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Americans and others world-wide are focusing on the celebrations of our nation’s independence tomorrow. And, like small towns and large cities charged with providing safe and fun events for residents, camp communities will focus on doing an excellent job of making the day memorable for campers and camp staff—even with Hurricane Arthur as an uninvited guest. 

Here at ACA New England, we’re focusing on the emerging qualities of independence that summer camp experiences inspire: self-sufficiency, self-dependence, self-reliance, and even self-support. Camps work really hard to provide safe, fun environments that children can successfully navigate; they’re actually small-scale worlds designed exclusively for children. And, whether campers are staying just for the day or for several overnights, being at camp uniquely moves them along that continuum of independence—away from the complete dependence of early childhood and toward fully independent lives as adults. The journey towards independence is a long, circuitous one. Campers navigate the journey of independence and move along this continuum because they have the opportunity to do as much for themselves as possible while at camp—the camp lifestyle inspires, encourages and ensures it. Camp experiences create a sense of being on top of the world, literally and figuratively.

Campers carry what they can—water bottles jackets, lunches, beach towels, sunscreen, and bug repellent in a light-weight day pack or camp stoves, sleeping bags, tents, meal provisions and personal clothing and supplies in a backpack that may weigh as much as one third of a child’s body weight! It definitely builds self-sufficiency when campers can make the connection between packing and preparing well so they have what they need when it’s needed, whether that is hydration or shelter. The experience of gathering, packing and carrying exactly what you and the group need builds self-reliance. Managing their own stuff on a daily basis provides a world of practical experience. Camps make this possible by creating systems for storing belongings and by carving out time for cleaning up and getting organized; sometimes there’s even an “inspection.” For some children, despite the efforts of families and teachers, camp is the first time they truly make the connection between keeping things organized and having what they need at the precise moment they need it!

Being at camp positively helps children manage their stuff; it also plays an equally important role in helping them to manage themselves. Making some decisions independently is a big part of camp life. Some of these decisions fall into the social-emotional realm: Shall I sign up for an activity with a friend or by myself? I’m arguing with my friend, do I ask my counselor to help? Camp life enables children to be accountable for their own behavior, as age appropriate, with a tremendous amount of support from the non-parent role models and teachers, known as camp counselors. The kind of skills built are very useful later on in college and in the workforce. Campers learn experientially how to: reach out to include another person, apologize for something and move on, and negotiate to get what they want and need or to influence a group decision, just to name a few. Other important decisions campers make fall into the realm of programming and the daily schedule. If they have to choose between horseback riding and white water rafting, what will it be? What will I choose at the salad bar—organically grown tomatoes from the camp garden, blueberries picked by my group or croutons? Will I audition for the play? Do I want to throw a clay pot or dip a candle? 

Perhaps some of the greatest independence boosting that can occur in summer camp settings happens in the realm of problem solving. Camp experiences empower children to solve problems for themselves and as members of a group. Some problems can be very simple, while others are more complex challenges to face. The process of creating a solution to a problem, however small or large, can help a child walk a little taller and feel a little more confident both during and after camp; it can definitely give them the sense that they're on top of the world. Camp counselors and staff are the ones who support camper independence more than anyone by maximizing camper decision-making opportunities. Camp counselors, specialty staff and administrators are hired for their skills, experience and character and then trained to follow the camps’ systems for setting campers up to be successfully independent. Overseeing campers’ emerging independence is an essential part of the work, requiring finesse, patience, humor and a highly developed sense of fun. Frankly, it’s much easier to do things for children or instead of children than to allow them to learn to take care of themselves. Fostering independence takes more time and creates more messes, but it’s absolutely worth it. This is work that camps specialize in doing.

We send a huge shout out to all of New England’s campers, who are becoming more and more independent with every passing summer day, thanks to the counselors, camp staff members and administrators who encourage and inspire it and who believe in their campers' ability to accomplish amazing things.

Photo credits: Top left, ACA Accredited Chewonki Camp for Boys, Wiscasset, ME and bottom right, ACA Accredited Camp Tel Noar, Hampstead, NH