When exploring camp options, 
what you don’t see can be just as important as what you DO see.

When you think about summer camp, the word “invisible” doesn’t exactly jump to mind. But for those adults without a camp background of their own who are setting out to find the right camp for a child they love, there are very important things to think about, find out about, and talk about that might not be immediately apparent.  This post is for you and it’s meant to be read in conjunction with ACA New England’s camp search advice

  • INTENTIONALITY - Camps are each their own little worlds. That’s the point! Camps are extremely intentional places. In fact, intentionality is a concept that is discussed and explored frequently in a serious manner from professional conferences to camp-based planning sessions because it is at the root of most successful camp communities. For example, camp leaders are intentional about:
    • The community itself. Day and overnight camps take great pride in the community feeling they create for children and staff alike. This community often feels like another family. Members of the camp community feel a sense of belonging, which is super important for everyone, but especially for the children who often are “belonging” to a group as an individual for the very first time. Camp leaders invest time and energy (and money too) in the kinds of activities and experiences that cultivate this sense of belonging.

 Look for and ask about how the camp promotes camp pride and camp togetherness. Here are three ways camps do this that you might miss on first review of a camp’s materials or website:

        1. They make the most of time together as an entire camp (or in the case of super big camps, as a sub-group of the camp). This might be a morning meeting with singing, chanting, announcements, and staff shenanigans. It could be a special ceremony such as one that celebrates a culminating moment for campers who have achieved something after a summer (or more than one summer) of focused work. It could involve observing a storied tradition. And, often, food is involved. Yes, unlike the outside world, camps typically make time to dine together and to talk while doing so!
        2. They have reunions and gatherings for campers and staff during non-camp months. Camp and camp friends are so important that there’s an effort to stay in touch, even if folks cannot gather in person. Social media plays a big part in this process in recent years. The point is that camp relationships are so important to people that there is an effort to stay connected between summers.

Look for and ask about the ways that the camp’s formal program invites and encourages campers to be part of the community.

        1. Do they have time for children to bond with their age group or their cabin—time when they learn to be a responsible and accountable to the group and to their camp friends? This might look like something else on a schedule: “evening program,” “cabin chat,” or “junior lunch, ” for instance. Don’t underestimate how important this time with peers can be!
        2. How do they allow children to experience conflict resolution, group decision-making and group problem-solving. This happens on ropes courses, and athletic fields during instruction and competitive play, but it also happens in quieter ways. Camp staff are trained to facilitate the group process no matter where in camp they are. The benefits to campers of this are immeasurable. Understanding how one contributes to, impacts and influences a group empowers campers later in college and in the workforce to become effective team members and team players. 
    • The design of the Schedule and Program. Camp staff and camp professionals are getting extremely intentional about camp programming whether it’s summer or not. In fact, in the fall, winter and spring, camp people are dreaming up activities and plans for the future summer! Nuances of the schedule and program can be invisible to campers and parents/guardians alike. What campers can do and learn is somewhat dependent on the length of the camp experience.

Look for and ask about programming progressions. You know… you have to walk before you run. Camps teach elementary skills that are necessary for the more complex ones can be mastered.

        1. What are the program progressions you can see evidence of
          • Does the camp promote and encourage certain skill development by providing a pathway to achieving? Typically campers can move from level to level in skills like swimming, archery and woodworking, for instance. 
            • Look closely and you can appreciate that in most program areas, campers base their advanced skills on basic ones.
              1. Camps do this so beautifully, children don’t realize that they are being moved along a progression, they just know they want to keep going. “Now what?” they ask.
              2. Other times, camps do a beautiful job of making things transparent so the youngest of campers can look forward to the next stage of development. They say things like, “When I pass my deep water test, I can try waterskiing.”
        2. Ask about the program progressions that might not be so apparent.

How does the camp expose children to activities and skills they don’t yet know they want to try? In today’s highly-specialized world, children can be so love-struck by or familiar with an activity, it’s hard to get them to try something else. Camps do a great job of this!

        1. Check out the schedule for times where there is camper choice or where the camp cycles an entire cabin or age group to an activity together. Camp communities work hard to be safe places where children can fail without shame or the need to save face as they do in other places. Campers are constantly encouraged to try new things—from foods to problem-solving strategies to program activities.
        2. Ask the camp about their role models. Camps pride themselves on their staff! Staff are most important to a camp’s success. They hire them for their skillsets and then they train them in the ways of the camp (a real benefit of camp jobs—but that is another story). There are many, many stories about how campers go on to do what their counselors do (and make look so cool, fund and interesting), whether that is kayaking, attending college, or hiking all the 4000 foot mountains in a state or region. Camp staff are a key way camps expose campers to new skills and activities! A camp can have the finest facilities and supplies, but it cannot maximize the use of either of these without personnel who can inspire and teach children.
    • The design of the Property/Environment. Camps are children’s worlds, built with children in mind and constructed to allow children to do as much as possible for themselves.

Look for this in the physical plant. In overnight camps, there are shelves and cubbies to support children as they learn to keep their things organized. In some day camps with preschoolers, look for smaller furniture and sinks. For certain program areas, the ACA requires helmets. Helmets, whether they are for riding or rock climbing must be properly-sized.

Look and ask how the facility supports the program. Intentionality in camp architecture is real! From table design and placement in dining halls to outdoor amphitheaters, from living spaces to learning spaces, a lot of time and energy is spent setting children up for success by engineering an environment that supports the camp’s program and philosophy and the children’s purpose.

  • LEARNING – Camp is amazingly fun, a blast actually. What children are learning and the depth of that learning can be invisible to campers and to their parents. Sometimes it’s not until camp is over that families realize how much children have learned. With all the silly songs and the zany antics and the general hilarity, it’s easy to miss how much learning is happening.
    • Learning is infused into every aspect of camp. And campers are not the only ones learning. Camp staff return summer after summer to successively responsible positions because they are learning so much. 

Camp jobs are starter jobs for many, many people. And camps keep many of their staff for multiple summers and trust them with more responsibility than other employers might and it’s all because the actual responsibilities—the work itself—teaches people so much: how to be punctual, how to report to a boss, how to work as a team, how to supervise others, how to work with children, how to teach and how to be responsible across the board. These are seriously transferable skills.

    • Camps teach what they say they teach, whether that’s sailing or ceramic arts. They teach so much more, though, especially in the realm of social/emotional learning. And they teach experientially by providing experiences that deliver small and large lessons. Some of these are life lessons that’ll come in handy in college, while others are lessons in an activity area like kayaking, sports or drama. The learning never stops; and that goes for the adults in the community too. 

Campers get to debrief much of their camp learning. Trained staff are ready to have individual and group discussions that help campers realize and appreciate what they are learning along the way and throughout the day, whether that’s from after completing an important milestone like swimming across the lake or working out a conflict with a camp friend. Don’t underestimate the power of this talking and connecting in person. It’s happening with a generation of children who spend much of their out-of-camp time interacting with screens.

If you look for evidence of learning, you’ll certainly see it. But do ask about it too. The stories you can expect to hear about what campers and staff have learned are as fascinating as they are inspirational.


  • SELF-EFFICACY/INDEPENDENCE – Something that many people don’t see right away is how camp experiences help build children’s emerging sense of independence. Day and overnight camp experiences allow children the chance to step away from their family for the day or for a number of days and begin to explore and experience independence.
    • Structured independence is everywhere. It’s the job of the staff to keep children safe. So, there are many times when campers get to do things on their own, but the trained staff are right there. They might be behind the scenes supervising, poised to intervene if need be. But, in general, camp staff expect a lot from their charges. And they usually get the behavior they expect, whether that’s making up a camp cot each day or apologizing to another camper. The key is in the word “trained.” Camp staff have to know a bit about child development to foster independence. When they’re taught what to do and expected to do it, campers usually rise to the occasion! Children want to be independent; they just don’t know how to get there. Camp experiences can definitely help.
    • A child’s sense of self-efficacy influences how (s)he approaches everything from academic to social challenges. Something about the can-do spirit that is so much a part of  summer camp life that it can forever influence a person’s approach to learning, to community and to life! Summer camps and their staff do a great job of empowering campers to be as independent as possible. Teachers and families appreciate this immeasurably.

And—one last thing! Don’t forget about the camp’s philosophy. Talk about intentional…the philosophy of the camp is where it all begins and ends. Everything ties into the philosophy in ways that outsiders can miss. The philosophy is a basis for everything! Say it’s a camp that is values-based, meaning they exist to help young people to acquire those very values. Their staff will tie everything back to their values. A value like honesty will be reinforced during conflict resolution. Friendship will be referred to by the staff that children live with and are taught by—and even by administrators and others who are busily planning and implementing activities and events that support friendship and that allow children to experience it in new ways. No matter what you’re looking for or at in a camp, you can nearly always see evidence of its philosophy. 

Photos courtesy of Camp Micah, Camp Aldersgate, Lanakila Camp, and Passport Day Camp.