Unstructured by Design: Planning to be Unplanned

In their often heavily-scheduled lives, our children lack what many of us grew up taking for granted – the time and space for self-directed play. At Leadership Academy, we are proud to offer kids that time and space – the time and space they need to slow down, to check in with themselves, to locate and then use their voices. We believe that by placing our faith and trust in kids – by telling them, “We know you can do this!” – we are facilitating the growth of their autonomy and their eventual development into confident, creative, competent adults.

One of the overarching philosophies that helps us put this belief into action is our principle of  Unstructured by Design. All six of our summer camps employ this method to some extent, and we have taken it to a whole-camp scale at nature camps at Warner park and Bells Bend Outdoor Center, where we’ve eliminated a set activity schedule apart from one nature center session each week. Unstructured by Design means that we purposely keep things flexible to allow our campers the time and space for self-directed, imaginative, collaborative play.

While the word unstructured may lead to visions of a camper free-for-all, each day at camp is actually organized and supervised carefully with an eye toward kids’ growth in exercising social skills, negotiations, self-advocacy, and collaboration. Sometimes it looks like giving campers the opportunity to choose their own activity during free-choice time. Other times it looks like allowing children ample time to explore nature without a specific time limit, goal, or destination in mind. It can even look simply like building a bit of “chill time” into a busy day.>

Our camp counselors are specifically trained in ways to supervise and engage with children during unstructured play. Keeping kids safe is a top priority, and counselors also allow for reasonable risk-taking. Our unstructured structure means that camp staff are constantly interacting with kids and must hold themselves accountable not to rush the campers through each activity, instead of allowing them to play in the flow of the moment. Our counselors are trained to resist the urge to “correct” campers’ ideas or squelch their imagination, instead of letting the children take the lead in figuring things out. They help campers take turns, negotiate for what they want, advocate for their reasons, listen to one another, and be patient as well as flexible.

The caveat as children devises their own schedule and plan is that they must collaborate and play as a group. This is one of the many places where our well-trained counselors play an important role. It is the counselors’ job each morning to facilitate discussion among their campers – what do the kids want to do today? How do they think they should go about doing it? What would they like to accomplish by the end of their week at camp? The counselors patiently listen while keeping track of all the different ideas, helping campers determine a plan that will allow them to achieve each of their goals.

At Leadership Academy’s nature camps, we take Unstructured by Design even further. The entire week is child-directed, with campers making the plans about which activities they’ll do each day. Some of these activities include:

  • Creek exploring – Campers have ample time to investigate native flora and fauna – and get nice and wet, too!
  • Fort building – Kids use branches, rocks, trees and other natural materials to design and build the fort of their dreams.
  • Crafts – While we have a few specific crafts, most craft time involves opening the doors of the craft closet (stocked with many recycled and hand-me-down supplies) and giving kids time to create.
  • Rock Throwing Range – While there are a few rules in this area (including in which direction to throw the rocks), campers are able to design their own games and scoring systems.
  • Nature Connection – This is an open-ended time to explore; kids and counselors set out to play and see what they can discover.
  • Dress up – Campers love to sort through our bins of dress up supplies and devise their own games of make-believe.
  • Mud pit – There’s a spot at camp that gets muddy when it rains and stays muddy through much of the summer. Kids can do a lot there with a bucket, a hose, and a few sticks!
  • Water games – Campers have no shortage of great ideas when it comes to playing with the hose in the heat of the day.
  • Various tag games – Kids love to lead these and do a great job of taking charge and organizing the group during unstructured playtime.
  • Skits and puppet shows – Our porch steps become a stage as campers use their imaginations to invent characters, storylines, and plot twists.
  • Sidewalk chalk – All of the kids are artists with a giant blank slate in front of them.

Our philosophy of Unstructured by Design promotes greater autonomy in our campers. In turn, that autonomy leads to children who are self-assured and self-confident. It leads to campers who have the chance to discover skills and abilities they didn’t know they had. They discover what it’s like to fail and then devise a new plan, making them resilient and resourceful. And they better learn to listen to their own voice and follow their inner compass. We’re so honored to walk alongside them as they do.

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Unstructured by Design: Planning to be Unplanned

In their often heavily-scheduled lives, our children lack what many of us grew up taking for granted - the time and space for self-directed play. At Leadership Academy, we are proud to offer kids that time and space - the time and space they need to slow down, to check in with themselves, to locate and then use their voices. We believe that by placing our faith and trust in kids - by telling them, “We know you can do this!” - we are facilitating the growth of their autonomy and their eventual development into confident, creative, competent adults.