Remembering That All Children Can Benefit From the Camp Experience

They are singing silly songs, playing funny games and giggling in their bunks before bed time. They are making s’mores around a campfire and shrieking at scary stories. It looks like they are having too much fun to be learning anything of importance, right? It sounds like they are being goofy, not growing up, right? This is where many adults seem to get it wrong. Not only is camp an important developmental tool for children at a time in their lives that brings about a great deal of change, but it is such for children from every walk of life. "Camp is an equal opportunity life changer," says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. "It addresses universal childhood needs not specific to a particular racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group. Nobody is left out." The summer camp experience can play an integral role in every child’s overall development.

Regardless of where a child comes from, the benefits of camp can be great. Some are from underserved families and are struggling with problems at home. Some are from wealthy and prominent families and may be identified only as the children of their parents. Others are living with life-threatening illnesses and injuries or grieving immeasurable losses. And some are living a "typical" childhood. It is easy to see how one might be skeptical that these kids from such different backgrounds and situations could stand to benefit from the same experience, but each and every one of them can grow into themselves in a camp environment.

Camp provides the perfect environment for a child to learn and practice individual and group decision making. They discover how to socialize and navigate their interactions with others, and to resolve conflicts peacefully. Critical-thinking and leadership skills are developed, not only through modeling their behavior off of great camp directors and counselors, but through the opportunity to be leaders themselves within the camp community. "Song leader, lunch table leader, team captain, the list goes on and on," says Smith.

Parents may worry that, over the summer, their children will begin to forget the things they learned in school. Studies show thatstudents on summer vacation can lose up to three months of what they have learned during the school year. However, camp provides programmingthatkeeps a child’s brain active, alert, and acquiring knowledge and skills, which reduceslearning loss. And it is not only a child’s brain that is kept active at summer camp; they keep their bodiesactive as well. Exercise is simply part of the fun of the day at camp. Programming such as hiking, soccer, and canoeing allow children to truly enjoy being active on a daily basis. Between exercise and exposure to nature, which is proven to reducestress, improve mood, and stimulate all of a child’s senses, children return home mentally and physically well, perhaps more so than upon their arrival at camp.

During a summer at camp, a child begins to understand what it means to be part of a community. Living in a group setting and sharing team experiences teaches kids how to work together, care for each other, and find their voice within the group. Camp is a safe place away from home, and having a strong and supportive community around encourages a child to engage in positive risk-taking. Children realize that they are in a judgment-free environment and begin to step out of their own comfort zone, taking both physical and emotional risks they may never otherwise take. They ask questions, try new things, and become active participants in their own lives.

All of these new encounters become the driving force behind burgeoning self-confidence, self-sufficiency, and self-reliance. Suddenly, children are discovering skills and strengths they never knew they possessed and are getting their first taste of success and achievement. Adults know very well the feeling of confidence that arises from accomplishing something. It is important to remember that many children are experiencing this sense of accomplishment on their own for the very first time at camp, something that may not have happened at home or school.

These benefits are vital to a child’s development, but if you ask anyone who has ever attended summer camp what it is they value most about the experience, they would likely say the relationships they developed and the memories they still carry with them are most important. Camp gives kids the opportunity to meet other campers and counselors who are different from them, and they come away from the summer with lasting relationships with people they never would have met otherwise. Long after summer ends, the memories of the silly songs, funny games, achievements and friendships live on in children’s hearts and minds.

Camp is an excellent opportunity for fostering growth in any child. The values and shared experiences of camp overshadow any labels a camper might feel they carry with them from the "outside world." Details like where they are from and what they own fade away, allowing them the chance to evolve into themselves. Camps create communities that value everyone equally, and there is a camp out there for everyone!