Photo: Courtesy of City Scouts
For a lot of parents, it’s difficult to strike the right balance between safety and independence. While many studies show that risky play and navigating failure are integral to kids' development, it’s still hard for us to get past the idea that something bad will happen the second we let our kids out of our sight. City Scouts, a new summer day camp in Toronto, is offering parents a safety net of sorts—a program that helps kids learn how to be self-sufficient in the city.
City Scouts, which isn’t affliated with Scouts Canada, is a week-long urban adventure camp where campers ages 10-13 can explore Toronto's downtown while learning how to navigate the TTC (which is Toronto's public transit system), order food and find their way to places like Toronto Island, the Toronto Reference Library and Kensington Market. It was founded by 20-year-old Riley Millican, who got the idea for the camp when he noticed that many of his friends had no clue how to use public transit by themselves.
“They had so much trouble getting around the city when we started to go to movies theatres and such. They wouldn’t know what to do,” said Millican. “I would get frustrated because I’d be telling them to just take the streetcar down to meet me and they’d ask all these questions because they were lost.”
Unlike some of his friends, Millican and his sister were encouraged by their father to memorize the local subway stops and learn their way through the system as kids. He said one of the keys parts to learning the TTC and the layout of the city for him was associating memories with different areas and nearby subway stations, which what makes City Scouts such an affective learning tool.
For example, the campers get a chance to see all kinds of flowers and plant life during a visit to the conservatory at Allan Gardens, which is just a short walk east of College Station. From there, they can take the 506 streetcar westbound on College Street until they get to Kensington Market, where they get to try different kinds of tacos from different restaurants in that area. “I think that interacting with activities based around the TTC allows them to really engrain that knowledge,” he said.
Another aspect that Millican wants campers to embrace is the idea of spontaneity. As they roam around the city in small groups, kids are encouraged to stop and explore places they see that pique their interest rather than focusing on getting to the next destination as fast as possible. By giving the kids that freedom to stop and smell the flowers, they gain a sense of control and independence that may not be a part of their day-to-day lives.
“Children want to feel respected, responsible and trusted,” says Mariana Brussoni, who is an associate professor in UBC’s department of paediatrics and the school of population and public health and an investigator at the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute and BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit. “Not providing children opportunities to take control of their own lives, including managing their own levels of risk and safety (as appropriate to their developmental stage and skill level), can send the message that they are incapable, incompetent and not to be trusted, and that only an adult is capable of making these decisions.”
Millican, who is also one of two counsellors taking a small group of kids around each week, said that fostering this kind of trust between him, his fellow counsellor and the kids is a big part of the City Scouts experience. While the adults are there to keep the kids safe while they explore downtown, he stresses that campers are encouraged to learn how to be safe on their own and figure out what it means to have that kind of autonomy. “I think that giving them that independence—even if it is just a small amount—goes a long way in their growth as kids and as City Scouts,” he said.
Brussoni agrees, but she warns that parents shouldn't expect kids to necessarily be ready for anything after one week of camp. “Learning about how to navigate your community and basic life skills are things that require years of gradual teaching that builds on previous lessons,” she said. “They are lessons that need to be taught by parents on an incremental basis.”
However, the current generation of parents doesn’t seem to be giving their children the space to learn these lessons. “Helicopter” parenting has become a huge trend in recent years where overprotective parents hover over their kid's every move in an attempt to keep them safe. “There is an assumption that the world is less safe than it was when parents were children. This is not the case,” said Brussoni. “It has never been a safer time to be a child in Canada.”
According to Brussoni, generational thinking among parents has shifted a lot in regards to the activities that children are allowed to do and their roaming range. Her research has found that the number one driving factor behind most parents’ decisions is fear relating to kids’ safety. "[It] clouding parents’ decisions, such that they are making important decisions about how they raise their children in a way that manages their own fears, rather than understanding the needs of their child,” she said.
In the past, parents would allow their kids to roam free around their neighbourhood, but nowadays this doesn’t happen. And because there aren’t other kids roaming around on their own, this creates a snowball effect where parents are less likely to let their own kids go out because they don’t want to send their kids out alone. As a result, more and more kids spend a majority of their time inside playing games on tablets.
So while a week with the City Scouts may not be a miracle cure, it can offer overprotective parents an entry point toward giving their older kids that sense of independence.
This story is a part of Let Them Play, a project examining kids and independence by Today’s Parent and Maclean’s.