The Importance of “Free Play”

One of the most amazing parts of summer camp is the abundance of activities campers participate in.  Campers receive exceptional instruction from specialists and coaches in land and water sports, fine and performing arts, outdoor adventure, culinary arts, horseback riding, and so much more.  Campers benefit from structured activities that teach new skills, build self confidence, and challenge them to take healthy risks.  But camp also allows for another very important part of childhood that campers benefit from…free play.  Free play is any kind of unstructured activity that encourages children to use their imagination, and is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills. Free unstructured play helps children build a wide range of skills necessary for success in school, developing friendships, problem solving, creative thinking and practicing self-control.  Free play allows kids a chance to improvise, make up their own rules and work together.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, free play is important for children to reach significant social, emotional and intellectual milestones.   Peter Gray, an expert on the evolution of childhood play, says “playing with other children is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences with others and make friends”.  We live in a time of passive play, where children spend a lot of time sitting in front of a video game, computer or television (usually indoors), with very little time to be imaginative or creative outdoors.
So in addition to the fun and excitement that surrounds the daily structured activities at camp, there is also time to unwind and just play.  Rest hour at camp, time at the canteen and the occasional free time after dinner, allows campers to have this creative time outside of the structured instruction they receive throughout the day.  During rest hour, you can find campers shooting hoops on the basketball court, having an impromptu guitar jam, playing a game of cards, having a rally on the tennis court, or making up a new dance.  They organize the activity and make up the rules.  Whatever they decide to do, it is usually something that uses the imagination and creates a connection to one another.  This connection and working together builds self-awareness, cooperation and empathy.  Free play also gives campers a chance to discover new interests that they can enjoy at camp and throughout the year.  Free play allows campers to create, grow and stretch their imagination.