Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Serious Learning . . . through Play!
Unstructured, outdoor activity is essential to children’s development

by Peg L. Smith, CEO, American Camp Association

February 01, 2014

For me, the cornerstone of childhood is play. The ability to play follows us throughout our life. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, writes, “There is a great deal of evidence that the road to mastery of any subject is guided by play.” As a parent, I want my child to seek continuous improvement in everything he or she does, in all areas of life – a learning journey. That journey becomes their path to personal mastery. However, it often feels like the “ritual of resume building” is trumping the “rights of childhood.”

Since 1955, unstructured play has been on the decline. The University of Michigan says from 1981 through 1997, we saw a 25 percent decline in play. We have also witnessed an increase in teen suicide, depression and mental health problems. What is the correlation, if any?

Parallel to the loss of play is the decrease in access to the out of doors. It is stated that the average radius of play today is 500 square feet. Kids want to play outside – The IKEA Corporation found that 69 percent of a sample of U.S. children indicated the preferred place to play is out of doors. Unfortunately, the Children and Nature Network has shared the time spent outside has decreased by 50 percent.

Recent teen brain research has shed light on the importance of development during adolescence. The National Institute of Mental Health states that the prefrontal cortex (the CEO of the brain) is at its greatest capacity to learn during adolescence! The brain needs multiple techniques to maximize its natural ability to learn: mastery, experiential, cooperative, practical and movement opportunities. Yet, we have altered the formula, preempting “how” the brain learns with “what” it should learn. This is a misguided notion. One’s ability to discover meaning is always more valuable than information alone.

As parents, I believe we know our children need to have stimulating environments that encourage individual AND group learning. Learning takes place indoors and out of doors. Learning environments must be engaging, adaptable, flexible, and mixed with structured and unstructured time. Yet, as parents, we are often not given permission to articulate those needs, fearing it will sound frivolous. We have also been bombarded by images of abduction and violence causing us to micromanage our children in a way that may, in fact, be causing a slowing down of normal development. At the end of the day, the issues of academic fervor and fear are resulting in an ever-shrinking “unstructured play” environment. Play is a natural developmental learning process that embellishes what we now understand about the science of the brain during adolescence. If we want to supersize something, let it be the science of play and access to the out of doors. Let’s come together as parents and demand a strong foundation of play and nature be established for the developmental rights of childhood that will complement and support the desire for academic success!

With four decades of experience as a change agent in youth development and transformation, Peg L. Smith is the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association® (ACA). ACA is the champion of better tomorrows — providing resources, research, and support for developmentally appropriate camp experiences. Learn more at or