Summer camps: they’ve been around since… well, a long, long time! My father twice enjoyed Boy Scout Camp as a youth, and even my mother, growing up poor as she did, was privileged to attend Girl’s Auxiliary camp twice and 4H camp once. But what’s the big attraction? Why should we send our kids to summer camp?
In the interest of full disclosure I myself am, by all rights, a camp kid. My parents sent my brother and me to a two-week YMCA day camp when we were young elementary students in the 1960s, and, when I learned about a nearby residential (overnight) camp available to me, I couldn’t wait to get my bags packed! Camp was a highlight, very possibly the highlight, of my year for seven summers as camper and six as camp staff. A generation later, camp became a highlight of my three kids’ summers during a collective 17 camper summers and 15 collective staff summers.
Recently, I asked my oldest son, “What would you say were your greatest educational experiences growing up, apart from school?” He listed several experiences, but the first two surprised me. “First, going to camp as a camper,” he said, “and second, being at camp as a counselor…”
The summer camp concept was born in the late 1800s, says Livia Gershon in her JSTOR Daily article entitled History of Summer Camp, and “promised boys a chance to escape increasingly urban modern life.” Gershon points to the assertion by an early camp founder that the out-of-doors experience would build character in the boys and “save humanity from the ‘dying of indoor-ness.’” If the outdoor experience was necessary to the health and character of youth in the late 1800s, how much more so in today’s demanding, high-stimulus, technology driven world!
Today, of course, summer camps vary from the community-based day camp to the sports camp to the arts camp to just about every other possible specialty, and each of these has its own place as an opportunity for our children. This article focuses on the traditional, outdoors-centered overnight summer camp, but many of the advantages of such a camp may apply to other kinds of camps as well. So, what are the primary advantages of summer camp for your child?
Summer camp provides a welcome change of pace — and place. A new environment, a new experience, a whole different context: these provide fertile ground for growth. Your child already has his home life and school life. He may or may not have, in addition, life at Grandma’s, or at the lake, or at the beach. But camp adds a whole new dimension to life. After a week of camp, if things go well, your child should have “mastered” another life context. If he enjoys it, camp can become almost another “home,” and your child will want to return again and again. Remember to choose carefully, because one bad camp experience can ruin the whole concept of camp in the mind of your child. Some camps (or even alternative options within a given camp) are action-packed; others are more relaxed. Some are high adventure; some, not so much. Some provide modern sleeping/bath accommodations; others enable your kid to really rough it! Of the camps my children attended, they preferred one that was a little smaller (about 50 kids per week), provided various “tracks” (adventure, tennis, horseback, arts and crafts), and where the pace was not too frenetic.
Summer camp provides the opportunity to try new things. Let’s face it; most of us are not up for the kinds of activities that are often provided our kids by younger, more energetic young adults at summer camp. From water slides to ridiculous songs and skits to sock wars to mud pits (depending on location, of course) to sleeping on the ground or other surfaces unfit for the mature body, good camps are expert in providing activities that excite kids and allow them to expend all of their wonderful energy! As a teen at camp I very reluctantly tied on a harness (a harness was nothing more than a strategically arranged rope in those days) and backed over the edge of a cliff, destined for the landing 120 feet below. And then there was climbing. And caving. I didn’t really expect to like any of it — I was more an outdoors than adventure enthusiast — but I really enjoyed all of my adventure experiences, at least in retrospect.