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Do We Over-Entertain Our Kids?

If this is what they do for 4-year olds, I thought, what do you have to do to keep a 10-year-old interested, blow yourself up?

This summer we stepped outside our comfort zone. We sent our 4-year-old daughter to a camp full of sugary treats, loud pop music, and kids twice her size playing games in which balls are beamed at bodies.

She loved it.

For preschool, I would drop her off in a little garden outside the classroom. The parking lot was so small and remote, the baby could stay in the car if I ran in and out quickly.

At Camp Chaos, drop off was in a space the size of a Roman arena, with different specialized camps clustered in gaggles around the room. As I said goodbye the first day, Ke$ha belted out her newest single from giant speakers, while counselors began call and repeat shout-outs worthy of the Marines. My daughter looked all at once terrified and thrilled.

At school, our daughter’s day is carefully balanced between active, outgoing activities and more restful, introspective times. Often, they nap. When we pick her up after lunch, the teacher reminds us she’s probably more ready for quiet time at home than errands and playdates.

But the day at Camp Chaos was full throttle. With a few stops for water, lunch, or candy, hard and hot summer play was the only way to go. At the end of a camp day I would have thought way too long for her, our child came home ecstatic. She quoted from movies we wouldn’t think of watching and informed me that foods I deemed treats were actually real food.

Awesome.

Really, though, there was no true harm done. A week of Camp Chaos didn’t turn my daughter into the dreaded unfocused child of the new millennium. It didn’t kick her out of the toddler demographic and on her way into tween. It did not give her ADD.

Even better, did I mention how much fun she had? Also, I no longer felt so nervous about keeping her sheltered from the big wide world she would one day need to navigate. Fortunately, one day is not coming anytime soon for us. But I’ve written before about ills like junkfood and media becoming kryptonites for me, how I worry if I don’t ease them in soon, they’ll become the infamous forbidden fruits you hear so much about.

Now I have Camp Chaos to take care of that. It’s helped me realize that even if we keep her in a Waldorf school for as long as we can, sprinkling in some “real world experiences” could help expand her bubble slowly, rather than pop it altogether. It could provide some balance.

To this end, I also began to check out some children’s programming this summer, wondering what were missing with the tube turned off at our place. This is how my husband came to find me on the couch one night watching “Dora the Explorer” by myself.

My reviews were mixed. Sesame Street was far less changed than I’d feared and the next day it was a pleasure to watch it with my daughter  while the baby napped. But some of the animated “educational” shows shocked me with the amount of overstimulating insanity they seemed to think was necessary to keep our children interested. Really? I thought. Does that character need to watch a music-video on his smartphone while riding an air-scooter that shoots flashing rainbow exhaust, just to teach the words that start with “V”?

I know my child is a bit green with television and that even CNN holds her interest right now. But are other pre-K kids that jaded that they need all these bells and whistles etching away at their attentions spans before they even crack a textbook? Or do those in media production and marketing just think they need to top whatever the competition is doing to knock kids over the head with entertainment? If this is what they do for 4-year olds, I thought, what do you have to do to keep a 10-year-old interested, blow yourself up?

Which brings me back to Camp Chaos. Perhaps they, too, think they need loud Top 40 and Otter Pops to make sure the kids want to come back the next summer. If their competition is the Wi and Spongebob, I think I get it.

But I know my young child would have been just as thrilled with a puppet show, as candy and craziness. I’m fairly sure the same could be said of others in her age group. After all, just a couple of years ago, they thought the best part of the toy was the packaging.

I’m not so sure about those a few years older than my daughter, though. And honestly, if I crammed this first year of kindergarten with iPhone play in waiting rooms, DVDs in the car, and dinners in front of the TV, perhaps by next summer she too would be demanding more from her counselors than just games and craft-time.

This is not to say that I’m sure what we’re doing is the right and only way to raise an engaged and focused kid. It is what seems to work for our individual family at this moment in time, though.

I’m just wondering if everyone realizes the choices we are actually making all the time about the ways we entertain our children. To me, it seems like it could easily become one long road of upping the ante on what it takes to make an impression.

If we choose to let a marketing department or seasoned business-owner decide what’s entertaining for our kids, we could unwittingly be playing a high-stakes game that doesn’t end until they go off to college with a laser show, just to be sure they’re paying attention. So, as with so many things in parenting, it’s not always about the individual choices we make, as much realizing we are making choices at all.

Having said that, we’ve already booked our place at Camp Chaos again for next year. By then, my daughter may have forgotten about screaming contests with candy prizes, and experience the thrill anew…one can only hope.

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