By Essence B. Scott
In 1999, the Trails End Motel in East Windsor, where I grew up, had a large grassy area to play in and a tree to climb. My siblings and I were usually the only children there and so we played with each other. We wanted other children to play with, though. In school, we were finally given this opportunity, but it was short-lived. Here, we spent recess playing tag and swinging alongside our classmates. A short half-an-hour later, we returned to the classroom and later that night, to the empty motel yard.
Children should be encouraged to explore nature and their surroundings: the sunny sky above their heads and the green grass underneath their feet as they go on adventures that exist entirely in their imaginations. When a child is experiencing homelessness, the only thing out there is a parking lot. Often times, there are no other children to play with. Their interactions that they have with children their own age are limited and brief — maybe at a rest stop where families stop on their way to a vacation destination.
Today, HomeFront’s Family Campus paints a different reality — one that I am happy to see. The Campus built a playground for its resident children to enjoy. It is unsafe for children to play on pavement and parking lots where they can easily be injured. They need to feel the wind on their face and the dirt between their fingers. They also need to connect with other children to build important social and emotional skills. Programs like HomeFront’s ‘Joy, Hopes, and Dreams’ and ‘Camp Mercer’ bring children together and provide them with this opportunity.
When I was a part of HomeFront’s community, I took part in the different recreational activities that they offered. I was a teenager, so I was not interested in the slides and jungle gyms, but the swings were my favorite. It got me out of the house and allowed me to build relationships with people besides my brother and sister. It also fostered a love for the outdoors and encouraged me to live a healthier life. I was always out and about, constantly walking and running around.
Gym classes are another good way to encourage activity and play, especially in elementary school where it is much less competitive. When I was younger, I did not like structured play in gym class; but as I got older, I enjoyed signing up for different extracurricular activities that were offered through the physical education department like the weight room, ultimate frisbee, and volleyball.
Sometimes, the older kids would get together to play football. I remember being reluctant to play with them — being tackled and breaking my glasses? No, thank you. When I finally had the courage to play, I had a great time. I was no longer homeless at that point, but the fact still holds. Children and teenagers experiencing homelessness are often stressed and recreation allows them to let off some steam and build supportive relationships with others. Playing outside or on a sports team and the face-to-face interactions here give children a place to channel their energy. Conversations on the playground are much more helpful than those had over platforms like Skype and FaceTime (although those can help, too).
The opportunity to interact with others is also important for adults. My mom did not have anyone to talk to other than my siblings and myself when we were homeless. There were no other adults to regularly mingle or chat with. The offices in the motels we lived in had adults who were too busy with their jobs to socialize with a lonely teen, an energetic child, or a quiet adult.
Backyards, public parks, and school playgrounds are all great places to socialize with others. Children who are homeless are consistently deprived of the opportunity to meet new people, especially if they are living in places that do not cater to this need, like motels and shelters.
I am grateful for the playground at HomeFront’s Family Campus where children can be children everyday.
They should not have to grow up so fast. Maybe there is a small playground that a family has built in their backyard where the neighborhood children can stop by to play, or a safe park where children can meet — we can and should afford children these important opportunities to enjoy themselves and grow.