When I was fifteen, I was in my sixth summer at a traditional camp for boys in New Hampshire. One night after dinner, my counselor from the year before (a six-foot, five-inch English rugby player) asked me if I wanted to throw a baseball around. We spent an hour or two playing catch and talking about whatever came up. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversation; who else was there; or what was going on around us. What I do remember, and still enjoy thinking about, are the positive feelings that resulted from having the undivided attention of someone I essentially worshipped. For some reason, this particular event stands out in my mind, though there were hundreds more like it over the course of my camp career. As a former counselor with 15 years of experience, and now as a mental health professional specializing in working with children, I am convinced that the cumulative power of small moments like these illustrate the unique manner in which camp helps children reach their full potential.
Why is camp so good for children?
Many camp professionals will describe their camp community as a family. I can’t think of a more accurate description. One of the reasons that well-run camps are so good for children is that they emulate the processes found in what psychologists call authoritative families. Parents who are authoritative provide their children with a great deal of structure and have high expectations of their children, while simultaneously providing a high degree of emotional warmth and encouragement. They can be distinguished from parents who are permissive (high emotional availability, but little structure and low expectations), or authoritarian (high expectations and structure, but low on emotional warmth and encouragement). When I work with parents, I often describe permissive parents as the “spoilers,” and authoritarian parents as the “dictators.” There are literally decades of psychological research supporting the conclusion that authoritative parenting is most likely to result in children who are happy, independent, and secure in themselves. Good camps are like good families: clear expectations are given, rules are enforced in a fair and sensitive manner, and campers are given warmth, respect, and encouragement. Substitute “camp counselor” for “parent,” and we get the “big picture” reason for why camp is so good for children.
What about my child?
Good camps also help children by matching their programs to the developmental level of the child. Psychologists will often speak of “developmental tasks” or “age-appropriate challenges” when discussing what children of different ages need to learn in order to develop appropriately. Camp is one of the few areas of your child’s life where the program can be matched to specific needs and developmental tasks, helping children make the most of their natural strengths. In my opinion, the camp experience is superior to most schools in this regard, as camps make no assumption that all third graders, for example, need to learn the same things or be treated the same way.
Keeping in mind that children of the same chronological age can vary widely in terms of emotional, social, and intellectual development, the following can be used as a general set of guidelines for what you can expect your child to get out of camp whether your choice is a day camp close to home or an overnight camp in a neighboring state.
Although children of this age may seem too young for camp, almost all of them can benefit from day camp, and in more precocious cases, overnight camp. Young children are learning how to explore their world, gradually spending more time away from their parents’ side. Day camp, or a brief, overnight camp is an ideal place for young children to experience being away from their parents in a safe, nurturing environment. Good camps will have many structured, productive activities such as crafts and field trips that also help children get used to following a schedule. There is also no substitute for constant interaction with other children under adult supervision when it comes to developing social skills necessary for a successful entry into school. The staff-to-child ratio at most camps here will often be much better than that of a school or day care.
Elementary school-age children are an entertaining group. Their interests change frequently as they are exposed to new ideas and opportunities. Think of this developmental period as one enormous “trial-and-error” episode, where children will “try on” all sorts of different likes and dislikes. Camp is a particularly good match for this age group, given the chances to participate in activities that are unlikely to be available elsewhere: archery, horseback riding, hiking, sailing, or nature exploration, as well as more typical activities such as team sports. The variety of activities offered at camp fits nicely with this group of children, who are often especially open-minded about trying new things. Social development is also critical in this period, as early friendships are formed and the child’s individual personality begins to express itself.
There’s an old saying in psychology that all parents believe the environment is everything, the “nurture over nature” school…until they have their second child. Some children are simply born more introverted, preferring to be in small groups or alone; others are born more extraverted, enjoying large groups and being the center of attention. Either way is fine. What summer camp provides, because of the sheer amount of time young children spend playing with each other, is the chance to experience the structured and unstructured social interactions of childhood that allow them to determine what kind of person they are going to be.
Children of these ages are beginning to define their individuality. Particularly in girls, this period of time is characterized by great variation in physical and emotional development. As those of you who have what the media calls “tweens” in your house can attest, one 11-year-old can still be engrossed in cartoons and action figures or dolls, while another spends an hour getting ready for school, seems obsessed with who did or did not say “hi” to them in the hallway, and so on. I have worked with several children who voiced the frustration of feeling forced to “be too grown up” on one hand, as well those who are tired of “being treated like a little kid” on the other.
The variety of social, athletic, and outdoor activities offered through camp addresses these issues very well. If your child is still “young for his or her age,” camp will allow them to spend time with other children doing “kid stuff” until they are ready to move on. The more “mature” child will have similar opportunities with older children, without fear of being ostracized. Whatever your “tween” child is ready for, camp provides a safe, supervised set of opportunities to explore and define individual interests and motivations—a wonderful gift for children as they enter adolescence.
Ages 13 and up
Adolescents aged 13 and older may benefit the most from the unique opportunities offered through camp. One of the common myths of adolescence is that it is somehow normal to be extremely moody, irresponsible, and self-centered. While this is certainly the case for some teens at certain times, it is not the norm. Unfortunately, teens are often victims of a self-fulfilling prophecy: When we expect them to behave like stereotypically rebellious, troubled teenagers, we are in danger of acting in ways that elicit these behaviors. Camp is a tremendous way to reverse this process. Older campers have opportunities for service and leadership that are unrivaled compared to most other summer activities (working at the local strip malls or fast food restaurants come to mind). For example, older campers will often be given positions where they serve as role models for younger campers. For many teens, this will be the first time they are given responsibilities, and most will jump at the chance to prove themselves in a positive way.
As part of a close community, older campers also learn that they can leave a constructive, lasting impact on the people around them, helping them develop first-hand knowledge of the benefits of service and altruism.
Camp allows children to be exposed to a diverse group of people, interests, and activities where they are given the opportunity to try, fail, try again, and succeed in the context of a supportive environment. Challenges at camp are real and they require sustained effort to master. The sense of accomplishment children get from mastering these challenges is therefore also real, and enduring. Campers can develop a personal sense of security and self-confidence that will help them be comfortable in their own skin for the rest of their lives. •
Ethan Schafer specializes in working with children and families. He holds a Ph.D. in child clinical psychology and writes frequently on topics surrounding child development and camp. This article was made available by permission of the American Camp Association, acacamps.org.