Everyone Needs Play

When I was a small boy, my parents maintained a subscription to National Geographic. I remember going through and looking at pictures and then later being able to read some of the stories behind all the wonderful photography. Mom and Dad would sometimes read to me and talk about all the faraway places, cultures, animals, the ocean, and space. I still subscribe to the magazine and am still captivated by the content and interesting aspects of our planet and beyond.

In the January issue, there was an article about “Play” and how we look at play as we grow out of childhood. As a camp director, I have expressed my views about “play” in our camp setting on many occasions in my blogs, and talking with parents, staff, and colleagues in the camp industry. At camp, we believe that structured and unstructured play helps to develop youngsters into productive adults. “Playing and having fun may be fundamental to the survival of our species,” the article suggests. “The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression”, says psychiatrist and researcher, Stuart Brown. “Play may look frivolous or a time waster but it’s as essential as a good night’s sleep.”

At camp, we’re programmed throughout the day but we also allow time for unstructured free play which allows another level of interaction with fellow campers in a more relaxed form of freedom and creativity. This is good for our brains. These free play times are when we solve problems and make discoveries. The author states,” Play allows you to deal with uncertainty and surprise in a safe environment.” Great Britain has created several playgrounds where adults are not allowed. Mind you, several adult workers roam around the playground to make sure all is well. These play areas have wood, nails, hammers, handsaws, shovels, wheelbarrows, and other hand tools that children can use at will to create and explore in a parent-free environment. It allows participants to try things that a parent might advise against or try to redirect. Children are free to decide about building, moving dirt, and salvaging/recycling some of the discards of everyday life that end up at the playground. 

In our camp world, one of the biggest by-products of play, whether child or adult, is building and maintaining relationships. I joined a local bicycle club last year and one of the biggest benefits has been riding with others who I didn’t know. Sharing conversation and riding together is a crucial piece of the pie of life. As we all know a good piece of pie makes you feel warm and good all over. Playing with others at camp and learning cooperative skills provides an avenue for the social skills it takes to navigate life, as you take social strides toward independence, going away from home, and then securing a job. Playing together and sharing ideas brings about the kind of social interaction that leads to many creative processes. Somewhere along the way, someone was trying to create fire, and perhaps a “co-player” had a better idea that was built on what she was seeing her friends working towards. We see this every day at camp where staff will introduce an idea to accomplish a task and children will translate those ideas to fit their learning style and devise creative ways to accomplish the task. In “camp play mode” ideas and thoughts bounce around our brains invigorating imagination, and curiosity, and as said before building relationships and enhancing inclusivity.

The Geo article states how wolves use play as a way of acceptance into the pack; a must for a young wolf maturing. “Winning is not the goal but to keep the game going. If you take turns being fair in your play you’re reinforcing the egalitarian aspects of wolf pack life.” Peter Gray, a researcher at Boston University states. “Humans took one giant step away from fun when we started planting fields. Planting fields and milling flour are strenuous, repetitive, and boring tasks.” I find this interesting since we incorporate farm and mill life at camp. Not every child chooses the farm and mill as activities but many do and they love it. It certainly provides a greater appreciation of where our food comes from. Farmers work hard and we hope that children at camp better understand that demanding lifestyle as we recreate that farm-to-table aspect of the program.

In closing, I would submit that perhaps our national legislators and leaders need a couple of weeks of play at camp to shake the shackles of partisan governing off for a while, practice a little teamwork, and experience the collaborative and community spirit of summer camp. Our world is complicated and we have many challenges within and beyond our borders. We get a small glimpse of other cultures and other parts of our country while attending camp. Play allows us to learn from and get along with others who are different from us. So….. get out there and play and don’t let anyone tell you you’re wasting your time. You are taking a big warm bite of the apple pie of life filled with the “simple joys” while becoming the best version of yourself.