Free Play


We’ve had some great weather the last couple of days, and though I know the rain does the Northwoods of Wisconsin a lot of good, I’d had enough of it! I was thrilled to see the entire camp running around during evening program last night, soaking up the mild weather on a perfect summer night. Last night’s evening program was Village Night, where the campers split up into their age groups and spend the night getting to know their fellow maples, lindens, or tamaracks. Last night, the tams did group scavenger hunts, the lindens held their annual Big Hair Night (where the campers get to tease, spray, and pouf their counselors’ hair in a contest of extreme hair height), and the maples played an “Around the World in 80 Minutes” game, learning all kinds of fun facts about 10 different countries.

In fact, we had enough sunshine yesterday afternoon for the campers to hold a Glee Prime Time on the deck of the lodge. At Birch Trail, no one needs to be a great singer, or even a decent one for that matter, in order to be part of the Glee Club. As long as you’re willing to have fun, express yourself, and maybe get a little bit silly in the process, you’re welcome to join! After listening to some of the Glee Club music, (and even participating in a few songs myself—who can resist a little Journey on a summer day?) I made a pass through camp, catching up with those with whom campers I hadn’t had a chance to check in yet, and taking in all the fun everyone was having at their Prime Time activities.

One of the best things about being at camp is the freedom that BT campers can enjoy while in a totally safe and kid-friendly environment. At home, many campers have incredibly busy schedules filled with school time, homework, after-school activities, sports, music lessons, etc. Though we do pack a lot of activities and learning into our days here at camp, we also think it’s important to give our campers some free time in which they can make their own choices. Kids grow up so fast these days, vulnerable to a myriad of pressures and stresses. Studies show, and we find it proven here every day, that a little bit of free play time can really go a long way. Still, there must be a method to this practice. Rather than just let the kids run wild or let them roam camp willy-nilly, we are careful to build in some hidden scaffolding—some unseen structuring to free time here at camp in order to ensure that play time is safe and properly supervised.

One way we give our campers a choice in how they fill their time and let loose is through a daily time-slot called “Prime Time.” Every day at post-lunch announcements, we let the campers know which projects will be open during Prime Time, which takes place every afternoon from 4:30 until 5:45. When 4:30 rolls around and the bell rings, campers then have an opportunity to choose for themselves what project sounds like the most fun. And off they go! What is so great about Prime Time is that its built-in freedom gives campers the feeling that camp is unstructured, even though we have systems in place to make sure that those bits of invisible structure elements keep each camper engaged, safe, and having a blast. Like Sunday Clubs, Prime Time activities give campers a chance to meet and make friends with campers outside of their own cabins and regular projects.

While the campers think they are given loads of freedom to simply have a great time, we know that there is more at work beneath the surface. When the campers are given a list of choices and must determine for themselves with choice best suits their needs and wants at that time, they are learning valuable decision-making skills. This kind of prioritizing, on a small and fun-based scale, helps children learn to make good choices about how they spend their time, just like how our variety of healthy food options at each meal helps them learn about making good choices with food. Kids can take these skills into their college life or the workforce, maximizing their enjoyment as well as their productivity. This is all part of Birch Trail’s “learn by doing” philosophy, even though most of our campers don’t recognize this as it happens. Though campers may not even realize it as they navigate their way through the choices of slip-n-sliding, soccer, or climbing, they are building decision-making skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

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