Posted  | by Lucy Norvell, Director of Development & Communications |

Shannon Donovan-Monti, an ACA New England board member, recently shared this article from NPR’s website on why society judges parents for putting children at perceived (but unreal) risk. It’s well worth the read. Camp is mentioned, of course; it’s near impossible to discuss optimal childhood experiences and not refer to camp!

Child development experts whose advice articles for parents appear in the popular press have been sounding off lately about the negative consequences of parenting approaches now called “helicopter-,” “snowplow-,” and “over-“ parenting. Hovering, clearing the way by sweeping aside everything and everyone in the path, and denying children the opportunity to fail are big no-no’s for parents today. Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure, Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, and several other books have joined Wendy Mogul’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee on the nightstands, Kindles, and bookshelves of parents of children ages birth to 18. What many people may not realize is that camp professionals have been reading the same  books and articles. They have also had the chance to hear these three parenting experts present at professional conferences for camp pros. Their staff training is infused with the concepts, words of wisdom and takeaways from Lahey, Lythcott-Haims and Mogul, among others. And that’s the point. Camp was invented here in New England 150 years ago as a partner of families and schools—a partner in child-rearing. Camps were positioned then, as they are today, to enhance what parents and schools are doing.

These are interesting times! Experts are advising against overparenting and overprotection, and society is publicly criticizing parents (shaming and arresting them too) for allowing their children to engage in risk taking that parents calculate as safe.

So, what do summer camps have to do with an article about parents being judged for putting their children at perceived risk? Summer camp is mentioned by the article’s author as a way to provide appropriate risk-taking opportunities. 

1. Sending a child for a camp experience IS a way to allow them to engage in safe risk-taking—physical and social/emotional. 

  • Whether the program focuses on advanced hiking and backpacking or on fine or performing arts, safe risk-taking is part of the program design.
  • Staff are trained to supervise and facilitate as children navigate risks posed by weather, equipment, unexpected circumstances, and even their peers.
  • Camps excel at the “debrief” and there are formal and informal ways for children to process and discuss their adventures and learnings as they are happening and afterward. 

2. Summer camp properties are physically engineered to build independence and to help children experience self-efficacy. Summer camps excel at creating worlds exclusively for children—worlds where it can be safe to fail.

  • The physical environment, the camp professionals and staff who are hired to teach and inspire campers on the property and in the environment, and the program itself all coordinate to empower children while they are on camp to do as much as possible without adult intervention, yet with adult oversight. What unfolds as a result is extremely child-centric and child-focused.
  • Depending on the site—which may be an independent school in a bustling city or a lot of land in a geographically remote location—what children might be permitted to do independently is highly variable, as it should be. The point is that the camp staff are planning ahead to maximize participation and opportunities for children to navigate in a safe environment. The ACA’s Standards and Accreditation process exists to assist camps in planning for safe risk-taking of all kinds. We’re a profession that is constantly assessing and re-evaluating risk.
  • Often, equipment and facilities are child-sized to make it even more possible for children to do more. This is a critically important aspect of what camps are offering in a world where children are watching so much on screens rather than doing things themselves.

3. At summer camp, children are actively engaged in doing! Day and overnight camps have stayed  in the business of fostering children’s independence for the last century and a half by allowing children to do what they are very capable of doing when given the chance. This includes: navigating around the camp by day and by night, packing themselves for a short trip, safely using knives and other tools for real-life reasons (such as fly-tying for fly-fishing, culinary arts, fabric arts, and wood working, to name a few), and resolving conflict that arises with one other person or as part of a group development process. This is a limited list, of course. What children are allowed to do at summer camp is amazing and very specific to each particular camp! And, for the children who are micromanaged during their school year lives down to choices about what they wear and eat, summer camp is particularly thrilling--liberating even. Often camp affords children the chance to do much more than they themselves ever realized was possible.

It should come as no surprise that children of all ages walk a little taller at the end of the summer—or at least that’s what teachers, parents and guardians tell us!

[Photos courtesy of Camp Pompositticut Farm Day Camp, Camp Micah, Camp Ketcha, and Hidden Valley Camp.]