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Getting Your Child Off The X Box and Into The Game

              Today I walked into Sidleterra, a place of wonder and imagination where children don’t just watch an adventure, they live it. Upon arrival we entered the “Gate of Destiny” and were greeted with a loud “Huzzah!”. Gwen (age 12) stated, “It’s like we stepped back in history! It’s weird, but a totally awesome kind of weird.” Actually, Sidleterra is the Wizards and Warriors sleep-away summer camp, where children get to be the heroes of their own stories. The site is a re-creation of a medieval village, tucked away in Charlton, MA.               It's hard to find summer or after school activities that children enjoy which don't involve TV or video games. The Guard Up Family Fencing and Swordsmanship school of Burlington, MA, runs afterschool programs, classes, overnight and day camps including Wizards and Warriors. In this stimulating environment children get plenty of physical activity, opportunities for social development and fun, intellectual challenges. Their imaginations come alive as they choose to be warriors, wizards, healers, and so on and develop the history and personas of their characters. Every part of the camp is designed to meet the individual needs of the campers. Those who are combat fans can bound headlong into battle with foam swords swinging. One camper stated, “I prefer to use the mind as a weapon, not the body.” He and his like minded friends can take an alternative approach as a healer or scout. There is room for all. The motto, “Honor, Courage and Compassion” teaches the kids to understand that courage is not only about bravely going into battle, but also knowing when to honor their own feelings.                In this setting, kids hone their executive functioning skills without even knowing it.   In Alchemy, for example, they use deductive reasoning to combine potion ingredients. Organization and attentional skills are constantly relied on as they seek clues, solve puzzles, and develop strategies to defeat monsters and villains.   As one parent put it, “It promotes organization, initiation, and communication; all the things we want him to be able to do at school. It teaches critical thinking. Thinking out of the box is promoted and encouraged.”               Participating in mock battles, kids get a cardio workout and enhance their balance and coordination. “It's a place to be creative and physical and not have to be competitive”, remarked the parent of one day-camper. At night they return exhausted, but happy after a full day. This is a huge bonus, as research has shown that excessive TV or computer time can impair sleep, while physical activity has been shown to enhance it.               Campers also work on social skills as they plan, negotiate, build alliances and enlist aid from others. Morgan Kuberry, the director of the day camp, states that many of the children’s goals have nothing to do with martial arts, but are actually more focused on improving social skills.   Playing a character gives the kids the freedom to try out new things in a supportive environment. Most importantly, what do the kids think? Every hero I talked to had similar things to say. When asked what they liked best, most said, “Everything!” Adam, age 13 exclaims, “It’s so awesome! I love being imaginative. We even get to make armor!” John, age 11, who has gone to several other camps, says he loves Wizards and Warriors camp much more. “It’s fantasy. It lets you use your imagination. Instead of having to sit around all day, you’re getting up and running around. It’s awesome!” Evan, age 9 states, “I love it! It helps me get my energy out. I like being with people that have the same interests as me. I fit in here.” Two young maiden sisters agreed: “It's great!” Although, neither of them had been at sleep away camp they both quickly fell in love with Wizards and Warriors. Besides being fun and exciting there is a deeper layer of benefits that lie beneath the surface. The physical and mental advantages of dramatic play are clearly indicated by over forty years of research findings.         There are many great forms of enjoyable physical activity. One impressive point about Guard Up is that the staff is trained in “Positive Coaching”; The focus on winning is secondary to learning life lessons through activity.    At the end of one skirmish, I watched a counselor process with the kids what they did well and what they could work on further. The kids recognized the importance of teamwork and said they would have been more successful if they stayed together and communicated.               As an Occupational Therapist, I am very aware of the power of meaningful activity in physical and mental development. As a mom, it's a pleasure to watch these kids so completely engaged in body and mind. Without a doubt, we are fortunate that programs like this are available for our children!  

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