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An Outgrowth of Imagination

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The Benefits of Unstructured Play and Nature-Based Camps

By Taylor Smith

Unstructured play is open-ended, and child-led. It is an opportunity for children to flex their creative muscles without adult guidelines as to what they can or cannot do. An example of this is bringing a coloring book to a child. A coloring book is filled with lines and shapes in which children are expected to color within. Alternatively, unstructured play would look more like handing a child a piece of paper and a box of crayons and telling them that they can create and imagine to their heart’s content.

Previous generations probably remember their parents or grandparents telling them to simply “go outside and play.” The benefits of this type of play are only now being fully understood. It has been recognized that there is a pivotal period in childhood development where children can imagine and formulate their own games and rules (waldorfeducation.org/waldorf-education). Even the practice of playing with dolls and toys, creating shapes and structures out of Lego bricks, and building one’s own “world” out of their imagination is significant. Toddlers, children, and even young teenagers benefit from role playing and acting out the scenarios that they dream up in their mind’s eye. This also aids social development, problem solving, and self-understanding in the sense that young people are learning how to occupy themselves and to develop their own creative reflexes.

Using one’s imagination also deepens social connections among children. Acting out storylines and building self-initiated games with their peers stimulates cognitive memory and social acuity, which is defined as the ability and inclination to perceive the psychological state of others and act accordingly.

Just think — as an adult, how often have you had to self-initiate solving a problem particular to your life? What about appropriately reading social conversations and body language? This probably happens multiple times a day, every day. Unstructured play thus prepares children for the accelerated intellectual, emotional, and social problem solving that they will be required to engage in during high school, college, their professional lives, and beyond. For this reason, unstructured play can be viewed as the gateway to adulthood and real-life thinking.

Why should you resist the temptation to overbook your child’s summer vacation?

Overbooking your child’s summer vacation prevents unstructured play from happening naturally and more frequently. Instead of a constant roster of assigned daily activities, such as carpooling from dance lessons to swimming lessons, computer camps, and more, try setting up an open-ended play date for your child. Invite your child’s friends over for an afternoon at the local park or simply hanging out in the backyard. Left to their own resources, adults will be surprised and delighted at the organic play that can ensue. During this unstructured or “open” play, children will learn to observe and communicate with their peers through direct communication, body language, negotiation, problem-solving, planning, imagining, and more. It won’t take long for parents to observe that their child is improving their communication and socialization skills, learning patience with other children and how to work through problems without the constant involvement or interference of an adult or teacher.

Summer is truly the ideal time for children to disconnect from their smartphones, laptops, and iPads and instead, play in the backyard, their bedroom, or at a nature-based camp that encourages these types of “unprovoked” social-emotional and developmental experiences.

So, what types of camps in the greater Princeton area offer these types of opportunities? Princeton Magazine has rounded up a selection of top day camps for children to engage in outdoor play with their peers, with only limited structure and very little technology or screen time. Nature heals and boosts health and happiness levels for children as well as adults, so why not try something different this summer and see how it impacts your own child’s confidence, cognitive development, and problem-solving skills?

The year 2022 is the perfect time to make a change, so let’s begin with allotting children the gift of self-discovery and freedom at these nature-centric summer camps:

Waldorf School of Princeton

Located at 1062 Cherry Hill Road in Princeton, Waldorf School offers new and exciting summer camp sessions for 2022. Registration is now open at princetonwaldorf.org. The sessions will be held June 27-July 15 and July 18-August 5. The camp is open to children ages 4-12 and camp hours are 8:30am to 4pm.

The Waldorf School welcomes summer campers to their outdoor campus, complete with a rippling creek, adventure forest, biodynamic farm, landscaped gardens, and numerous outdoor play structures. The goal is to provide campers with a sense of adventure and community, while forming new friendships and a lasting love of the outdoors.

One camp parent remarked, “I loved that the day and activities were structured, but not overly so. Children were allowed to express their creativity and imagination. Opportunities to wade in the creek and bake bread in a wood-fired oven made more memorable experiences.” Another parent noted, “Safe but unstructured exploration is the perfect balance to his very structured school life.”
A 10 percent early-bird discount is available for those registering before February 28. Children are welcome to participate in one or both of the three-week sessions, which will involve different forms of creative play. For inquiries, call 609.466.1970.

SummerQuest at Princeton Montessori School

Princeton Montessori’s SummerQuest, at 487 Cherry Valley Road in Princeton, is a wholesome, stimulating, nurturing experience for children through age 9.

SummerQuest takes a Montessori approach to children reveling in the outdoors, crafts, theater, gardening, building forts and tepees in the woods, and new friendships. Extra time is allotted every day for daydreaming and unstructured play time with their SummerQuest classmates. Allow your child to be inspired this summer with fun in the sun and ample time in nature.

Founded in 1968, a Princeton Montessori education creates the building blocks for a healthy and happy whole person though self-initiated discovery, learning, and play. Early-bird savings are available before April 15 and registration is currently open at princetonmontessori.org.

Art Intensives and International Ivy programs are available on site for older students. A Montessori parent said, “I’m struck by how much better the Montessori toddlers are at playing peacefully with their peers than toddler in other nursery school programs.”

If you think your child would benefit from a summer-based Montessori program, be sure to give SummerQuest a try.

Watershed Nature Camp

The Watershed Center and Reserve in Pennington includes 950 acres of fields, forests, trails, ponds, and streams. On a typical summer day, campers venture into the woods to explore under logs, out in the meadow to catch butterflies, or down to the stream to explore watery worlds. Campers will partake in fresh air, making new friends, developing a deeper love of the natural world, and a healthy dose of adventure.

Camp leaders believe that every child deserves the chance to experience summer vacation at a slower, less stressful pace, simply connecting with their peers. It is the goal of Watershed Nature Camp to instill in campers respect of the plants, animals, and people that surround us.

Registration for summer 2022 is now open. To view the 2022 camp brochure, visit thewatershed.org/camp.

Solebury Summer Camp

Located on a sprawling campus in New Hope, Pa., Solebury engages campers ages 4 to rising seventh grade in hands-on science and nature activities, swimming, sports, and flex time, where groups of children get to determine how they want to play. This is a time in which they work with their peers to create their own games, playacting, socialization, and more.

Hot and cold lunches are available every day along with snacks. Each week of camp will have a special theme such as Carnival, Wet and Wacky, Spirit Week, and more. All summer 2022 programs at Solebury School are available at 2021 prices. To register, visit solebury.org.

Howell Living History Farm

Howell Living History Farm, located at 70 Woodens Lane in Hopewell Township, brings people back to the year 1900, when horses and buggies traveled the nearby roads and fields. At Howell, children can roll up their own sleeves for hands-on activities, meet interpreters in historic costumes, and create magical memories.

In past years, children would become real farmhands by helping with animal chores and field activities. This popular program introduces children to working horses, chickens, sheep, and more. The Hatchery program is designed for preschool-age children to learn about life on the farm. Activities include collecting eggs, watering the sheep, feeding pigs, and exploring the farm. Snack time, crafting, and story time are all in a day’s work. The Cooking and Chores camp gives older kids the option to learn how to use a wood stove and open hearth as the farmers did at the turn of the century.

For children ages 6-16, these week-long camps are centered around farm chores, craft time, exploration, and free play. Email kdaly@howellfarm.org for the latest information or visit howellfarm.org/kids-programs.

George School Day Camp

Join George School in Newtown, Pa., for their 45th season of summer camp. Registration is now open at georgeschool.org.

George School Day Camp is open to boys and girls ages 4-14. Established in 1977, campers participate in a range of outdoor activities, from archery to zip lining, swimming, sports, theater, and everything in between. Campers have access to a 240-acre campus in beautiful Bucks County, Pa. For questions, call Camp Director Mike Bailey at 215.579.6689 or email gsdc4kids@georgeschool.org.

Terhune Orchards

Every summer, Terhune Orchards on Cold Soil Road in Princeton welcomes children to experience a fun-filled week of summer camp on their picturesque, 250-acre working family farm. Children will learn how the farm operates through educational, interactive, and exploratory activities. The farm’s acreage includes streams, nature trails, fields, and the resident barnyard animals.

Sample activities involve learning how to cultivate a garden, wagon rides, story time, crafts, and harvesting and sampling the in-season crops. Campers will spend their days exploring the farm and immersing themselves in nature. Check terhuneorchards.com for this year’s summer camp dates or call 609.924.2310.

Rambling Pines Day Camp

Rambling Pines in Hopewell is a local day camp like no other. The long-standing, family-owned camp has a track record of amazing childhood summer experiences for children ages preschool through ninth grade. While the program options vary by age, Rambling Pines campers get to enjoy a host of outdoor activities, such as horseback riding, agility courses, creek exploration, mountain biking, tennis, street hockey, nature studies, music, boating, and more.

Daily lunch, snacks, and bus service are available to enrolled campers. See why Rambling Pines is a local favorite for active kids and families. Visit ramblingpines.com for registration information.

Hunter Farms Day Camp

Located at 1315 The Great Road in Princeton, Hunter Farms’ Children’s Summer Riding Program provides world-class riding instruction, jumping, shows, stable management, crafts, and games centered around everything horsey.

Hunter Farms includes two indoor rings, outdoor rings, great jumps, and courses for a variety of skill levels. The summer program runs Monday through Friday from 9am to 2:30pm during the months of June, July, and August. There is limited enrollment. To reserve a space, call 609.924.2932. A registration form is available online at hunterfarms.us.

Summer at Stuart

Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, at 1200 Stuart Road in Princeton, plays host to a yearly Summer at Stuart program for early childhood, lower school, middle school, and upper school students.

A wide range of summer enrichment programs are available. They range from nature-based exploration, science, and discovery to outdoor athletics, recreation, and the arts. The supportive and diverse experiences are a Stuart trademark and one that children and their families will not soon forget.

Enrollment for summer 2022 is now open. For questions, contact Anne Pierpont, director of auxiliary programs, at 609.921.6132 or email apierpont@stuartschool.org. To learn more, visit stuartschool.org/student-life/summer-camp.