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Why Free Play Is Our Campers’ Favorite Time Of The Day

I’ve written before in this blog about how popular and important Free Play time is in our camp community. Every night of the summer, directly after dinner, campers have over an hour to do something rare in modern childhood: whatever they want. Some campers use this time to practice a sport, while others work on completing an art project. Many others use the time to sit with friends on one of our beautiful grassy areas to talk, giggle, play a card game, roll down a hill, and enjoy each other’s company. Each night you can hear campers using their Free Play time to jam in the music building, play some gaga ball, kick a soccer ball around, cut and drill lumber in the wood shop, or just hang out with friends and counselors.

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Campers learning to successfully navigate their free time each day at Camps Kenwood and Evergreen

Regardless of what they choose to do during this time, it’s their choice. While our specialty counselors are all stationed at their activity areas each night after dinner, it is our campers’ choice whether or not to spend time working on a project or sports skill, socializing with peers and counselors, or exploring the 230 acres of our beautiful campus. They also have the choice to do absolutely nothing but sit under a tree and read, or take an aimless walk in our woods.

For many of our campers these unscheduled times – completely free of television, video games, the Internet and handheld devices – are the first truly unstructured moments of their lives. We are learning from psychologists, educators and social scientists how incredibly valuable moments like Free Play are for a child’s development into a resilient, adaptable young adult who can think critically and independently.

The developing brains of our campers need regular opportunities to weigh and make independent decisions. It’s a crucial life skill that takes practice…and which includes the possibility of making mistakes. As camp administrators, we walk around our campus every night after dinner, checking in with our campers. Some times they tell us that they are having a blast with what they are doing, and other times we hear “I’m bored”. And in those moments we challenge our bored campers to take inventory of the dozens of amazing things going on around them at the moment, and then remind them that it’s their responsibility to choose what to do next. It’s a powerful opportunity for personal growth.

Without regularly practicing this skill our campers will simply be ill equipped to navigate their own lives once they are truly independent – either in college or in their adult lives. And that thought scares me. I think on some level all parents worry that their child will grow up choosing a night in front of the TV or playing video games over leaving the house for an enriching experience with friends. Free Play at our summer camp in New Hampshire is the laboratory where our campers spend 49 consecutive nights each year becoming the masters of their free time. 

This is not to say that our Kenwood and Evergreen campers are without guidance or observation during this daily, unstructured period. Throughout every other waking minute of the summer, our counselors are closely interacting with our children. Camp needs to be a physically and emotionally safe place at all times, and it would certainly be a mistake to suddenly and drastically diminish their supervision of our campers during Free Play time. To use a basketball metaphor, each night after dinner we shift from a man-to-man defense to a zone. While our specialists are all scheduled at their activity areas, our general counselors (who all live in cabins with our campers) are stationed in different strategic locations throughout the property. This means that wherever a camper may go during their unstructured time, there is a qualified counselor within both sight and earshot to give assistance should it be needed. 

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Scenes from Free Play after dinner, a great time for fun and developing 21st century skills!

It’s really why Free Play is the most popular time of the day in our camp community. Imagine being 9 or 12 or 14 and knowing that every day of your summer you could socialize with peers of different ages, participate in any activity that you are passionate about, and explore this enormous kid paradise, without the confines of a schedule. Imagine how freeing it would be, and how much knowledge you would acquire during this daily ritual. You will learn vital life skills like how to gauge risk and how to initiate conversations and social relationships. You will work on crucial non-cognitive skills like how to adapt to changing situations and how to solve your own problems without your parents. And you will have tremendous amounts of fun doing it.

This is why we call ourselves “an intentional summer camp community”. Amidst all of the fun and friendship there is a hidden curriculum that helps children acquire 21st century skills like independence, resilience, creativity, adaptability and critical thinking. Doesn’t that sound like an amazing growth experience? 

Take a look at our innovative
Structured Choice schedule 

We have exciting news about Free Play play at our summer camp in NH. We invite you to check our blog tomorrow for the latest information about how we plan to make our most beloved period of the day even more popular!

Founded in 1930, Camps Kenwood and Evergreen is a brother-sister summer camp in NH for campers age 8-15. Throughout our innovative program we are redefining summer camp and summer enrichment!