The Values of the Traditional Camp Experience: The Power of Play

by David Elkind, Ph.D.


The Power of Play by David Elkind, Ph.D., is available from the ACA Bookstore or
call 888-229-5745.

Childhood is moving indoors. Over the last two decades alone, children have lost twelve hours a week of time to engage in self-initiated activity. Eight of those lost hours were once spent in unstructured outdoor play. In contrast, the amount of time children spend in organized sports has doubled, and the number of minutes children devote to passive spectator leisure, not counting television, but including watching sports, has increased five fold from thirty minutes to over three hours (Hofferth 1999). The public schools are not helping, and an increasing number of elementary schools are eliminating recess or are considering doing so. Many summer camps have become little more than summer schools for academics, sports, or computer skills (DeGregory 2005). At least one rationale for cutting back on play is that it is a luxury we cannot afford in our competitive high-tech, global economy. Yet, this negative attitude toward play reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what children need for healthy mental, physical, and social/emotional growth.

Play, Love, and Work

Part of the problem lies in the fact that we are accustomed to thinking of play and work as polar opposites. Mark Twain had Tom Sawyer say, “Work is something a body is obliged to do, and play is something a body is not obliged to do.” Adages like “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” reinforce this perception of play and work as separate and distinct from one another. Yet, play and work are both fundamental means of adaptation and are both valuable and essential. Indeed, when they are brought together with love, the third dynamic of adaptation, we have the most favorable outcome in the home, the school, and in the workplace.

In the broadest sense, play is our need to express our individuality—to transform the world to meet our needs. At a few months of age, to illustrate, the infant transforms every object it grasps into an object to be banged. In this banging, the child is not only transforming objects, but is also creating new learning experiences. That is, through the infant’s own actions he or she learns that different things make different sounds when they are banged. Love is our need to express our desires, feelings, and emotions. From an early age an infant can use its cries to express everything from joy to unhappiness. Work is our need to adapt to the demands of the physical and social environment. The infant who learns to eat with a spoon rather than his or her fingers is an example of such adaptation.

Although play, love, and work appear to be separate, they are most fully adaptive when they operate together. We are at play whenever there is the opportunity to express our personal opinions, interests, and attitudes. When given this opportunity, we attach affection and respect (love) to those who make this possible. When play and love are present we are also more ready to learn those skills necessary to be a social being (i.e., work).

To illustrate, at school a teacher who listens to, and takes into account his or her pupil’s interests and concerns (their individual input or play) will win the children’s affection and respect (love). As a consequence, the children will be more interested in, and more willing to learn, what the teacher has to offer. In contrast, a teacher who has no interest in what is of importance and concern to children (play) and is only concerned with what the children have to learn (work) will fail to motivate his or her pupils. Learning in such a classroom will have a less successful outcome than one in which the teacher respects the learner’s abilities, needs, and interests.

One sees the power of combining play, love, and work at home as well as at school. There is a large compilation of literature that attests to the fact that authoritative parents—those who set limits with love—are the most effective. Authoritarian parents—those who set limits without love—and permissive parents—who give love but not limits—have more problem children than do authoritative parents. Setting limits with love means involving the child in both setting the limits and in setting the punishments for not abiding by them. Limits created in this way take into account children’s ideas and concerns and so encourage the child’s love and respect for his or her parents. When love and respect for parents are present, children are more ready and willing to learn to be social than when this is not the case.

The same holds true in the workplace. In a factory or in an office or in a retail business, the presence of play, love, and work make for greater success than when any one or all of these are absent. Consider a factory in which the employer has a suggestion box for employees to contribute their own ideas of how to improve the product, or the manufacturing process (this is the play part). If the employer takes these suggestions seriously and implements those that have merit and rewards the employees accordingly, he or she will win the affection and respect of the workers (the love part). As a result, the employees will be more attentive to their work, and the end product will be of high quality. It is the same in an office or a retail establishment. In contrast, in those businesses where the employer has little or no interest in, or concern for, what the employees think or feel, there will be little respect and affection for those in charge. The result is that the work done will be at best routine.

The Development of Play, Love, and Work

While play, love, and work are operative throughout the human life cycle, the relative importance of these issues varies with age. During the first five years of life, play is the dominant drive, and love and work are supportive. When children enter childhood proper—the elementary school years—work becomes the predominant drive, and play and love serve as facilitators of that disposition. With adolescence and the arrival of puberty, love becomes the dominant drive, and play and work assume secondary roles. In adulthood play, love, and work become relatively separate and are only reunited in those work environments where all three are operative. This happens most often in the professions and in the arts. It also characterizes our avocations such as gardening, sports, woodworking, pottery, weaving, and so on. These are activities that we undertake on our own initiative (love), endow with our personal expression (play), and have end products (work) that are both original and useful to all. Outdoor play is one of the earliest vehicles for this type of self-initiated activity which combines play, love, and work.

In this essay, I want to focus on the role of play, love, and work during the elementary school years, which are also the prime years for children to attend camp.

The Elementary School Years (ages six to twelve)

During the elementary school years the disposition to work (to adapt to the external world) becomes the child’s primary dynamic. This may be one reason that Freud (Freud, 1943) spoke of this period as the latency stage, a period in which the sexual drive is relatively quiet. During the early elementary school years children (roughly ages six to eight or nine) learn the basic tool skills of reading, writing, arithmetic, and today, computers. The emphasis during this stage is upon adapting to the demands of the social world. But learning the tool skills can be made less onerous by introducing a playful element. That was the genius of Dr. Seuss. He appreciated that children learn best through, rhyme, rhythm (Seuss, 1963), and repetition. In his books, he speaks to this learning style. Consider the following from Hop on Pop (Seuss 1963):

ALL       BALL
We all play ball. Up on a wall.

Likewise, learning basic arithmetic can be made much easier, and more fun, if a play element is involved. That is why manipulative materials like rods of different unit lengths, beads, and unit blocks are so valuable. These materials allow children to use their imagination to learn numbers. If they have the image of the rods, or beads, or blocks in their head, they can begin to manipulate them mentally. This is the forerunner of the mental manipulation of actual numbers. Even at this stage, children resist rote learning and want to understand, not just repeat, and imitate.

The latter years of childhood (eight to twelve) children learn about the larger social, physical, and scientific worlds. The curriculum of the late elementary school years is focused on making the unfamiliar world familiar. Children at this age learn about people and countries other than their own. They also learn about the earth and the planets. In beginning science, they learn some elementary principles of physics, chemistry, and biology. In addition, the late elementary-school-aged participants learn more advanced forms of art, music, and sports. Again, the subject matter at this age level can be taught in interesting and fun ways. For example, children will be more interested and get more out of chemistry or a physics project if it is taught with a problem solving or discovery method.

At this developmental age, play becomes more prominent than it was during the preceding phase. Games with rules are the major form of play during the late elementary years, and friends rather than parents become the most desired playmates and companions. It is through creating their own games with rules that children learn important social skills, attitudes, and values. With respect to love, the purported latency of the sex drive does not preclude the child’s forming emotional attachments to friends. The child’s feelings of affection for friends encourage peer social learning. At this stage, play and love serve to facilitate adaptation to the world. That is why children who don’t like their teachers, and/or have few friends, may have more difficulty learning than do children with more positive relationships.

The Camp Experience

The traditional camp experience was, and still is, a particularly powerful example of the integration of play, love, and work. Camp activities are created to meet the needs, interests, and abilities of the children. In addition, children have choices as to the activities in which they will participate. Some may prefer swimming to hiking while others may prefer spending much of their time participating in crafts. Because children have a choice and can choose the activity they prefer, it gives them the opportunity to express themselves and is a form of play. And because the camp respects their personal tastes and aptitudes, they admire and respect their counselors (for the most part) and as a result learn a great deal about themselves and others.

It is a fallacy to assume that the only learning of importance takes place in the classroom. It is interesting that what many corporations look for in their employees is not so much their grade point average, but rather their social skills. For a great many occupations and professions, the ability to deal with people is just as important, or perhaps more so, than the ability to do calculus. In the traditional summer camp, children have to learn to get along with one another because they are living under the same roof. They have to learn to deal with children who have different ideas of cleanliness and propriety than they do. The camp experience thus helps young people become more tolerant of others and more accepting of differences which are simply that—differences which are neither bad nor good.

Traditional summer camps, such as the ones describe above, were once almost exclusively respites from school, and designed for fun and for learning social and recreational skills. But now a great many summer camps, responding to parental angst, have set up instructional programs. Athletic camps are now dedicated to training young people in sports rather than helping them acquire self-initiated and healthy recreational skills such as swimming, boating, and hiking. There are also so-called “prep” camps that help prepare young people for everything from getting into the college of their choice to competitive debating. There are also computer camps and camps for public speaking and acting. While young people can learn useful skills and develop friendships at these camps, there would seem to be little opportunity for the choices and activities that once made summer camp a truly memorable, personal, and social-learning experience.

Gifts for a Lifetime

There is another gift of the traditional camp experience that is less apt to be taken from the skill-oriented camps. We all remember the powerful bad experiences we have had in our lives. Each of us recalls where we were when we first heard about September 11, 2001. And those of us who are older remember exactly where we were when we heard of the assassination of President Kennedy. Yet it is equally true that we also remember our happiest memories—which we often call upon at times of stress or mourning. Many camp experiences are of this kind. I recall my own camp experience particularly sitting around the campfire and singing songs. I even remember the songs—although I have forgotten some of the words. I remember how happy we were, how free we felt, and how entranced we were with the sounds of the woods and the smell of the fire and sight of the stars filling the sky. It was one of those moments, like Faust, which you wished would linger a while.

To be sure not all children are fortunate enough to have the camp experience. But it is sad to realize that so many children who could go to a traditional camp miss out on so many of these experiences—because their summer experience is devoted to instructional programming and skill building. I believe children in those camps lose much more than they gain because they are not exposed to the play, love, and work trilogy. But most of all, they are likely to be deprived of those powerfully happy moments that stay with us for a lifetime, and provide a reservoir of strength for those times when we need it most.

DeGregory, L. (2005). Out of Play. Times Floridian.
Freud, S. (1943). A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (J. Riviere, Trans.). Garen City, New York: Garden City Publishing Co.
Hofferth, S. L. (1999). Changes in America’s Children’s Time 1981-1997 (University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research Center Survey). Ann Arbor Michigan: University of Michigan.
Seuss, D. (1963). Hop on Pop. New York: Random House.

David Elkind, Ph.D., is a professor of child development at Tufts University. Dr. Elkind’s research in the areas of perceptual, cognitive, and social development of young children fueled the books, The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, Miseducation, and Grandparenting: Understanding Today’s Children.

Originally published in the 2007 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.