I was nine years old and terrified. The end of school that year had taken on new significance for me, as I was about to embark on the great unknown of summer sleepaway camp. Sure, I had done day camps before in my hometown, but never sleepaway camp. Never a place far from home with people I did not know. I vividly remember the drive to Hanover, New Hampshire, where I would attend a week of Dartmouth College’s basketball camp. Looking out the window as we drove by the massive buildings, I wondered what had led to me agreeing that this was a good idea. My mind was a soup of questions echoing in my head. Who would I talk to? Who would I sit with at meals? Would I get a good roommate? Would they like me (and what if they didn’t)? I was both dizzy and numb – literally shaking with nervousness, though I tried my best to hide it. “Couldn’t we just go home?” I thought. The distinct feeling of dread washed over me when we pulled into the parking lot of one of the old dorms on campus. Its rusted side stairwell had seen better days and called out to me: ESCAPE ROUTE.
You know how the story goes: after shaking off the cobwebs and making more than a few leaps of faith, by the time the camp was over, I had decided that going to summer camp was the best decision my parents and I had made. I made many new friends and was spending each day doing what I loved. Couldn’t my parents leave me here another week? I loved it so much in fact that I went back to summer camps every summer after that until I was 23, and by that point, I was helping to run one.
While my experience does not speak for all of the millions of students and adults who attend camps each summer vacation (14 million as of 2013, according to the American Camping Association), summer camps are thriving across the country because of their unique ability to reach children in profound ways. And experts agree. Clinical psychologists, teachers, and academics from America’s most prestigious universities agree that there are advantages to attending summer camps. Don’t believe me? Let Dr. Denise Pope of Stanford University set the record straight.
In a time where children, parents, and caregivers are busier than ever, sending your child to a summer camp may be the best thing you do for your child(ren)’s education outside of the classroom. Children today are highly pressured and programmed. Between school, private lessons, extracurricular activities, and homework, a typical child today is being taught that if you are not doing something specialized at all hours of the day, you are falling behind and that you won’t succeed. It is no wonder then that when they finally do have a few minutes to themselves that they escape into the confines of a screen. That may be fine for the months between September and May, but what to do during the three-month break? More private lessons, SSAT prep courses, private tutoring, and anything that will keep them away from their phones, right? Wrong.
Summer camps take all of the specialized activities and social/emotional learning of school yet dial back the fast-paced environment and stress that school-year programs can bring. They reinforce vital components from school that we hope will lead children into becoming successful adults – independence, teamwork, outdoor play, healthy relationships, responsibility, and community. They invigorate students to be lifelong learners in a way that is altogether different from the confines of the classroom. According to noted educator, author, and psychologist Dr. Peter Scales, “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 schools don't satisfy all these needs.” Consider summer camps to be a one-stop-shop for everything you value in a child’s education.
Increasingly, camps are not only giving young children the opportunity to flourish outside of school, young adults too, are benefitting from counselor-in-training programs, some of which translate into their first jobs. It is also no mistake that many adults involved with summer camps come from a background in education. Dr. Chris Thurber, a clinical psychologist and instructor at Philips Exeter Academy, noted that upon meeting colleagues at a recent National Association of Independent Schools conference in Washington D.C., many he encountered were people he had come up with professionally at camp. “Camp,” he said, “is nothing if not a powerful launchpad for living kindly and serving others. And what better teaching tool than homegrown leader-ship-by-example?”
The statistics lend credence to this notion of summer camps being a positive force for children. According to a recent poll conducted by the American Camping Association, 96% of campers reported that camp helped them make new friends; 92% said that camp helped them feel better about themselves; 74% of campers say that camp helped them try activities that they were afraid to do at first. What about parents? 70% of parents reported that camp helped their child gain self-confidence and said 69% said that their child still keeps in contact with friends that they met at camp. The Boston Globe has featured at least ten articles since 2018 attesting to the value of summer camps. The facts are undeniable; summer camp reinforces positive relationship building and quantifiably contributes to students’ mental health.
Obviously, I am biased in recommending summer camps to families. It was a transformative experience for me and some of my lifelong friends are people I met at camps in Maine and New Hampshire in my youth. Attending camps every summer gave me something to look forward to and introduced the idea of community in a way that I was not expecting. That important balance of maintaining healthy relationships and of continuing along a path of education year-round is something that is baked into the fabric of summer camp. The value of that is something that cannot nor should not be underestimated. I’ll come back to something Dr. Thurber said that I think encapsulates the excitement children feel for camp and the enduring legacy summer camp has meant for me personally: “you can take a kid out of the camp, but you can’t take the camp out of a kid.”