Benefits of Free Play at Summer Camp

Posted by Caroline Crawford on Oct 21, 2014 3:07:00 PM

*Caroline completed her M.S. in Clinical Social Work from The University of Texas in 2013. As part of her degree, she studied the health and developmental benefits for children of having opportunities for creative play.


Last week, I spent some time talking to several moms in West Texas. These moms were attending a camp reunion with their campers, who were excited to see their friends and pick up their summer 2014 yearbooks. The parents were telling me how they had just picked up their kids from art class then tennis, were making a quick stop at our party for thirty minutes, and would then be off to soccer practice. After practice, the kids would do their homework. How incredible! These children and moms could do it all. But, it made me think – when do they just get to play? I asked one of the moms, and smiling she responded, “At camp!”




Summer camp is an incredible place that creates the space for free play, creative learning, and curiosity. Camp is a place for children to be children. Camp is a safe place for children to play outside in nature. They can play with their peers in a less structured manner. The campers live with eleven other kids and invent their own games, skits, and challenges. Not only is their creativity captured in free play with their cabin mates, but their inter-personal communication skills, conflict-resolution skills, and their self-management skills are developed as well.


Creative play is crucial for positive child development. The American Academy of Pediatrics states, “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, emotional, and cognitive strength… Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering fears while practicing adult roles… Play is important to healthy brain development.


More and more schools are reducing recess, creative arts, and physical education to focus on reading and math, which creates a more rigorous schedule and less time to play. Moreover, these school children are highly scheduled in after-school programs. In best cases kids may simply feel stressed; in the worst cases, these tight schedules without time for play can lead to childhood depression. Free play offers benefits that may protect children from anxiety and stress.


Virginia Axline, in the 1940’s, was the first to study the benefits of creative play for children. She created theory and therapy around her findings. Over the past 80 years, clinicians, therapists, counselors, and doctors have used play to increase positive and useful skills for children and combat childhood concerns. It is evident that free play can lead to better behavior in school, alleviate anxiety and fear, improve confidence, and decrease aggression*. It can also lead to a healthier understanding of emotions and feelings.


The moms I was speaking with last week told me about the changes they have seen in their kids since camp. They claimed their children were more confident, empathetic, and respectful. I hear this from most of our moms and dads throughout the year. Every child needs free play for their development. Camp offers a safe place with incredible role models for children to just play. Let them play!





* Ray, D., Bratton, S., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (2001). The effectiveness of play therapy : Responding to the critics. International Journal of Play Therapy, 10(1), 85 -108.


Ginsburg, K. (2007). The importance of play promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. American Academy of Pediatrics. 119;182.


Want more like this? Also see: How To Help Kids Build Self-Confidence.