Camp: The Old Neighborhood for a New Generation

Jolly Corley

The following is an excerpt from Jolly Corley’s 2014 January/February Camping Magazine article.

I use the term “old neighborhood” to describe the communities in which people who were children twenty years ago (or earlier) lived. The old neighborhood was a place where kids were free to play from the time they finished chores until they were called inside for dinner. It was a community in which children were free of adults, played in mixed-age groups, and made up the rules to the games they played. In essence, they had control over how they spent their afternoon. This old neighborhood has different meanings to different people, depending on their social class or where they grew up. However, many with memories of those old neighborhoods share a similar experience of play free from adults telling them what to do. This took place in suburbs, the countryside, and cities.

Today, children play video games that mimic real activities, such as Wii baseball, or have pretend adventures to save a kingdom in front of a television screen. Twenty years ago, children were actually outside playing together — practicing the very skills that they would need later in life; skills that, according to experts, this current generation seems to be lacking. Children in the past had to negotiate and to communicate. There was not an adult to tell them what the rules of the pick-up baseball game or imaginary adventure would be. They were developing decision-making, conflict-management, and communication skills. Children became problem solvers when they made up the rules to their games and resolved problems that arose.

An Example

When I speak to adults, it does not take long for me to hear childhood stories that become examples of how play was an important part of learning soft skills that are essential for success. Until it is brought up in conversation, the adults I speak to do not consciously think of childhood as the foundation of the skills they possess today.

Consider the example of a pick-up game of football at recess or after school, which demonstrates how, when left to their own devices, children have the capacity to organize themselves and succeed in playing a game.

To get started, the group must agree on the boundaries of the field, how a touchdown is scored, and whether it is two-hand touch, one-hand touch, or all-out tackle. The last undertaking is the selection of teams. Often in the selection of the team, potential issues are discussed and negotiated: “We have Tom and he is only six and too young for tackling,” or “No fair! You have Jenny and she’s the fastest.” Other rules may emerge, such as “Tom always gets to be the kicker so he doesn’t have to get tackled,” or “Jenny plays offense for both teams.” Interestingly enough, most of the time, these rules are ironed out so everyone agrees — without an adult. Once the game is in play, children must judge, “Was that really a touchdown?” They must decide if, due to some unforeseen circumstance, a “do over” is actually necessary.

In the old neighborhood, pick-up games like these were common. Today, they are much rarer.

Age-Mixed Playing

Play in the old neighborhood also included children of a variety of ages. In most cases, the children did not play solely with children of their same age. Gray studied the benefits of what he calls “age-mixed playing” in school-aged children who were allowed to play and interact with children of all ages. He writes in a 2011 article for the American Journal of Play that “Experience with younger children provides older children and adolescents with opportunities to be the mature ones in relationships and thereby practice nurturance and leadership” (p. 514).

He also explains that younger children who play with older children tend to “play up” to the level of the older children: They mimic the ideas and strategies that older children use when playing. Young children who play with children of mixed ages are able to problem solve in ways that are more sophisticated than what they are developmentally capable of if left on their own or playing with children of their same age (Gray, 2013). Too often, we group all the children in our care by age. While in some circumstances this may be necessary and beneficial, what prevents us from mixing ages and reaping the benefits of having a variety of ages together?

Camp as the Old Neighborhood

Camps are committed to creating communities. Each season, session, and summer, our profession creates a unique community, and more often than not, the people in charge are youth themselves. This models an opportunity for mixed-age play. Camps are in an incredible position to provide environments and “circumstances that allow each child to fully reap the advantages associated with play” (Ginsburg, 2007). There are some who see camps as old-fashioned, but the profession as whole has worked hard to show its relevance and to move into the twenty-first century. The truth is there has never been a better time for children to go to camp.

Jolly Corley, MS, is a camp director at Camp Robindel. She is an educator with a particular interest in helping organizations create opportunities to encourage professional and personal growth. Contact:

Ginsburg, K R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 182-189.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gray, P. (2011). Special value of children’s age-mixed play. American Journal of Play, 3 (4), 500-522.

Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts