Kids Need Structure... Not Control

When I talk with other youth development professionals, camp directors, teachers, and social workers, about Stomping Ground they often remark about how unstructured our camp is. They say “Wow that sounds great for some kids, but lots of kids need more structure.” or “That works great with a small number of kids.”

Mostly I smile and politely change the subject, but sometimes I can’t help myself and I ask them what they mean. For the most part, what I hear are false trade-offs. That, you can’t have freedom and support or that kids need to learn grit by being pushed not pushing themselves. Most of the time people confuse structure and control.

Structure is about being consistent, reducing anxiety around the unknown, and building a safe space for kids. Control is to determine behavior, to decide for kids how they are to behave or act.

When we create communities focused on controlling young people, we can effectively bully them into acting in the ways we believe are best. We can force compliance, but we rob them of decision making power, of freedom, and of the joys and learnings that come with those. Controlling people can be useful for short term results especially in tense crisis situations. Building structure without being controlling is challenging, but it is the cornerstone of living in a free society.

“Consider the conventional response when something goes wrong (as determined, of course, by the adults). Are two children creating a commotion instead of sitting quietly? Separate them. Have the desks become repositories for used chewing gum? Ban the stuff. Do students come to class without having done the reading? Hit them with a pop quiz. Again and again, the favorite motto of teachers and administrators seems to be “Reach for the coercion” rather than engaging children in a conversation about the underlying causes of what is happening and working together to negotiate a solution.” - Alfie Kohn

Kids spend most of their lives being told what to do. This happens mostly because it is faster and easier. Imagine trying to be a teacher with 35 seven year olds staring at you all day and trying to ask each of them what they are hoping for while at the same time preparing for the seemingly endless battery of tests they all need to pass. Of course that teacher exerts control.

In much of our current system adults need control just to survive, but we can do better.


According to Peter Gray Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College, "Since about 1955 ... children's free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children's activities," What this looks like is kids spending less time making decisions, less time figuring out what they care about, and less time finding their own limits. Less time learning to self regulate. It’s no wonder millennials are terrible at making decisions, we never got any practice.

What we need are more structured environments where kids can play, live, and lead their own adventures.

Building the Sandbox

Think about toddlers playing in a sandbox. They have a handful of toys, maybe some water, and a bunch of sand. They can sit and play for hours. There is a clear structure of what makes up the sandbox and as grownups we don’t need to intervene or lead the activity. We may join, we might build a sandcastle with the toddlers or we might not. We might play with them or we might just let them play. Kids need more sandboxes.

They need more sandboxes that grow and become more intricate as young people grow and become more capable of taking care of themselves.

Adventure Playgrounds

Adventure Playgrounds are great examples of these sandboxes. Adventure Playgrounds are essentially just junk, tools, and the permission for kids to do their own thing. They typically have clear boundaries and grownups, playworkers, are present to remove hazards but not dictate how kids spend their time.

We need leaders and decision makers

The world needs people ready to make decisions, lead, and know themselves, but we have built a system where those skills seem to happen by accident. We need to build a new system with new structures that intentionally foster independence, connection, and decision making. We need thousands of sandboxes ready for kids to play, learn, and grow with structure not control.

Stomping Ground exists to build structure for kids. To build a living sandbox where we can partner with kids to help them accomplish their dreams. Check out some of our articles about how we do just that.

Creating Real Choice
The Psychology of Building Connections
Are Freedom and Support Mutually Exclusive?
Building a Culture of Choice

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Jack Schott