Play at Camp

Play based learning is a powerful summer experience

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.” 


Quantity & quality of free play 

How children play is as important as how much they play. Stuart Brown, MD, founder of the National Institute of Play, believes that play is a biological drive as integral to our health as sleep or nutrition. In Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, he says, “Play is essential to our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, ability to problem solve and more. Particularly in tough times, we need to play more than ever, as it’s the very means by which we prepare for the unexpected, search out new solutions and remain optimistic.”

Adds Ivy Sheehan, senior child development director at the Brandywine YMCA in Wilmington, DE, “Play gives children experiences in decision making, working in a group, making and following rules, expressing their thoughts, enhancing their creativity and building trust and bonds with others. It allows children to test their boundaries and take some risks. Through play children find lifelong hobbies and friends, build their self-esteem and their self-efficacy.”

To create play opportunities, “We set up activities — sign language, team-building, environmental education, animal care and archery — that help the body and mind to learn, grow and explore,” says Sheehan. “Structured games are planned with education in mind; the brain works best when the body is moving. But there is also time to build forts for the camp community. Spontaneous play happens during the planned activities that we call teachable moments. It also happens in the pool, during transitions and any time the group is together.”

Learning to play

“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems and generally take control of their own lives,” says Boston College professor Peter Gray in Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

To ensure that children play at camp, Simmons spends a lot of training time teaching counselors how to facilitate play without leading it. “We want our staff to supervise from within while playing with our campers, not standing on the sidelines watching. It’s through this that our community learns to respect each other and what makes each of us special and different.”

“Staff training at the Brandywine YMCA is designed for counselors to experience and learn what we expect our campers to feel while they are in our care,” says Sheehan. “They experience a camp day from the eyes of a camper.”  Mackrides says, “Play is of the utmost importance in youth development. Being physically active, children will build strength, stamina, develop the mind and nurture friendships.”  

“Play is the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or ‘quality time’ or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways,” Gray writes. 

If, as Gray says, “Playing is learning,” then summer camps are state-of-the-art classrooms. 

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association (ACA) Keystone regional office serving Pennsylvania and Delaware. Learn more at and

Categories: Camps & Classes