Let them Play – A new take on Summer Camp for 2013

How we’re offering more choice at Summer Camp 2013, and why we’re doing it.

Children today have so much of their lives structured for them, whether it’s their 7:30am-3pm daily school regimen, or preparing for standardized testing and doing homework in their free time, or piling up community service for college applications, or playing organized sports and taking ballet lessons, studies have shown that kids in America today play FAR less than they have at any point in human history. While adults have sculpted children’s lives with the best possible intentions, studies are finding that it’s actually having dire consequences for our children at large.

Children who have their lives pre-programmed wind up lacking many of the absolutely critical life skills that are developed organically while interacting with peers in a safe and open-ended environment. Based on the research of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, people are waking up to how important play actually was in the child’s regimen all along. Businesses are finding that many fresh-out-of-college job applicants lack what the Pf21CS calls the “Learning and Innovation Skills” – Critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Our response as a society, unfortunately, has been to try and cram these skills into our structured curricula, whereas if we turned to history, the answer was actually in what adults weren’t doing, as opposed to what they were.

hikersThroughout human history, children have needed the “Learning and Innovation” skills to thrive in their play groups. Creativity is needed to figure out how to have fun in the woods, communication is needed to get others on board with one’s idea, collaboration is necessary (and fun) when trying to build a fort or play a freshly created game, and critical thinking is constantly employed when engaging in new activities each day. Unfortunately, many of these skills simply aren’t employed when one goes from activity to activity that one’s parents or teachers has chosen – and especially not when those activities have prescribed rules, expectation, and equipment.

We’ve realized that, at Vanderkamp, we are pre-programming children’s lives more than we want to be, or ought to be. We pride ourselves on offering as much choice as possible, but when kids were choosing largely from various structured activities, were we doing our best?

VenutiansWe turned to the kids for answers. We asked child after child from summer camp for their most memorable times at camp, and almost to a child they pointed to something seemingly unexpected that happened. We had one week where the kids ran with one of our “Outrageous Activity” ideas – that we’d pretend to be aliens colonizing an area of the forest. That’s the picture of the colony, on the right. You can see the aliens having a meeting in the background, and the fortress on the right. General Zod and one of his companions is seen in the foreground.

They came up with names for themselves and wove an elaborate plot of politics, conflict, and ultimately collaboration. We were right along side them the whole time, loving it every bit as much as they were. It was such a success, that it was actually the inspiration for our Dream World Week that we’re running this year. And as we brainstormed what else we could do, we realized that something was missing:

An intentional space where imaginations could soar.

So we began doing some research. Taylor pointed our group in the direction of the research of Simon Nicholson, whose “Loose Parts” theory has informed unstructured play areas throughout the world. We agreed, an area with lots of things non-fixed items would be amazing. We had our first ingredient: loose parts. Blocks, crates, tubes, water, wood, wheel-barrows – anything thing that could be used by children on their terms to ignite their imaginations.

So here’s the plan.

We plan to build a place apart from the rest of camp, name as of yet undetermined. We plan to include a running water feature (we can pump up from our lake), an enormous sandbox that we’ll bury things in called an “Archeological Dig Site,” some tunnels through various hills and walls, to convert what used to be a large stage into some other manner of play-feature (perhaps a boat?), lots of “loose parts” for kids to build with like lumber, tires, blocks, crates, PVC piping, shovels, wheel-barrows, etc, two towers near the fence so kids can keep “look out,” some picnic tables in the shade where kids can relax and converse with each other, a garden where kids can plant vegetables and tend to them, paints for children to decorate the area, and much more. We hope to also leave a large section untouched so kids can use the loose parts to impact the area directly, building upon it gains popularity.

PlaygroundAnd now for a bit of awesome news, and a major reveal! A family in Baldwinsville has agreed to donate an incredible piece of playground equipment as a centerpiece for fun and excitement. That’s a 15 foot slide, 3 swings, a tree house area with a captain’s steering wheel, ANOTHER tunnel slide, and a small climbing wall. Just amazing generosity that will really help us kick-start this area. We also may have some very exciting news coming through the pipeline about another big helper, but we’ll let you know when it’s official!

So, it sounds obvious when you really think about it – “Of course kids need to play!” But even at a place where we pride ourselves on freedom, choice, and being in the moment… we had become “helicopter counselors.” Confidence comes from being able to make one’s own fun when one is so inclined, and not from thinking that there is always someone out there who can make your fun for you. While we’ll certainly have the same great structured activities for summer camp 2013 that we always have (and lots of brand new activities as well!), we also want to let kids who want to make their own fun do it.

Know someone from Syracuse, Rome, Utica, or anywhere in Central New York that needs a place to come and be themselves, build confidence, and make some lifelong friends? Send them out to our summer camp and retreat center and we promise, they won’t regret it.

1 Comment

  1. Hey, James and staff-about your new area, article above. It looks like it will be a very open/sunny area to play in. Do you have any plans to shade it and/or have you thought of the sunburn risk management piece? I LOVE the idea-and for us at Menucha, it would be a natural addition for all our family-based guests. We don’t have a traditional summer camp for children/youth as we are an adult facility, but we do host some groups (family reunions, some language camps, etc.) that would have the age of kids that would really get it and have a ball. Speaking of which, have you considered adding an Earthball to the area for impromptu collaborative group rolling?
    I’d love to get follow ups from you as this space comes into being.


    Scott Crane
    Program Director

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