The American Academy of Pediatrics endorses it. Hundreds of research projects over several decades affirm it. There’s even a scholarly journal devoted to it.
“It” is free play. Experts cite free play as essential to helping children develop.
Free play may be little noticed. Yet it’s a crucial part of the summer camp experience.
The American Academy of Pediatrics calls free play “unstructured activity that allows youngsters to use their imagination.” In addition to healthy brain development, the benefits of free play include:
• Using creativity to develop imagination, dexterity and other strengths
• Encouraging children to interact
• Helping kids conquer fears and build confidence
• Teaching youngsters to work in groups, learn to share and resolve conflicts
• Helping children practice decision-making skills.
Many forces – the growth of organized sports and other activities, changes in family structures, reduced recess and physical education time – have made free play an endangered species.
Except at camp.
We make sure to schedule unscheduled time. If that sounds like an oxymoron, it’s not.
“Downtime” allows campers to be creative. Some play jacks on the floor of the cabin; others strum guitars, make bracelets, trade stickers, play ping-pong, chess or wiffle ball.
Campers may organize their own games. Pick-up soccer or basketball is far different from organized games.
Kids choose their own teams, modify the rules, even call their own fouls. “Sandlot” sports are almost a lost art. At camp, they’re very much alive.
Free play can be fleeting, or turn into a tradition. Some involves large groups; some is best done in twos and threes.
Free play can produce surprising leaders – and showcase otherwise hidden talents.
Free play is many things. It’s important, creative and unstructured.
Most of all: It’s fun.