[Life Back West] August 2009 – How I (and the Millennials) Spent Summer Vacation

There are ways to mark time as well as waste it. Camp Mather is neither. Instead it’s a low-frills family camp where I spent last week on vacation with my seven year old son. It is a place for San Francisco families to affirm the milestones that come with personal development and growth for their kids and themselves.

In its 85th year of being a warm getaway place in the splendor of Yosemite for residents of the City with the big heart and cold summers, it’s a venue for the rarity of modern life: unstructured child centered play for kids in a natural setting.

Two key abilities that mark successful leaders are the ability to manage conflict effectively and to juggle priorities well. The former trait enables leaders to work through the invariable tug and pull of competing wants and wishes from different people and groups: the latter enables those leaders to hone a mindset that recognizes that “first things first” is not just a efficiency mantra but a way of living.

Research strongly suggests that kids who have adequate opportunities for unstructured child centered play develop these type of “executive functioning” skills early and well. Marinate your kids in nothing but flashcards and regimented soccer leagues, the research suggests, and kids can “think” but are underdeveloped in their ability to work well with others and manage the shifting demands of everyday work and living. Good executive functioning, research shows, is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ. “All head but no heart” as my former boss Magnus Lundberg might observe for those kids who learn lots, but can’t work with others.

Kids playing in nature is simply an added bonus. Like the messages from journalist Richard Louv to WALL-E , nature inspires and infuses all but the most cynical with wonder, astonishment, and affirmation in its power and magic. Kids, as Louv notes, blossom in the outdoors.

Today there is angst and teeth grinding by some regarding the twenty somethings in the workforce today. This group, tagged as Gen Y, the Millennials , is assumed to be spoiled and overindulged by boomer parents who helicoptered in at the slightest sign of distress and organized kids lives in a regimen of structured activities (piano, little league, organized “play” groups, etc.). They are perceived as lacking the stuff to manage themselves, let alone others or projects, without hand holding and support by their elders.

Places like Camp Mather though, provided a training ground that many of these twenty somethings experienced as kids. Archery or lakeside lolling and perhaps a game of catch? Bike on over to see Olivia, Jett and Parker, or hang out with Lillian, Nate or Yu Xin on the large flat boulder known as “God’s butt-crack rock.” Take too much time playing catch and release with the milk crate for over-curious squirrels and miss bingo, or catch a lunch of corndogs at the dining hall and miss out on a chance to sneak a hike up to Carlon Fall s to dip in the cool stream at mid-day? Those executive functioning skills – like riding a bike – will come back to those Millennials when they need them.

There are no test scores to bandy around for kids who get this type of “executive functioning” development early. But like many things in life (e.g. exercise regularly, eat right, and get proper sleep) that you can do, good things tend to turn out to those that let their kids be kids and play. As my Genentech colleague Andrea Graff might note, design it well and trust the process. All work and no play, it turns out, does not make Jack just a dull boy, but years later an adult who lacks competence in some critical ways.

We’ll most likely be back at Camp Mather next year. And in the way that there are no coincidences in life, much of the same cast of characters that have managed to independently pick the same week out of 10 for the last three years will be there with us.