One of the most powerful memories I have of childhood is playing in my backyard with my best friend. We had an old wooden (and probably unsafe) climber, a sandbox, a tree house (again, probably unsafe), and space. Space to roam, space to create, and space to play.
I clearly remember the weighted contraption we built from ropes, pulleys, old PVC pipes, and other assorted garage fodder to slow our fall as we jumped from the main tree. At the time, it was the most fun I’d ever had. That memory has stayed with me because of what it represents: I was engaged, interested, and independent. Looking back, it also was instrumental in teaching me how to problem-solve, create something from limited resources, adapt, and work with others…not to mention the principles of physics, geometry, negotiation, and basic first aid.
So here I am, decades later, the father of three small kids. In the fall of 2013, my daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and my whole world came to a standstill. I’m happy to say that seven months later she is doing great, physically recovering quickly, and cognitively and emotionally right on track with her peers. Recently, her therapists and doctors have offered interesting advice as they begin to phase her out of formal physical therapy: they simply want her to play.
Playing outside, keeping up with her peers, building things, kicking the soccer ball, attempting to climb trees, and the like are at the top of everyone’s lists. Then in the same breath, they advise us to sign her up for gymnastics, dance, martial arts, and even a structured “Play at the Park” group (yes, that exists). I diligently signed her up for all the recommended classes (except for the “Play at the Park” group, that one is just ridiculous). Now I spend most afternoons driving a mini-van around town, taking my daughter to various classes and programs. I’m that Dad!
So now all of this pre-programmed fun is competing with unstructured free play. What an interesting experiment!
When she does just go outside and play, guess what I see? I see her problem-solving with the limited resources she finds in our garage. I see her managing arguments with her 2-year-old brother who desperately wants to be included (but is a very inefficient collaborator).
We do a basic gratitude exercise with her every night at bedtime. Before reading books, we each talk about our favorite part of the day. At the end of a particularly epic day — she had done the big balance beam in gymnastics and had a massive party at dance class — I was gearing myself up to relive it all during “favorite part of the day.” When it came to her turn, she said, “I had the most fun with the rope and that box!” Having pretty much no idea what she was talking about, I asked a couple of follow-up questions. Sure enough, she was talking about the hour or so that she was outside and had dragged a rope and a box out of the garage. That was her favorite part!
As camp professionals, you have the power to create that experience for kids. Just like for my daughter, kids at your camp enjoy the programs and pre-scheduled activities. They can learn specific skills, and some of them may even find some passion or future direction. But they will learn more if you just let them play. They will discover what’s inside of them. They will work on skills that can help them be successful in other environments. They will create cherished and lasting memories when you create time and space in your program for kids to go outside and play.
“In my opinion, programs that don’t have unstructured free play as a major component are neglectful and will struggle to stay relevant. That’s how much I believe in play.”
In fact, my thinking on the entire topic of unstructured free play at camp has evolved from “would be nice” to “imperative.” In my opinion, programs that don’t have unstructured free play as a major component are neglectful and will struggle to stay relevant. That’s how much I believe in play.
The best camps and programs have time, space, and staff that oversee camper-directed, unstructured free play. Those camps that don’t offer a laundry list of reasons why it won’t work for them (these are all direct quotes from camp directors I know):
“There isn’t enough time in my program day to make sure that campers also get exposed to the most popular and sought-after activities.”
“Our camp doesn’t have a physical space that is conducive to just playing, and we would not be able to supervise the campers appropriately in the space we do have.”
“Our staff is trained to supervise and lead activities, so it is very hard for them to switch gears.”
I am so committed to the idea of free play that I am willing to say this: If you let excuses like these get in your way, you will have a sub-par program, and I wouldn’t want to send my kids to your camp.
Here are a few ways to make unstructured free play a reality at your camp:
Your schedule is up to you. Yes, there is a flow to your camp program that has probably been established over a very long time. Change it. Take something out. Decrease the amount of time for other activities. Create time in your schedule for free play, and make that sacred. For example, at my camp, rest hour is sacred. It is for resting. It’s not for meetings or planning or anything else; it is for resting. The same should be done for free play.
Some camps have areas designated for free play that include a random assortment of fun props: rope, water, hoses, PVC pipes, old tires, cans, sand, buckets, and any number of other things. Other camps have natural areas that entice kids into free play, such as woods, a beach, natural springs, an open field, etc. But all camps have somewhere to play; a gym, parking lots, sidewalks, the edge of a sports field, a grove of trees … anywhere works. The point I’m making is that it doesn’t matter which spaces and props you use.
The final piece of the puzzle is staff. We need to teach our staff what free play means and how to be comfortable with it. Most of the staff who work for us didn’t experience a lot of unstructured free play as kids, so they are unsure about what it is and how it will work. Who is in charge? How will the kids know what to do? How should I participate? They ask these questions because they have no framework for what free play is. As an industry we need to teach our staff how to oversee free play.
I want to send my kids to your camp. Give me a reason: Tell me how you include free play in your program. All you need are kids, staff, time, and the directions “go and play,” and it will happen.
Article originally published in CampMinder Magazine, Vol. 4
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