Camp professionals just get it! Play is a valuable aspect of childhood and, of course, camp. It’s a given, an easy sell. But that’s just preaching to the choir. Explaining to funders the need to support play at camp as a critical developmental aspect of childhood is different. Some people may say that play is childish. Yes! For camp professionals, it is positive to be child-like. We see the multitude of benefits of being child-like, or in this case, playful.

When we seek funding, though, we need a vocabulary that shows the value more directly and objectively. We need a balance of stories to warm the heart and data to target the critical thinker’s skepticism. The purpose of this article is to introduce the major categories of play, highlight some of the main research findings, and provide avenues to learn more as new research is shared. Come on and play along!

We Know It When We See It, but How Can We Describe Why It Matters?

We can hear the laughter, see the smiles, feel the warmth, and observe the growth, but how do we classify and label what we see so that others will understand? The first step to better understand play is to identify what we see at camp in terms of the multiple categories of play. Yes, play is multifaceted. According to the National Institute for Play (2014), types of play are often placed in the following categories: “attunement (emotional connections); body and movement; object (with toys, equipment, etc.); social (with others); imaginative and pretend (create own sense of mind); story-telling and narrative; and creative (germinate new ideas, shape, and re-shape them).” This list sounds like what takes place daily during camp.

In an era of tracking outcomes and proving a benefit exists, the challenge is to articulate the potential benefits from multiple forms of play. Play is not to be ignored, it needs to be encouraged. It is through the act of play that children can be children while we as adults can be assured that time spent playing is beneficial. As we become more intentional about recognizing the benefits of play, those specific benefits are more likely to occur. We can take steps to ensure play is included in daily programming ideas.

Discussing the multiple types of play and how they are evident in the camp schedule helps funders understand more specifically what is happening at camp. The associated benefits that can come from the different types of play vary (see chart below). Most camps utilize many, if not all, of the categories; we just might not have thought about it with this specific lens. As the multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble tested generation matures, the creative, imaginative, and pretend play types are vital to unlock the potential of seeing new possibilities, as opposed to staying within the lines. Linking specific vocabulary with expected outcomes helps to make the benefits associated with camp activities more visible for potential funders.

Categories of Play Aligned with Funder Targets

What Does Research Tell Us about the Value of Play

Research across a wide variety of disciplines has shown that unstructured play results in gains in multiple areas of developmental stages and needs. Understanding this research will help us communicate the value of play more deeply. Using references to research studies in funding requests adds a stronger link between theory and practice and demonstrates a higher level of professionalism. Here are some research highlights on the value of play to pique your curiosity.

Socio-emotional areas:

  • Expressing more confidence (Ginsburg, 2007; Gray, 2011)
  • Developing conflict-resolution skills (Gray, 2011)
  • Cultivating social skills such as flexibility, empathy, and the ability to be aware of one’s self (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Ginsburg, 2007; Gray, 2011)

Cognitive areas:

  • Increasing problem-solving capabilities (Kleiber & Barnett-Morris, 1993; Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Ginsburg, 2007; Gray, 2011)
  • Deepening critical-thinking skills (Hurwitz, 2002)
  • Increasing curiosity (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Ginsburg, 2007)

Health areas:

  • Improving gross motor skills (Hurwitz, 2002; Burdette & Whitaker, 2005)
  • Improving mental health (Taylor, Kuo & Sullivan, 2001; Taylor & Kuo, 2009)

Research also shows that play results in reduction of psychological maladies such as:

  • Anxiety (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005)
  • Depression (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Gray 2011)
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD) (Louv, 2005)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Louv, 2005)

This list reads like a blueprint for what we hope is accomplished in camp for every camper. In addition, the work exploring environmental socialization (those steps that help us feel more comfortable in the outdoors) illustrates the important baby steps that can take place at camp to help instill environmental appreciation and lifelong recreational habits (James, Bixler & Vadala, 2010).

How Do We “Preach” to Funders?

We want funders to be a part of our choir, so it is necessary to sing the same song. As we seek donations, grants, and customers, the use of appropriate terminology and provision of examples can help make the picture more tangible so everyone wants to join in. The goal is to help them see what we as camp professionals see.

First and foremost, camps need to cultivate a relationship with funders — reach out. How does what we do at camp match the funder’s stated target visions? Learn as much as possible about potential funders. Do they have camp connections (personally or as an organization)? Look at annual reports and promotional material to determine their language or “song”. Once alignment of mission, vision, and motives between camp and funder are found, look for relevant areas of the play research that exist in your camp program and create talking points to include in the grant proposal. Play can supportive research and terminology is included, it offers stronger evidence about what camp does.

There are two levels of information about camp to consider (Nominet Trust, 2014):

  1. the quantitative data, or the numbers behind the story — in addition to the camp statistics and outcomes data that you have, incorporate play research connecting the dots for the funders;
  2. the qualitative data, or how play at camp changes lives. Camps have no problem singing our song qualitatively, but it is in connecting the story and the data that allows camps and funders to be a part of the same choir.

As we seek to build authentic relationships with funders, donors, and parents, it is helpful to look for opportunities to invite guests to see programs in action, as well as to document the outcomes of the camp experience. Seek ways to answer the question, “What can a funder do to get a taste of the camp experience?” How can our presentations and materials evoke an interactive and playful spirit with them? Put on that child-like, playful hat and examine materials and find things already happening at camp that can allow a potential funder to experience camp and sing along with the campers.


Organizations Designed to Help You Stay Current with Research and Application





  • The US Play Coalition, housed at Clemson University, is a partnership to promote the value of play throughout life:
  • Children and Nature Network is leading the movement to connect all children, their families, and communities to nature through innovative ideas, evidence-based resources and tools, broad-based collaboration, and support of grassroots leadership:
  • The National Institute for Play is a 501c (3) nonprofit public benefit corporation committed to bringing the unrealized knowledge, practices, and benefits of play into public life:,/li>
Burdette, H. L., & Whitaker, R. C. (2005). Resurrecting free play in young children: Looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 159(1), 46-50.
Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.
Gray, P. (2011). The Decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463.
Hurwitz, S. C. (2002). To be successful — let them play! Childhood Education, 79(2), 101.
James, J. J., Bixler, R. D., and Vadala, C. (2010). Environmental socialization: A developmental model for natural history oriented environmental professionals. Children, Youth, Environments 20 (1): 231-256.
Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books.
National Institute for Play. (2014) The science: Pattern of play. Retrieved from
Nominet Trust. (2014, December 3). How to tell your story to a funder, trustee or beneficiary — communicating your positive impact. Retrieved from
Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001). Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77.
Taylor, A. F., & Kuo, F. E. (2009). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park. Journal of attention disorders, 12(5), 402-409.
Taylor, A. F., & Kuo, F. (2011). Could exposure to everyday green spaces help treat ADHD? Evidence from children’s play settings. Applied Psychology: Health And Well-Being, 3(3), 281-303.
About the Authors
Gwynn M. Powell, PhD, is Park, Recreation, Tourism Management faculty at Clemson University. She has been involved with local and national ACA, has two decades of camp experience in the USA, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey, and serves on the board of directors for the International Camping Fellowship.
J. Joy James, PhD, is Recreation Management faculty at Appalachian State University. She has been involved in teaching, resident camps, environmental education, as well as internationally with camps in Russia and Ukraine.
Danielle Timmerman is completing her doctorate at University of Utah and has an administrative background in camp, parks, recreation, and nonprofits supporting play.
Stephanie P. Garst is the executive director of the US Play Coalition based at Clemson University and has background in programming and events management in nonprofits and higher education.
Photo courtesy of Camp Lincoln and Camp Lake Hubert, Eden Prairie, Minnesota.