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Summer camp conundrum: Let them play or send them to educational camp?

(iStock/María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration)
4 min

Q: How important is it for children to go to educational camps over the summer as opposed to playing or participating in sports?

A: What a great question. It feels a little unreal to me, but the sign-ups for summer camps are already in full swing for many places, so what better time to ask this question than now.

My knee-jerk reaction is: The point of childhood is play. You send the child to a play-based camp, and we don’t even need to ask this question. But the answer to this query depends on many factors: the age of the child, their temperament, what they want, what you can afford, what is possible and what is appropriate for your child’s development.

Because I don’t know the age of your child, let’s start by asking, “What is the definition of play?” Although it feels very much like, “You know it when you see it,” the best and brightest in the field have trouble defining it. I particularly like this quote by Scott G. Eberle, an author and expert on play: “Play is a roomy subject, broad in human experience, rich and various over time and place, and accommodating pursuits as diverse as peekaboo and party banter, sandlot baseball and contract bridge, scuba diving and Scrabble. Play welcomes opposites, too. Play can be free — ungoverned by anything more complicated than choosing which stick is best to improvise a light saber — or fixed and codified, as in those instances when soccer players submit to scrupulous ‘laws.’ Play can take active or passive form and can be vicarious or engaging — and so we recognize play in both the spectator and the actor.”

Pretty broad, right? Yet it’s spot on, because play can be many things.

So what’s best for your child? When thinking about camp, it’s important to remember that the way young children (up to 6) learn is primarily through play. How a 2-year-old plays is quite different from how a 6-year-old plays, the primary difference being that the play becomes more sophisticated as the child gets older. As skills grow and the body takes on more challenges, as the mind matures and starts to hold multiple perspectives at the same time, as the imagination waxes and wanes, as children become more adept within social groups, play is still, at the center, the best way to learn.

Around 7, children can focus, sit and engage in more complex ideas for a bit longer, and they have expectations connected to learning, but play is still at the center of their lives. I would argue that many of the problems we see in school are from an emphasis on learning and a lack of play. In any case, the younger in age, the higher the need for play. For young children, play is education and sport.

If you have an older child (8 and up), play is still of the utmost importance for camp, and you can start to weave in more educational purposes. This may also suit the needs of the child, an example being a child who dreams of writing hip-hop music. They can attend a music camp where they write, produce and perform music, as well as learn about the technology behind it, the history of it, and how phrasing, slant rhymes and twists on language add to the overall effect. The learning is clear (outcome-based), but it is completed through play.

I am pressed to imagine an “educational camp” that, if it possessed no play, would be good for a child of any age. Even gifted children, many of whom feel that educational work can be a form of play, need the break that open-ended play brings.

I would find the camp that lights your child’s eyes up when you read the description to them. It may not be your version of play, but if the camp sounds fun to them, that is the path you should follow. Even if you want them to brush up on math, what are the elements of the camp that are fun? (Yes, math can be fun!) Camps should be a time of experimentation, rest, excitement, challenges and, of course, lots of play. Trust that the learning that many of us want for our children is happening while they play. Good luck.