I think every child should go to summer camp. And most experts agree with me. Child development professionals recognize the camp experience – whether it’s day camp or overnight camp – as valuable in helping children to mature socially, emotionally, intellectually, morally and physically. Psychologist and educator Dr. Peter Scales of the Search Institute says, “Camp is one of the few institutions where young people can experience and satisfy their need for physical activity, creative expression and true participation in a community environment.”
Most school experiences (public, private, religious, doesn’t matter) don’t meet all these needs for most children. Most adults look back on their camp days fondly with stories of meaningful friendships and formative experiences of many different kinds. Camp provides the perfect environment for children to grow and take social risks.
Of course if you told your kid they were going to camp to build character and leadership skills, they’d refuse to go. They want to have fun and the positive outcomes come as a bonus result…an intended consequence.
Here’s why I think camp is important developmentally for kids:
- Kids learn teamwork at camp. They work together for the benefit of something bigger than “Me.” When you work with others to complete an activity, you build bonds. Kids will learn to have their own voice within the group to be persuasive.
- Camp provides children with a “blank slate,” allowing them to reinvent themselves. When kids attend the same school with the same peers every year, they can get a label and stereotyped or marginalized. The quiet “nerd” who always knows the answer in class can become head cheerleader or songleader or top athlete. When they have a new environment and new, open peers, children can build confidence. And because camp is relatively short, there are no long-term risks.
- Camps are set up for kids to learn new things. Your daughter may not have the best singing voice but who cares when she’s part of the camp choir? Kind of klutzy? She can learn new crafts with a patient, trained counselor. The camp situation helps her to put herself out there to endeavor and experience something beyond her comfort zone.
- Children learn resilience in the camp environment. Like life, camp is filled with situations where children fall. They have to learn how to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on. Think: Ropes course. Most camps have one. Most home backyards do not. Few kids arrive in camp knowing how to perfectly navigate the ropes course. They fall but then they get back up. When they complete a task once deemed impossible, their self-confidence soars…especially when cheered on by their new friends.
- Camps are also great for kids learning to make decisions. Mom and Dad are not there. Junior has to navigate the shoals independently. Hopefully (and prayfully), the counselors and others available to guide decisions will help him to expand his horizons. And he can feel good about healthy decisions.
- Kids have to unplug. Most camps ban the use of electronics. The camp’s daily routine of getting lots of physical activity, spending time outdoors, new experiences and activities and eating regular meals are good for child development overall.
The skills and character development from camp can translate into improvements at home and at school. They will contribute to a child’s overall “Emotional Quotient” which is important to helping them succeed throughout life.
Years ago, I spent several summers as the physician at Camps Bnos and Aguda in Upstate New York. I was struck by how the kids were on their feet a good part of the day, even just walking across camp grounds for meals. Kids experienced a natural lifestyle of activity that including walking, team sports, swimming and playing outdoors. They had to expand beyond their (inside) comfort zone and find their own hidden talents.
I believe in camp and its potential to positively impact every aspect of your child. And yet, I must add: proceed with caution. Don’t just hand your child off to strangers for a month or more so you can get a break – I wrote about “preparing your child for camp” that might be helpful.
- Make sure that there’s a good fit between your child and camp. If your son is not a scholar, then don’t send him to a camp for Masmids. And if your daughter loves drama, make sure the camp has an appropriate acting or theater program for her.
- Speak to your children about how camp differs from school. This is an especially important conversation for kids going to overnight camp. Homesickness may or may not happen. If it does, it’s normal to miss Mom, Dad, siblings and home. Help your child appreciate the experience and assure them by preparing in advance.
- Does your child have any medical conditions or needs medications? Do not withhold information. You must be upfront and honest with the camp. Follow their guidelines regarding how medications are to come to camp (they may need to be prepackaged by specific pharmacies). Your child might not be comfortable going to the infirmary, but you must insist. At a minimum, it will help to assure a better camp experience. And staying compliant with meds and following the camp’s protocol may save his life. Often, the camp form will have a “Confidential” section. Feel free to speak to the nurse privately about personal and confidential matters. It is foolish, for example, not to mention seizure medications because the camper needs to be watched during swimming.
- Assure that your child is physically safe. Who teaches the swim program, what are their qualifications? Is there an infirmary? A nurse of doctor on hand? What do they do about emergencies? You – Mom and Dad – must speak to your children about touching: no one is allowed to touch your child “down there” or inappropriately in camp or anywhere for that matter. Find out whether your child’s camp has protocols and training regarding this. What will the camp do? One frum camp had a situation in recent years which the camp’s director and the administration dealt with swiftly and effectively, including communicating with parents.
As a parent, there are many things you can’t do for your children. You cannot give your child confidence. You can’t choose or manage his or her friendships. You can’t always be his advocate/agent/manager/coach. Most parents can’t get their children to turn off electronics, especially in the summer, and most important, parents have a hard time urging their children to take psychological risks.
Camps do all of these things brilliantly. Counselors often present challenges to which younger children rise. Living in a cabin 24/7 with other kids (some of whom you like and some of whom you don’t!) builds self-control. Participating in teams and group activities. Trying new foods and overcoming homesickness –these are the things that build your kids’ independence! You can’t do it for them. Let’s offer them this path so they can get there on their own terms.
There are children in our community who need to be in camp yet their families lack the funds to make this a happy reality for them. Imagine how Klal Yisrael would be strengthened by giving all children the wonderful opportunity of a camp experience. Please consult http://www.achiezer.org to learn how you can make a tax deductible contribution to help Jewish children attend camp this summer. I have been assured that all monies go to camp scholarships with no overhead costs. Its not too late to help children THIS SUMMER.