Why this camp encourages child-led play in nature

On a summer afternoon, you might find four-year-olds digging in the mud with sticks while six-year-olds toss stones into a creek and eight-year-olds climb trees or build a fort.

Welcome to the Into the Wild nature camp at WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Alta., where unstructured, child-led, risky play is the name of the game. “Let your kids run wild with us,” the organization beckons in its program guide.

Into the Wild is a new week-long camp for kids ages three to eight, created by WinSport, a not-for-profit renowned for its athletic development and sports programming.

The origin story

The camp is a result of staff’s exploration of play and child development, which included attending the International Play Association Triennial World Conference.

“At the very youngest age groups, athlete development doesn’t really look a lot like sport,” says Chris Lane, program lead for WinSport’s nature camps. “It’s all about tinkering and play and self-discovery.”

This realization led WinSport to develop its own program for early childhood development, called Early Explorers. Staff then decided to implement the philosophy in its summer camps too.

Previously, they were called sport and adventure camps, and offered a broad range of activities in one-hour blocks: jumping on trampolines, playing mini golf, going on a treasure hunt, learning a new sport, such as luge, and learning physical literacy on a field.

In the nature camp, though, the play is unstructured. Rather than dedicating specific time to learning physical literacy, the concept is ingrained in all play kids do throughout the day, from running up and down hills to looking under rocks.

Spending time in nature has a multitude of benefits for children. It helps them develop mentally, physically, and socially, plus playing with different objects and textures encourages their creativity.

“So often at this young age, we’re fixated on what they’ve learned and what the outcomes are,” says Lane. “But at this age, the outcomes we don’t know. It’s all about what the child’s outcomes are… The play for them is so immediate and it’s really hard to qualify.”

Risky play is important too. In Lane’s eyes, on a very simple level, it’s about learning what’s fun and what’s not.

 “It’s like the challenge curve, where you really want to find that happy medium—it’s not something you’re nervous or anxious about, it’s not something that’s boring. It’s something that’s exciting.”

Building confidence in older children

WinSport also offers a camp called Call of the Wild for children ages nine to 15. The philosophy behind it? Hard skills teach soft skills. Kids learn to tie ropes, build a fire, navigate through the woods, build a shelter, and purify water.

“What we’ve seen is when individuals master skills, it really boosts self-esteem, it really demonstrates confidence,” says Lane. Doing this in the outdoors puts children in situations where they’re dealing with real challenges, like rain or cool weather.

“Being able to conquer the outdoors really develops some strong leadership skills through understanding what you’re capable of… One of the outcomes of this camp is more confident, more resilient children.”

The overarching goal of all of WinSport’s camps is simple: remove barriers to play.

“I really believe that we’ve forgotten how easy it is to get outside and play,” says Lane. “WinSport is taking the first step and saying, ‘Yeah, it’s this easy. We just have to do it.’”

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