By Erin Porteous, CEO

As I was walking through a playground with my daughter a few weeks ago, I found myself admiring the lovely handiwork of tiny fingers that constructed an intricate scene utilizing materials from the great Mother Nature. Was I looking at a camping feast for friends to gather around and enjoy? Possibly a small garden for a city of fairies? Or maybe it was a plethora of treats for the chirping birds and squirrels flitting through the trees?

Whatever the intention of the young-but-mighty mind who choreographed the scene in question, it was evident that heart, thought and craftsmanship were all driving the final product. This led me to think about what it would be like to be a kid today. Every generation before the Z’s had the benefit of sharing more similarities than differences. We took the bus to school and back together, and our conversations mostly ended at the bus stop and resumed the next morning. When we wanted to talk to a friend outside of school, we called them on a landline, and if you were really lucky, you had call waiting and could patch another friend in. Most of us bought clothes from basic retailers, paying reasonable prices, and what set you apart was if you had a new pair of sneakers. We carried big heavy backpacks filled with textbooks instead of an iPad, possibly leading to the health problems – back, knees and hips – that some of us carry with us still.

Today, children from toddlers to teens experience a world where information is endlessly everywhere. They don’t go to a library to look up a book in the card catalog system, they just ask Siri for the answer. They don’t wait for their favorite band to release a record and then ride their bike to a local music store to buy it – they stream songs anytime, anywhere, while creating their own beats and lyrics they can circulate publicly in an instant. The complexities of photography that we studied in high school photo classes are made swift and simple by ever-present cell phone cameras and apps that allow us to filter, edit and retouch in a snap.

But when we think about the vulnerability of a growing mind, the importance of maintaining a gentle naiveté and joyous curiosity cannot be overstated. Gathering with friends at a park to create a scene from your collective imagination… the power of wondering what something is (or how something works, or why something happened the way it did) and then pursuing the answer yourself, not asking a machine or the internet to answer it for you… reading a book and getting lost in its world, excitedly turning the page to discover a character’s fate… these are vital experiences we can’t afford our children to miss out on.

And yet, it’s not just about encouraging our kids to explore their imaginations and the world around them, free of technological enhancements. It’s about emboldening them to try new things – to wonder, to dare, to take a turn at something unfamiliar – and allowing them to fail. Through failure, we develop grit. We learn to shrug off an unsuccessful try as a bump in the road, not the end of it. We learn to pick ourselves up and try again. We learn that practice, hard work and tenacity bring sweeter rewards than taking shortcuts like asking Siri.

When we learn as children to be unafraid to fail, we are better prepared to enjoy life – and to succeed – as adults.  

At the Boys & Girls Clubs, we offer this opportunity every day, to every child who comes through our doors: imagine, explore, try something new. We have education centers filled with novels, we have art rooms with paint-splattered floors and well-worn brushes, and in our technology labs await bins of Legos, 3D printers and robots begging to be built. In the summer, we take Club kids to Gates Camp, where they can revel in the simple pleasures of being in nature, and join adventures and activities galore. Every step of the way, our kids are surrounded by trusted adults in a supportive environment who will be there for them whether they sink or swim.

We create opportunities for fun and laughter, and safe spaces to try new things. Maybe some of them will realize they’re not especially good at mountain biking, or gardening, or photography… and that’s okay. It’s developing the courage and enthusiasm for trying new things and exploring their curiosity that matters most. I know this firsthand.

Let’s just say I had ambitions as a kid to master the butterfly stroke. My brother and I joined the neighborhood swim team, and with extra help from my coach after practice, I trained for my first 50-meter butterfly event. Sadly, I came in last place. So I worked extra hard at bettering my stroke the following week, and competed in the 50-meter butterfly at the next swim meet. Once again, I came in last.

This happened over and over again that summer. By all accounts, I failed at the butterfly stroke. But I had a coach who encouraged me, I had teammates who cheered for me during every race, and I had fun. Turns out, I didn’t need to become an expert competitive swimmer to enjoy swimming – something I still love to do today. How boring would life be if we only did things we were good at or things that come easily?

As the summer unfolds for you and your loved ones, I encourage you to let your imagination run wild and to not let the fear of failure hold you back from trying something that beckons to you. Not only may it fill you with joy and satisfaction for having done it… you’ll also be setting a great example for our Club kids, Generation Z and beyond.