Summer camp is more than just playtime and something to keep the kids busy.
Proponents of it claim that a camp experience has many benefits that will stick with a child for a lifetime — emotional and social as well as physical — and it might even prove an important step toward growing up and feeling independent.
We talked with several experts about what kids are learning when they are out of school and how summer camp works into this equation.
1. Fostering independence
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Most parents dream — and worry — about the day that their children will no longer need them. Part of reaching adulthood involves learning how to do things on one’s own, and overnight camps can provide opportunities for experiencing that. While kids are well-supervised, they also must manage their own tasks like dressing, navigating the dining hall and following instructions for activities.
Andy Hockenbrock, executive director of YMCA Camp Carter, suggests that most kids are ready for overnight camp by age 7.
“Kids are usually ready before Mom or Dad is ready,” he adds.
Hockenbrock offers the opinion that by ages 10-12, children are ready to be more independent and may be excited about the possibility of a camp experience. It is important, though, that a child has spent a few overnights away from parents, regardless of age. Staying with a grandparent or cousin is perfect.
Homesickness is common, he adds, noting that even his adult counselors miss their family and familiar routine at some point. The kids also help each other with homesickness and, in turn, that can help build closeness with one another.
Lena Zettler, director of psychology at Cook Children’s Healthcare System, says that at summer camp, children learn to deal with issues like homesickness on their own.
“It is a positive thing for children to be able to overcome that and to be able to see themselves being successful, without direct intervention by their parents,” she explains.
2. Learning responsibility
Campers usually develop a fellowship with their bunkmates and group members. Camp groups are generally smaller than the typical classroom, around a dozen kids instead of 20-plus. Besides simply learning to take care of themselves, campers will also learn to take care of one another.
“They get this sense of belonging,” Hockenbrock says. “They get a community in their group.”
In addition to the typical “trust fall” team-building exercises and sports activities, kids are often given tasks that benefit the group. For example, at Camp Carter, Hockenbrock says older kids are given chores like setting up the dining hall for dinner. Their peers rely on them and they can see the benefits.
Relying on peers is also a valuable lesson, Zettler says.
“Learning how to depend on others and learning how to encourage others builds strong character,” she explains.
3. Building new friendships
One of the unique aspects of the camp experience is that campers spend a brief but intense amount of time together sharing a wide range of experiences that can be both emotional and challenging. If trust and camaraderie develop, these friendships can last a lifetime.
Hockenbrock says many of the Camp Carter alumni return to work as counselors, building on friendships they formed years before as campers, and he believes camp friendships are often deeper than others. You never forget the time you spent together, he says.
Jill Koss, director of family support services at Cook Children’s Medical Center, helps families of children with medical conditions find camps that are appropriate to their needs. She highlights the potential for forming lasting friendships as one of the most valuable aspects of attendance.
“They develop friendships with other campers that have had similar medical experiences. This increases their social skills and decreases their social isolation,” Koss notes. “They also learn how other campers cope with their medical diagnosis and treatment and can gain mastery over their own situations.”
Often, children learn things at camp that they take with them once they return home, head back to school or resume their medical treatments.
4. Facing new experiences
Camps may specialize in a single subject or provide a more generic experience. Either way, proponents say they may give children a taste of the bigger world that they don’t have time for during the school year.
And for city kids whose urban environments can leave them somewhat distanced from nature, weeklong traditional camps that focus on outdoor activity and nature have obvious benefits. Hockenbrock says that many of his campers have had minimal encounters with animals and others cite their primary experiences with animals as being in controlled settings like the zoo or stock show.
“The task of feeding our pot-bellied pigs is really big for them,” he says.
Getting outside is usually a daily part of the camp experience and most camps do not allow any electronics, which means kids get a chance to rediscover another side of their identities by connecting with peers face to face, rather than via their favorite devices.
5. Developing resiliency
Life is full of challenges and camp can be a safe environment to learn how to deal with them. Attending an overnight camp — particularly for the first time — can place kids outside of their comfort zones, and the combination of new people, new places and new activities is powerful.
“Having a positive social and emotional experience at camp can really go a long way in helping a kid know that they can be successful. This is, again, really true for kids who may struggle in their usual school or at home with peers,” Zettler says.
Away from the school setting, children who may be less socially savvy or who have experienced bullying often find a safe place to really be themselves.
Camp counselors are an important part of this because they can provide more individual attention and nurture campers’ unique skills. For many kids, young counselors also become role models.
6. Discovering themselves
Camps may also open doors to new hobbies, interests and passions, and Zettler recommends allowing children to participate in the selection process.
“If they have a certain interest that can be nurtured at camp, start there,” she says. “Be mindful, though, that the goal of camp attendance isn’t to improve a specific skill.”
Koss says that the Cook Children’s patients who attend camp “gain huge positive insight into themselves.”
She explains: “They learn they can participate in normal activities. They have the same ability to challenge themselves to try new things, and learn new skills, and be successful.”
For first-timers considering the possibility of a summer camp enrollment, news of these potential benefits may prove a comfort — and experts say they just might be surprised how much a week away can mean.