Millions of children attend thousands of overnight camps throughout the United States each summer. If this was ever your experience, or is one that you lovingly provided to your children or grandchildren, then you know in your heart that camp is good, GREAT even. But is it ESSENTIAL? Believing it to be a critical component of our children’s upbringing, my wife and I wrestled with this belief as well as the reality of the expense.
It’s not cheap (or necessarily easy) to send your child away for weeks at a time, but the built-in benefits of overnight camp are hard to deny.
The thing is, I believe that it is important to challenge kids…to get them truly outside of their comfort zones so that they can grow. As a kid living in England, summer camp was an unknown to me. But as an adventurous soul raised by outdoor-loving parents I found my way to camp as a young international camp counselor. It was there that I truly saw the incredible impact camp had upon the campers and where I felt its effect upon my own growth and development. Its impact upon me was to become even more dramatic when I met my future wife working at our sister camp across the lake. It is fair to say that during those summers camp got under my skin.
OK, full disclosure…I don’t actually have a reason to send my daughter to camp that represents every letter of the alphabet, but as a summer camp advocate I want to share my story and the reasons why my wife and I helped Ellie at the age of 8 board a plane in Denver bound for Minnesota, and why she will be eagerly doing so again this summer.
It starts with ADVANTAGE – I wanted to send my daughter to overnight camp to provide her with a competitive advantage in life.
That first year Ellie went to camp for two weeks, and I will admit that it was hard for me. But despite missing her each and every day, I knew that she was in a great place, having fun, and learning…a lot. I know deep down that this experience will be one of the pieces that will shape her development, ultimately helping her to be successful in life no matter what path she chooses. With emerging technologies reshaping the workplace of the future, I believe that a high-quality, nature-based summer camp experience is one of the best competitive advantages we can give our children. Really!
College admissions officers aren’t necessarily going to be influenced by colorful dip candles or knowing all the words to “Old Lady Leary”. They may not care if she can pitch a tent or tie a bowline. But those things aren’t so important to us. Our goal is bigger.
We are betting on the real benefits of summer camp, which we believe will give her a true competitive advantage in life:
Summer camp builds CONFIDENCE
Overnight camp gives kids an opportunity to build the self-confidence they’re going to need in life. The increase in self-confidence that is so often seen after only the first few days of camp can be attributed to ‘firsts’. A child’s first time paddling a canoe, climbing a mountain, riding a horse and, especially, being away from their parents for an extended period of time all qualify as big self-esteem boosters. Those things push them out of their comfort zone, all while being supported by caring adult role models in a safe and nurturing environment.
According to an extensive study of camper outcomes conducted by Philliber Research Associates, 70 percent of parents report that their child gained self-confidence while at camp. Whether they work through homesickness or tackle an activity that pushed them outside of their comfort zone, kids walk away feeling a stronger sense of personal pride and self-reliance.
Summer camp promotes CREATIVITY
Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” He believed that people invent when they connect the dots between the experiences they’ve had. To do this, he argued that we need to have more experiences and spend more time thinking about those experiences.
The beauty of summer camp is that not only do kids get a much-needed opportunity to unplug, achieve focus and develop creative thought processes and connections, but they get to do it in nature, which lends its own creative boost.
At camp creativity can’t be stifled because kids don’t have to worry about getting a failing grade. I believe that it is only when kids are free of such restriction that their creativity can flourish.
Summer camp develops RESPONSIBILITY
Tasks are assigned and there are expectations to keep the cabins clean. There is also peer pressure to work as a team. This, in my opinion, is peer pressure at its very best.
Summer camp forges INDEPENDENCE
Nothing brings out and tests the independence of a child more than time away from their parents. Without mom or dad around, who is going to make their decisions? Who is going to tell them to brush their teeth? Make their bed? At camp, they make these choices on their own.
Camp allows children to truly understand the thought that goes into making good decisions, and they discover even more about themselves in the process. Not to mention (ear muffs for those parents who think they should be the only source of guidance for their kids), children also lean on peers or other adult role models for support if they do need additional help.
There are other life skills kids and teens can establish at camp too. Multiple studies conducted over the past decade have shown summer camp programs stimulate the development of interpersonal competencies, enhance leadership skills and have positive effects on emotional intelligence skills such as empathy. They increase a young person’s sense of empowerment, self-control, resilience, self-understanding, assertiveness, decision-making skills, and self-esteem. Camp programs develop healthier attitudes toward physical activity, encourage exploration and because of their nature-based location they promote nature access and appreciation which is proven to enhance kids’ academic performance. Summer camp is powerful in many ways. It is increasingly relevant, and, to my wife and I, it is unquestionably important. Ellie reminds me not to leave out that it is fun and entertaining too!
It ends with ZEST!
So, yes, I will gladly let Ellie walk out the door for another summer camp adventure where she will reflect, unwind, think and laugh. She will explore, perform skits she and her cabin-mates write themselves and make those endless friendship bracelets to tie onto the wrists of lifelong friends.
When she comes back through our door, my wife and I are certain that, in addition to having tons of creativity and independence, she’ll once again return a better version of her original self – cheerful and helpful, sharing stories about new friends and adventures, demonstrating more comfort with who she is as a person in this world, and with a quiet passion and great enthusiasm for the causes she believes in.
Is there a downside to this lexicon of camp? Well yes, for us there are actually TWO that I can think of.
First, a traditional summer camp is not for every child. Indeed Ellie’s older sister who is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder would not necessarily thrive at camp like most due to social and communications challenges.
Second, Ellie’s younger sister desperately does want to experience camp and we want that for her too…and so that’s an additional big future expense. Thank goodness for their grandparents and their unwavering belief in the power of camp. And thank goodness for everyone who finds it in his or her hearts to share the gift of camp, whether that gift is for their own family members or for kids who deserve the opportunities and advantages that summer camp provides.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Executive Director, John Austin Cheley Foundation