Camp Woodland Blog

Kids Need a Play-based Childhood 

Posted by on April 9, 2024

I started working at Camp Woodland in 1986 between my sophomore and junior years in college. Before that I rode my bike to/from school by myself at a very young age. I spent countless hours out and about with the neighborhood kids on our block. My siblings and I played kickball (until my Dad requested that we go to someone else’s yard or change games because we had “run” down all the grass between bases). My Mom would ring a bell when we needed to come home to get ready for dinner because we were most likely out of earshot. 

We had a one hour limit on the amount of TV we could watch each day (and nothing after 8 pm). My sister and I would set up the playroom in our basement to be a restaurant, school, or swimming pool so we could pretend to be servers, teachers, or lifeguards. While in elementary and jr high school, our parents dropped us off at the roller skating rink every Wednesday afternoon for a few hours where we would hang out with friends. I remember my growing up years full of fond memories of organic play. Nothing scheduled or contrived, just in-the-moment, make-your-own fun with whatever we could find, dream or imagine. Sound familiar? (I hope so!)

Little did I know then that the period from 1980-2010 was the decline of what is known as play-based childhood. As adults saw more photos of missing kids on milk cartons, heard stories of child predators, and felt a sense of distrust in the world in general, children started spending less and less time outside and engaging in unstructured play and social time. Safety became the number one concern which drove adults to watch/supervise kids in what now could be deemed as excess. 

Thankfully, there are people way smarter than me who have been studying these trends over the years, in particular a gentleman by the name of Jonathan Haidt. Jonathan was a keynote speaker at the CODA (Camp Director and Owner Association) pre-conference event prior to the American Camp Association’s National Conference in New Orleans in early February. He visually represented the data that was collected throughout his research for his latest book, The Anxious Generation, so that it was easy to see the direction a particular variable took over time on a graph. 

Haidt laid out compelling evidence that clearly shows play-based childhood has been replaced with a phone-based childhood in the years 2010-2015 (and beyond). In doing a quick (and non-scientific) Google search myself, 2023 data from multiple sources suggests that over 40% of US kids have a phone by the age of 10. This increases to over 90% by the time they turn 14. Kids today are turning to online games, engaging on social media, and partaking in mindless scrolling instead of playing in a local park, spending time with friends in person, and using their imaginations to create their own fun. Haidt calls this the “rewiring of childhood”. Not surprising, this is also when adolescents became notably more anxious, depressed, and fragile. Haidt shares in his book that play, including “risky” play, is needed to help kids develop confidence and competence that can help overcome childhood anxieties!

The contrast between play-based and phone-based childhood is starkly noted by the slope of a line on each graph starting around the year 2010. Even more mind-blowing is that every graph that was part of Haidt’s presentation had a big black vertical line through the data that marked the year 2012. He looked at the numbers of self-harm cases in youth (even as young as 10-14), completed suicides, major depression and other mental health challenges in kids both in the US and internationally. The clear inflection point shown in each graph came around the year 2012 (good stuff decreasing and bad stuff increasing). 

What else happened around that same time that can be linked to the sharp turns? His conjecture/observation is that it coincides with the birth of Instagram in 2010 and growing popularity of the social media app (especially in girls) in the following years. Here is a YouTube video of a similar presentation Jonathan Haidt gave at a different conference several months prior so that you can dive into this more and see/hear for yourself. You will probably want to hit pause and take notes frequently as there is a lot of information to take in and digest. If his talk had conference goers in New Orleans literally “buzzing” for several days (I’m not kidding!), it is well worth your time. 

Without turning this into the longest blog post ever, I’m going to jump to the important role camp plays as a solution to the “childhood rewiring” phenomenon. In his presentation to camp directors/owners, Jonathan Haidt recognized that camp offers a period of time for youth to get reprieve from a predominantly phone-based environment by being immersed in a play-based environment. Camp Woodland was founded by a family of educators who wholeheartedly believe that “play is the work of children.” Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, and Fred Rogers are a few names that come to mind as having a similar sentiment. 

In his book, Haidt talks about several important features of human childhood, some of which include slow-growth, free play, attunement, and social learning. A play-based childhood fosters each of these important features, whereas a phone-based childhood does not. 

At Woodland, we like to say that “it takes a lot of slow to grow” and is a large part of the reason our full program is designed for a 6-week experience in order to receive the maximum benefit of allowing kids to develop at their own pace without being rushed or hurried. Once kids have acclimated to camp, we see growth accelerate as they now have a foundation in place to “take off” in both their physical (activities being learned) and social/emotional development (relationships being navigated). 

While we follow a schedule with campers taking six different activities at Woodland over the course of a typical day, free play is mixed into everything we do. Kids have a choice over which activities they are going to take and that in turn gives them autonomy for a large part of their time at camp. Another menu of choices is offered for evening activities several days a week that are usually centered around a given theme (Nature Week, Water Week, etc). There is a lot of free play that happens organically during activities (singing), transitions (running or skipping to the next activity), and down time spent with cabin groups as they often make up their own games (just ask the girls in Driftwood during 2023 about their “puppy parties”!).

Attunement can be described as the process by which we develop relationships. It is how we become “in tune” with others and build connections. Learning social cues for turn taking and timing of a response is an important aspect of attunement that is hard to come by when kids are interacting on their devices vs in person. By being part of a larger community at Woodland, kids are able to practice the art of listening to the stories and opinions of others and also contributing to the conversation without interrupting or dominating. This happens in the cabin, at meals, during activities, and walking with a friend to the next exciting adventure. 

We see social learning at Woodland as kids are in close proximity to really great role models and mentors. Counselors are a good example of this as they are “near peers” with a unique opportunity to have a positive influence on the campers (without being their parents – more on this in my next blog!). Kids really look up to the staff and even the oldest campers as they learn how to traverse the complexities of friend relationships, act in a group setting, and contribute to the overall camp community. 

It makes me sad to think that the rewiring of childhood through over-exposure to experiences that are detrimental to youth development is now part of a new “normal”. I am hopeful; however, that **choosing camp for kids is one of the solutions to this challenge**. The ecosystem we have at Woodland gives kids back their play-based childhood for up to six weeks of the year. We have always been rooted in play and always will be!

Coincidentally, the day I began writing this blog, I received an email with an introduction to the release of a book written by Bryn Lotting (a Wisconsin author) called “No Child Left Inside.”

You may also want to check out a previous blog, The Device Dilemma, that relates to the topics of this post.


Now is a GREAT time to enroll your camper/s for 2024 and reserve your spot/s so that your daughter/s have the opportunity to get back their play-based childhood through the Camp Woodland experience! Sign up HERE: