Play is an important part of how children grow. It is a universal phenomenon that has been passed down from generation to generation as a societal, expressive, and educational practice. Developmentally, it provides an opportunity for younger children to create and rehearse fundamental skills such as learning how to walk or to understand what personality traits people have. In later adolescence, research reveals play is a critical part of problem-solving and includes the formation of boundary setting, appropriate physical interaction, and the ability to use creative imagination.

By definition, the motivation behind play is pleasure. If left alone, children of all ages typically have a reasonable ability to create (either healthy or unhealthy) some sort of self-originated type of activity. This unstructured time is important because it allows children to gain a better understanding of their environment. It allows youth the freedom to be creative and make up rules while learning important concepts. Some of the unintended consequences of this process are innovation, the ability to deal with stress, collaboration, and functionality of peer relations.

The problem now is children do not have sufficient time to play. Because of rigid schedules that diminish free time, technology that promotes self-absorbed entertainment, and a social environment that no longer promotes free play, children are spending an inordinate amount of time sitting inside being entertained by a screen. Play is not a luxury we should ration, but rather a crucial dynamic of physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development for children of all ages (Elkind, 2007). Our society is now trying to cope with the challenge of reduced opportunities for unstructured play with the realistic constraints of single-parent families and the pressure to perform at high levels.

Camp directors frequently tell me their staff spend too much time checking their phones, or they wait for someone to tell them what to do during downtime. According to them, one of the big areas of concern is staff being able to create spontaneous play during nonscheduled activity periods. Usually a few staff are great at implementing spur-of-the-moment ideas, but when they are not available programming stagnates. This behavior is to be expected as some staff are coming from a world where self-gratification is often the norm and putting individual desires aside is not a priority. How can this problem be addressed and what can you do to help?

Be Part of the Solution

Fortunately, you can be part of a very dynamic and simple solution: Help campers learn how to play. A huge part of being successful at camp is knowing how to play and realizing what you can learn from its intended outcomes. But if camp is fun and you get to play every day, why is the job so challenging? Many campers come to camp without the benefit of having had recess at school. In a 2014 study from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) entitled "Bridging the Gap," the US Department of Health and Human Services found only five states required daily recess for elementary school students (Center for Disease Control, 2014). Another study by the CDC revealed only 21 percent of American youth meet the current guideline of 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day (, 2016). These alarming statistics mean not all children who come to camp will know how to play.

Campers (and some staff) may not understand the unwritten rules of play etiquette, so teaching them presents a potential process challenge. The key to showing campers how to play is to first assess your own comfort level in presenting activities. Then choose games (established or made up) that will be effective given your level of teaching experience. Be genuine when leading activities, even if it means admitting you don't know how to do something. Knowing what the campers are gaining from an activity is far more important than obsessing over rules. Challenge: Try looking at a traditional game or field differently and then make up your own version of what can be played.

Find the Right Balance

Finding a balance in activities will help you to achieve intended outcomes. Intentionally mix individual activities with ones that feature interaction with other group members and, when appropriate, let campers be a part of the decision-making process. Campers are much more likely to participate if they have input into what they are doing. Camp is the perfect place for children to learn how to play because unstructured time gives you a chance to model intentional leadership behavior by promoting individual and group choices. Try finding opportunities to do that during meals, line-ups, special events, cabin time, rainy days, etc.

Teaching the proper way to play is fundamental to the camp experience because it represents how important life skills are transferred from the camp to the camper. You are the catalyst that conveys this message, and how you do it is as meaningful as what you do. In his book, What Children Learn through Play, George Morrison outlines six key developmental areas that camp-aged children can experience through the parameters of play (2008):

1. Learning concepts — like using all senses to help make informed decisions and putting logical-mathematical theories to use by teaching time (before, after), series, and classification. 2. Developing social skills — sharing, taking turns, negotiating, compromising, and leading. 3. Developing physical skills — using fine and large group muscles. While some camp activities combine both, it is important to offer specific ones for each. 4. Practice language skills through conversation — taking turns, listening, using appropriate responses, finding ways to express feelings, verbally reacting in stress situations like sports or a ropes course. 5. Enhance self-esteem — by demonstrating accomplishments and how they relate to other group members. 6. Master life situations and prepare for adult life — learning how to be independent, individual thinking, making decisions, cooperating, and learning how to be inclusive.

Your schedule will include activities such as dance, swimming, soccer, archery, ropes course, etc., which are examples of primary activities. These program choices are the main reasons campers sign up for camp. Most parents do not enroll their children in camp to increase listening skills, but it is important to interpret these intended consequences for campers. Your ability to maximize the activity takeaways is dependent on how well you understand the value of play. For some children, acquiring the skills needed to interact in a camp community can be a daunting task. Learn how to take advantage of your camp experience by interpreting the guidelines each activity has to offer and using them to create teachable moments. It will help break up each camper's schedule and give the group a chance to practice cooperation and collaboration.

Play gives campers the opportunity to become empowered by going first, mastering a skill, or making a friend. This is not always the case in school or doing other activities outside of camp, so your insight into making sure these developmental areas are included will help close the gap between what campers are thinking and how they execute. If you try some of the techniques mentioned — such as assessing your own comfort level before you lead, choosing games that reflect your skill, balancing group and individual games, letting campers have input when appropriate, or incorporating developmental areas that will help with important life transitions — and you find you are not getting the desired results, talk with the specialist (or whomever is running the program) and change the activity or the format.

Now that parameters have been established, you need to add implementation methods. To help campers process the information, make sure you present play in a user-friendly format. Keep it simple and change up how you lead campers by:

  • Giving them time to explore — this might mean factoring in downtime or teaching creative ways to use camp resources.
  • Informally guiding them — using existing camper skills you can give suggestions, propose different scenarios, or add the secret weapon of mystery.
  • Asking them questions — periodically change your leadership style by framing activities with probing statements that reflect what campers do and say. This will help you to gauge fun, frustration, or friendship outcomes.
  • Providing a demonstration — remember, you do not have to be an expert in everything, so ask for help on areas outside of your expertise.
  • Setting up a self-guided experience for the campers — be patient and let the activities drive the group focus.

Your methods should vary and reflect the group's developmental needs while being fun.

Get in There

To maximize play time with your campers you must participate. This means staying involved in activities by being physically, intellectually, and emotionally present. If you are always talking to a co-counselor, sharing too many stories, looking at your phone, or paying attention to your own interests, you are not available. Great counselors find a way to be interactive with daily tasks by being interested in individual and group dynamics. Approach each day with the idea that you are going to establish meaningful relationships through maximum participation. Here are some ways you can show your commitment:

  • Help campers to plan.
  • Come up with alternative ideas.
  • Bring in other staff.
  • Lead cheers.
  • Learn new skills along with your campers.
  • Assist specialists with teaching.
  • Create a group or division special event.
  • Be on a team.

And above all, be able to set limits.

Child development specialist Dr. David Elkind says when adults unite play, love, and work in our lives, we set an example that our children can follow. That just might be the best way to bring play back into the lives of our children and build a more playful culture (Elkind, 2008). Any kind of play you choose (social, informal, indoor, outdoor, pretend, or free-for-all) needs to have boundaries. When you are actively engaged in activities, keep the danger of letting things get out of control in check by constantly gauging the overstimulation factor. This increases your chance for success because participation allows you to spontaneously alter the rules to meet intended outcomes.

Today's parents are looking for value beyond the camp season. By understanding how play affects camper growth and knowing why children are facing limited opportunities throughout the year, you can exceed these expectations by choosing the right parameters for appropriate individual and group play. Come to camp ready to make a difference and know the transitions you make during play will be the foundation campers will use for a lifetime of decision making.

Example: Intended Play Outcomes through Archery

Traditional Goals include: Intended Outcomes through Play
Safety Being respectful toward the instructor, listening, and gaining respect for the environment
Learning about the bow and arrow Duplicating a sequence of skills, working on muscle development, practicing eye/hand coordination, and learning history
Range commands Following instructions, patience, taking turns, concentration, understanding a sequence
Scoring Integrity, cooperation, being honest, self-improvement
Fun Appropriate responses, camaraderie, sharing, decision making, self-esteem, and transition to life skills


Center for Disease Control. (2014, May). Strategies for supporting recess in elementary schools. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services. Elkind, D. (2007). The power of play. Cambridge, England: Da Capo Press. Elkind, D. (2008, March 1). Can we play? Greater Good. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley .edu/article/item/can_we_play Frost, J. (2010). A history of children's play and play environments. New York, NY: Routledge. Morrison, G. (2008). What children learn through play. Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall.

Greg Cronin, MPA, CCD, of GC Training Solutions, is a certified camp director, former ACA National Board Member, 29-year ACA section board member, author, and staff trainer. With over 35 years of staff training experience, he works with camps, schools, churches, and businesses all over the country. To find out more about dynamic staff training, request a list of workshops, or to reserve dates, please contact Greg directly at 703.395.6661 or e-mail For general information, visit

Photo courtesy of Camp Laurelwood, Madison, Connecticut.