It’s free play, the 30 to 45 minutes of magical time at camp when nothing and everything happens. I walk from the dining room to the main campus after dinner and stop to watch five 9- and 10-year-old campers play a soccer game of their own invention on a 75-foot-long patch of lawn behind their cabins. The goal is one side of a 10x10-foot storage shed. The field is triangular, 30 feet wide in front of the goal and then tapering off to a width of 15 feet. On one length of the field are cabins and on the other the private, one-lane camp road (with no traffic), a six-foot-high chain-link fence, and woods beyond. Clearly not your typical soccer pitch.

There is only one goal and one goalie, who defends the net against both two-person teams. When a save is made the goalie rolls the ball out toward the end of the field and the side that didn’t take the shot gets to resume play. A third 2-man team sits atop a picnic table that’s actually on the field, up against one cabin and in play. They will jump in to replace a squad once a certain number of goals are scored.

This game has a slew of rules I haven’t yet caught on to — what’s in play, how to determine who inbounds, what constitutes portions of the wall of the shed that are not considered goals . . . . The goalie plays passionately and skillfully, embracing his role of “stopper” versus all teams.

What’s even more endearing is how the campers have created this game on their own, inventing the rules and choosing the sides. They officiate themselves, and I note that there are never any arguments about calls. In fact, for the 15 minutes I watch (actually standing in the field of play), I realize that calls are almost always made by players against themselves. As in, “Yes, that hit my foot before it went under the bunk. Your ball.” Or, “Hit my hand. You take it out.”

As the days of camp pass the game evolves. There’s an informal league, but with teams never fully staying fixed as tweaks are collectively made to maintain competition. There’s losing and winning, but with grace and sportsmanship. There’s a primary goalkeeper, but other campers fill in at times. The campers play hard but also sense when to let up so the game can maintain composure. Sometimes two or more teams await their turns on the picnic table, and sometimes division mates just hang out to watch and bond with friends. 

Though our camp program would be described as mostly structured, especially for younger campers who rotate through every activity offered on a regular basis, the importance and value of this unstructured “hang time” is clear. Creativity. Group problem-solving. Inclusiveness. Negotiation. This is a group of 9- and 10-year-olds who absolutely “gets it.” The sports coach within me also can’t help but acknowledge the skill development happening because of the constant pace of the game and the number of touches for every player. 

In the midst of another summer for overnight camps that may require restrictions on programs and trips because of COVID-19, it’s nice to reflect on the essence of what can make camp special. Less isn’t always more, but sometimes . . . We’ve even looked to embrace this informal feel in some of the organized games campers play at scheduled activities — whether it’s Backyard Baseball (with a tennis ball, a wood bat, and an Adirondack chair as home plate) or Slapball (with a 1950s-era Spaldeen rubber ball, three bases, bounced pitches, and a zillion house rules). 

The goalie knocks away a shot that ricochets off the picnic table, a waiting player, the bunk, and then bounds back onto the field. Clunk. Thud. Clunk. No problem. No confusion. Without hesitation or discussion a team is given a “free” clear back to the end of the pitch to restart play. “Nice save,” the camper who was the middle “thud” calls out.

David Fleischner is the director of Camp Scatico, an overnight camp in New York.