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Does Unstructured Play Belong at Summer Camp?

January 9th, 2012 · 4 Comments · Activities and Programming

Summer camp directors have long since known the benefits of summer camp on a child’s development. New research on the benefits of non-directed play have finally caught up with what camp professionals have known all along. Stuart Brown, in his Ted Talk, says play is more than just fun. On many occasions I have to defending our play time to parents. We have a very structured camp and have segments during the day that is supervised and unstructured play time. Parents, coming upon what looks like kids running everywhere, complain, “There is nothing going on. Why aren’t you running more activities?” We supply supervision as well as some tools to be used in play, like balls, games, etc. Kids seems to like rocks and sticks and dirt. They get time to run, sit, talk, and be self-directed. We all know how play changes when the adult is involved, children naturally look to the adult to solve the problems rather than working together to negotiate the conflict. Back in the day when you went out to play until the street lights came on, you had to work out everything from what games to play, who to play with, and most importantly, how to solve conflicts. If teams were uneven, you found a way to even it out, sometimes that meant changing the rules. We learned how to compromise, solve problems, argue, and communicate.

Parents are depriving children of play

Look at children today. When do they get time to play? I don’t mean on the soccer team or going to swim practice or at “play dates” where the parents are there to intervene at the moment of conflict. Parents want to spare their children the grief that can come with play and by doing so are depriving them of one of the most fundamental aspects of growing up. Parents want every moment of camp to be planned and structured because they see that as good value. I argue it is far more valuable to have a child supervised yet allowed to play in the truest sense of the word. I do understand. Camp is expensive and parents view the teaching and structure as something they are paying for. We need to educate them that part of the value is allowing their child to play with other children without adults running them through a lesson plan and an organized basketball game. Sure, there is a time for that during their day, but that is not their entire day. I think day camps can have a harder time with this since the day can be very packed. On my accreditation visits to overnight camp, I find children have more opportunities for unstructured time. Day camps have to be a bit more intentional in creating those moments for play to be child-directed and child-mediated.

Play has a biological place and is critical for problem solving and brain development

Work at the National Institute of Play is researching the benefits of play on the brain. It has been deemed so important in the creative process that Stanford has an engineering class “From Play to Innovation” They are noticing that workers who have experience with mechanics and building things with their hands as children are better engineers as adults.

7 patterns of play

Research from the National Institute of Play, working to identify the elemental forms of play, has outlined seven patterns of play that make up our play.

1. Attunement Play – the grounding basis of play when a mother and child gaze back and forth smiling and responding to each other

2. Body Play & Movement – related to human movement, rolling down a hill, standing on your head, moving your body through space for the sake of moving

3. Object Play – using objects in play like balls, boxes, blocks, is foundational for later problem solving as an adult

4. Social Play – from playing “chase” on the playground to a pick-up game of flag football, this aspect of play is integral and often the most challenging for children with social cognitive deficits like Aspergers or Autism.

5. Imaginative and Pretend Play – creating and playing in an imaginary world is essential in understanding and trusting others as well as in the development of coping skills. This can be seen throughout life as no matter how old you are, even an empty wrapping paper role becomes a light saber or sword.

6. Storytelling – Narrative Play is learned early on and often carried through a life time from a parent reading or telling you stories to you crafting the story of your life in your self-made narrative. This helps you make sense of the world, delights and entertains you. We only need to look at the popularity of shows like This American Life to see how much storytelling is valued.

7. Transformative-Integrative and Creative Play – is using play to generate new ideas. The Tinkering School is a fun summer program run by Software engineer Gever Tulley that encourages kids to play with fire, throw spears and take risks. He has a book and web site on 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do. As parents become more attune with the value of this type of play for future work place success, they will demand it in educational and summer camp settings.

Do you have play in your summer camp?

Stuart Brown says that if the purpose is more important than the play itself then is probably is not play. Do you have time for kids to play at camp? We know this helps children learn to share, control their impulses, to reason, negotiate, and plan for the future. Have you ever had to justify play time to parents? How do you balance more adult-led and structured lessons and activities with child-directed play at camp? Do you think parents are paying for structure and teaching and they can play on their own time?

More Resources

New York Times Article Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum
US Coalition of Play
Free Range Kids (blog)
Stuart Brown says play is more than fun (Ted Video)
Gever Tulley 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do (Ted Video)
Web site 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do
Book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)

Did you find a typo? I am a poor proofread so send me a note jennselke [at]


  • Joseph Gunn

    Thanks for this. I have been trying to wrap my head around experiential learning, play, and just how exactly they overlap/don’t overlap. While I am interested in how this plays out in adults at this point, you’ve given some great resources.

  • Love this post! Structured and imaginative play is so important, and forget about camp – kids’ whole lives are filled with programmed activities these days!  Looking forward to reading more of what you write!

  • This is great! Unstructured play in so important for kids to learn to make choices, interact with one another and practice creativity. 

    I work at a Boys and Girls Club and with our camps and other programs we try to make sure that a good portion of our activities allow space for teamwork and imagination as well. 

    We try to add in free time in between each activity and it works wonderfully. Even just as behavior management it can be incredibly effective because the “squirrelly” children can find a way to become active during that time, while others can play more quietly.

  • Ed Worthington

    Great post.  I think it’s ideal to have a blend between structured and unstructured activities.  The problem is that sometimes the structured activities become boring.  Keeping excitement in structured programs is critical.  Here’s a good post that goes over some suggestions for creating engaging programs: