Last Saturday, I met a child who took tremendous delight in a green olive. Actually, he enjoyed lots of green olives, devouring as many as I would give him.
I was serving food at a picnic for bike riders from the Community Bike Works, an organization in Allentown that mentors inner-city children through their bicycle maintenance program. The riders, nine children and five adults, met up with us at Sand Island in Bethlehem. They were riding along the Canal Towpath, a section of the D & L Trail, from their start in Allentown’s Canal Park. My employer, EZ Micro Solutions, sponsored the lunch.
Among the spread of wrap sandwiches, chips, cookies, and drinks was a very large container of green olives. I love olives, but I wasn’t sure that this group would eat them. I had forgotten to bring a serving spoon, but that was no deterrent. Young and old alike were pouring them onto their plates or simply grabbing a handful. And there was much appreciation for all that was offered. We must have heard a hundred thank-yous that day.
These children brought a warm and infectiously happy attitude to an already beautiful, sunny day. “Wow, I’m really ready for this!” one child announced. “I know what’s in this box,” said another as he hovered over the cookies. A few others kept riding in circles around the path, having too much fun to stop for food. One of the older boys managed to climb a nearby tree. We finally corralled all of them for a prayer before digging in. A young hand shot up, “Oh, may I say the prayer?” he begged. Absolutely! We bowed our heads as he asked God to bless the food we were about to eat and thanked Him for the many blessings in our lives.
It brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to drink up the boundless energy that poured from these kids, taking it in like a much needed antidote to the worries of my adult life. Will my car make it through at least one month without needing repair? Can we solve a big software issue at work? But seeing the joy these kids took in something as simple as an olive, or a bike ride, or a tree, made me think. Have I forgotten the importance of play in my own life? Lately, it seems that my commitments have filled up too much space on my to-do list. I need to make time for pure, un-obliged fun.
Community Bike Works has found a way to encourage kids to have fun while also sneaking in lessons in work ethic and responsibility. Their youth development programs provide kids with mentors who serve as experienced friends and role models. Students who regularly meet with mentors are less likely to skip school, or abuse alcohol or illegal drugs. Children gain companionship and supervision. They learn leadership skills and build their self-esteem. But let’s not overlook one of the most fundamental elements of a program like Community Bike Works — it helps kids benefit from play.
There is much research that supports the belief that play is vital to a child’s growth and development. It’s through play that children learn about their world. Play helps kids learn to read, solve problems, understand math, and build social skills. So it’s not hard to imagine what these children are learning at Community Bike Works. CBW has been teaching bike maintenance to kids for 20 years — four or more nights per week, all year long, 16 kids per night “play” with bikes. Maybe some former students have gained employment because of their training, or earned a college degree. Maybe some have become teachers, businessmen, or engineers.
I hope all of them, no matter how old, are still going on bike rides. Because as adults, we still need the benefits of play. We focus so much on work and family commitments, that we end up leaving little room for some pure fun. Work may keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. But it’s the childlike bliss of play that will keep us healthy, happy, and peaceful. Make time in your life for a bike ride. Play tag with the neighborhood kids or fetch with the dog. Climb a tree!
No kids or dogs at home? No problem! Community Bike Works would love to have you join their ranks as a volunteer. They are always looking for adults to mentor their students, help out with bike mechanics classes, or chaperone bike rides. If biking isn’t your thing, there are lots of other organizations in our community that support children and animals. Consider becoming a volunteer. Volunteering can be a great way to spend leisure time with individuals who enjoy the same activities that you do. But it can also give you a sense of fulfillment beyond the play – the satisfaction that comes from knowing that you have helped to improve the lives of others.
Whether you volunteer or just simply make time to have fun, you are bound to reap the rewards. Play may be vital to a child’s growth and development, but it’s essential to an adult’s sanity. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” I think the young boy I met on Saturday would say, “Stop and enjoy the olives!”
© Vulnerable Path, 2015