting at all levels offers plenty of opportunity for free play: Cub Scouts exploring a creek during a family campout, Boy Scouts performing silly skits at a campfire, Venturers playing a pickup game of Hacky Sack after a long day on the Philmont trails. What’s more, the program brings together kids of various ages and offers a safe envi- ronment (no “stranger danger”) for young people to experience free play.

The trick is for Scout leaders to

take a step back and refrain from turning every game into a teach- able moment or filling every idle hour with belt loop or merit badge instruction. Otherwise, Scouting becomes yet another stress-inducing, achievement-oriented activity. In his research, Gray found a

causal relationship between the decline in free play and an alarming rise in anxiety among kids. “Kids are spending so much time in our culture on achievement-oriented things that we’re quite literally driving some kids crazy,” he says. Scouting offers an ideal oppor-

tunity to restore some sanity to childhood. All we have to do is remember the words of Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell. In The Wolf Cub’s Handbook, he wrote, “Play is the first great educator.” ¿




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