The Freedom To Choose

By Jack Schott and Laura Kriegel

Camp directors and staff members work many hours to create safe, inclusive environments that foster growth and community, hoping that campers will be happy while they are at camp and after they leave. Some camps call this teaching of positive habits character, and others 21st-century skills development, but in the end, all camps are working to increase children’s lifelong happiness. In the ever-changing world that children will eventually lead, one thing is certain—they will be free to take risks and make decisions, and they need to learn that those choices have consequences.

A Theory For Happiness
Camp provides a unique, low-pressure opportunity for campers to practice healthy risk-taking every day. By giving campers the autonomy to choose activities, friends, hairstyles, etc., they often have more freedom than in any other aspect of life. When a camper says, “Camp is the only place I can be myself,” what he or she is really saying is, “In the rest of my life, I am afraid or unable to express myself freely.” Psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci have created a name for this feeling of happiness as a result of autonomy—Self Determination Theory (SDT).

SDT argues that human beings are innately curious, look for opportunities for growth, and have three fundamental psychological needs:

  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Competence.

When these needs are met, individuals are intrinsically motivated to grow, learn, and create. Those who feel autonomous also seek out relationships and competence.

The ability to give kids freedom and support autonomy in a safe environment is one of a camp’s best-selling propositions. One way to bring these attributes to a traditional camp setting is by designating time for camper-driven play. This may seem overwhelming to fit it into a tight schedule, but it can be as easy as finding an hour to let kids build forts or play in the sand at the beach.

Play Areas
YMCA Camp Kitaki outside Lincoln, Neb., created Fort Pawnee, a space for campers to play. Inspired and certified by the Arbor Day Foundation’s Nature Explore Classrooms, Fort Pawnee is a stockade filled with “loose parts” that allow campers to use their imagination. While staff members are trained to play with campers, model positive behavior, and mitigate conflict, they are instructed to let campers lead.

Several aspects of Fort Pawnee make it special. First, as an enclosed area, it is separate from the rest of camp, which creates a different feeling as campers enter. Being enclosed also creates an easy boundary for supervision. And since campers and staff understand the boundaries, staff can focus on connecting and playing instead of wrangling kids into a specific area.

Loose Parts
Second, and more importantly, Fort Pawnee is full of “loose parts”—costumes, tools for mud pies, pick-up games, fort-building supplies, and even a new music section. By giving participants the ability to change the environment, Camp Kitaki is directly impacting the ability of campers to be creative and foster a sense of discovery.

Although Fort Pawnee is a specific, designated space, play areas can be created on a much smaller budget with most of the benefits. James Davis, of Summer Camp Revolution and the VK Center, describes building a play area:

“Creating an unstructured play area can be intimidating at first, until you realize that the essential components are all around us. All you need are: space to create it, loose parts for kids to explore, and a lot of programming supplies you almost certainly already have (balls, art supplies, etc.). But the biggest thing of all is creating a culture of play. If your staff members are ready to play and give kids the space to play, the magic of your unstructured play area will come to life regardless of how much money you invest in it.”

These play areas are for campers to be in control of the environment and free to play. This sense of autonomy can be created in majestic spaces like Fort Pawnee, more economical areas like Vanderkamps Play Area, or even in a typical arts-and-crafts area. The key to these spaces is training the staff, providing enough nutrients and loose parts, and giving campers the ability to make decisions and learn from their choices. Play at camp is more than just fun. It lays the groundwork for decision-making, creativity, and collaboration that will hopefully develop habits for lifelong happiness.

Jack Schott and Laura Kriegel are camp consultants and trainers. To find out more about who they are and their cross-country camp journey, visit