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Play at Camp

Play based learning is a powerful summer experience

Brandywine YMCA

(page 1 of 2)

The old proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has never been truer. After decades of research by experts in child development, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and psychology, we now know that play is fundamental to creating happy, healthy people. Studies show that the presence or absence of unstructured play in a child’s life can be a predictor of success in adulthood. 

The irony is that, while we now have proof about the importance of play, “Over the last two decades alone, children have lost 12 hours a week of time to engage in self-initiated activity. Eight of those lost hours were once spent in unstructured outdoor play,” noted Tufts University professor Dr. David Elkind when researching and writing about the subject for the American Camp Association. 

One of the biggest changes Camp Dark Waters’ Travis W. Simmons has seen over the past 20 years is how kids play — or don’t play, because they don’t know what to do. “In video games and organized sport, children are told exactly how to play, where to move and how to advance to the next level. Even in school recess, kids have lost the freedom to play: Often, teachers decide what games kids will play and act as referees,” says Simmons, executive director of the Quaker-based overnight camp in Medford, NJ. “While this may decrease bullying and disagreements, the kids also lose the opportunity to solve problems themselves, to compromise, to become creative and to rely on oneself instead of others to provide fun.”  

Camp = play 

Addressing this play-deficit, summer camps typically blend structured activities with plenty of “free play” time when campers may create their own games and engage with each other and their own imaginations.

“All day, every day, summer camp is designed for children to play,” says Michael Mackrides, director of Indian Springs Day Camp in Chester Springs, PA. “The camp atmosphere is very different from home or school, with facilities and open space that promote play. Children are outdoors all day long, with no TV, video games or cell phones.”  

At Indian Springs’ 46-acre campus, campers have a daily schedule filled with activities, plus free time available from early morning through late afternoon. “Children who attend camp are more likely in their free time to play spontaneously,” Mackrides continues. “A group of campers will play a pickup game of soccer or have a football or lacrosse catch after lunch. Children become part of a camp family and develop a deeply rooted desire to play with anyone and everyone.”

At Camp Dark Waters, “We see children every summer who are burned out from a year of constant programming, so on any day campers may have up to four hours of unstructured, supervised free time to play creatively and choose what they want to do,” explains Simmons. “Some might fish, canoe, play basketball, tetherball or ping-pong. Others relax under a tree and read or make friendship bracelets. More choose to play in the sand and create huge sand-castle civilizations. Trained staff members are there to supervise and help campers find what interests them, but not to coach or organize activities.” 

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