Stomping Ground is an overnight camp near Binghamton New York dedicated to giving kids a chance to play. We provide campers an opportunity to do what most kids don’t have a chance to do in the rest of their lives: to play with kids of different ages, in nature, and do exactly what they want to do. We do this for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest influences on how we structure camp is the work of evolutionary psychologist (and friend of Camp Stomping Ground) Peter Gray.


Peter Gray defines play on a continuum determined by the following five characteristics. He argues that play is about motivation and mental attitude, not simply the behavior or activity. Also, play is not all or nothing. Playfulness happens on a continuum often blended with other motivations. Pure play is far more common with kids than adults. His description is as follows:

(1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed;
(2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends;
(3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players;
(4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and
(5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.


Peter Gray Psychology Today (short series of articles) http://buff.ly/21wQNy1 Stuart Brown Play: How It Shapes the Brain (book) http://buff.ly/1Qi8xJQ


People are motivated to play. Inherent in the definition of play is that the means are more important than the ends. There is no end pay off to motivate us to perform the particular action. Why is this? Peter Gray argues that people evolved to play because we learn through play. That people are mammals with the largest prefrontal cortex and the most to learn. That humans play the most and for the longest of any mammal. His research led him to study hunter gatherer cultures and start to understand how humans in these cultures educated their children. What he, and many other researchers, found is that hunter gatherer children have unlimited time to play and learned just about everything they needed to know through this play. They modeled adult behavior, tested out playful arguments, played with the tools of the culture and more. He outlines the 6 characteristics of these learning environments and argues that what was true for hunter gatherers is still true for us: that children learn best through play.


Peter Gray





Stuart Brown


Play is happening anytime at camp kids when are engaged in an activity they like to do and they aren’t interested in the end results (rewards/punishments) as much as they are interested in the act of what they are doing.

We hold play sacred at camp because we trust that kids are motivated to engage in activities and don’t need us to dangle a carrot or stick to persuade them to go to archery or play gaga. If we start to change the motivation for doing an activity from intrinsic enjoyment to an extrinsic reward we begin to take away from that activity’s playfulness. In our view, this would drastically take away from the activity.

Within each activity there are varying degrees of playfulness. For example, if a camper chooses to play soccer and is excited just for the act of playing, but a counselor sets inflexible rules, this might be less playful than if a group of people dream up an idea for a game together and play for play's sake.

At Stomping Ground, we do our best to offer kids all the time they'd like to be playful, and also offer structured activities as well. We have some activities, like soccer, where we as staff dream up the activity and decide the rules. This limits the playfulness of the activity on one hand, but also provides structure for kids who appreciate it. We also try to offer opportunities for kids to create their own structure and rules. Things like fort building, game creation, hanging out, makerspace, and having loose parts for kids to play with. And, of course, at any time campers can choose to not participate in adult run activities and do what they would like to do.

During each moment at camp we look to balance campers' ability to create their own structure and play with our goal of creating playfulness within the community. Most of the time this looks like us providing structured offerings that kids can choose to be a part of voluntarily while also providing kids a space to opt out of our offerings and create their own supervised play.


Summer camp is often characterized as “just play,” and it is super tempting to fight back and talk about rigor or to try and make camp “more than just play”. I think it is time to embrace camp as play and shout it from the roof tops. Summer camp is play, and play is the best way to learn. Summer camp is a place where kids can be free to learn without the high stakes testing that most kids face in conventional schooling. Where means are at least as important as ends. Where people are free to pursue what their inner voices calls them to, as long as they aren't harming anyone. Where people are free to be themselves.

Do you know of any young people who'd benefit from an environment where kids are free to play (and learn!) to their heart's content? Whether you're in Central New York or anywhere on the globe, we'll be offering opportunities for play all summer long. We hope to see you there!

Jack Schott