Kids who are fortunate enough to go to summer camp are lucky indeed. Assuming that the program is safe and well run, summer camp can open a whole new world of friendship, interests, skills, and independence for your child. Whether camp is a day program offered by the local recreation department or of the “sleep away” variety, whether your child goes for one week or four, there are opportunities at camp that simply aren’t available in most schools.
If you were lucky enough to go to camp when you were young, you already know the many ways that camp lets a child step out of everyday life and try on something new. Take a moment to remember camp as a:
Time without pressure. For many children, school means pressure. Pressure to achieve. Pressure to do things “on time.” Pressure to learn at someone else’s pace. Some children seem to be wired to meet these challenges, while others are not. Children who absorb knowledge best through words and employ standard logic to solve problems shine in American schools. Kids who are focused and self-directed can extract a wonderful education from even a mediocre teaching environment. But, for many others — creative thinkers or those with artistic temperaments, for example — the pace and the demands of the school setting are overwhelming and, for some, ultimately defeating. For them, camp is a breathing space in which the pressure is off. At camp, they have a chance to feel good about who they are and what they can do.
Time that rewards less common learning styles. There are many kids who access the world through sight and sound or through use of their bodies. These are the kids who love to get messy, who prefer the language of movement and art to the language of words, kids who need to “take the time it takes” to do something rather than fit the activity into someone else’s schedule. Camp makes room for their nonlinear approach to learning and life.
Still other kids find it difficult to focus for long periods of time or are easily distracted. The variety of activities and the less restrictive policies of camps allow them to find success in their own way of organizing the day.
Time to experiment with new skills. Good camps encourage kids to try new things. Away from the expectations of school friends and in the freer atmosphere of summer, many kids will try out a ropes course, a wind surfboard, a new art form, or a new sport. No one from school is there to judge and, if it’s a complete bust, no one at home need ever know. More likely, summer camp gives the child the chance to develop a new skill so that he or she can come home and impress friends and family.
Time to try out a new personality. It’s really remarkable how quickly it happens. Kids often get slotted into roles within their peer group by the end of kindergarten. All the kids know who’s quiet, who’s a troublemaker, who gets teacher approval, who’s cool, and who just isn’t. Unless something truly cataclysmic happens, kids are stuck with their assigned roles in the school social order until graduation.
Sometimes the life-altering event is camp. At camp, no one knows where a child stands in the school hierarchy. Some kids figure out that this is an opportunity to take a different place, to perfect it, and to gather enough confidence in it to take it home. Or not. Sometimes these personality transplants turn out to be even less helpful or comfortable than what was left behind. When that happens, the child is free to leave it at camp and to try again next year.
Time to try out new friendships. Camp offers a whole new pool of people to choose from. Unhampered by worries about old friends, jealousies or the expectations of the school group, a child is free to choose anyone he or she pleases. Some of these friendships last through e-mail and occasional visits. Most evaporate by October. It doesn’t matter. Your child had the experience of getting close to someone very different from her or his usual buddies. She or he has probably learned something about stereotypes, acceptance, and understanding.
Time to be more independent. For many children, sleep-away camp is the first time they have been away from home for any appreciable amount of time. The weeks at camp become a chance to grow up at least a little. Since kids usually are at camp for a short time, camp staff won’t insist that they eat their vegetables, complete their projects, or buff up a particular skill. As long as they aren’t disruptive, it’s really up to them to choose from what is offered and to find ways to get along. This is heady stuff. Most kids do rise to the challenge and take a step into new maturity.
Time to take time. A good camp has downtime built into the schedule. This is time for rest, for reflection, for quiet activities, for long walks and talks. For many kids, the school year is chock full of structured activities that leave them with virtually no time to think. Camp provides time to take stock, to think, to evaluate the year past and to make promises to themselves for the year ahead.
Camp brochures tend to emphasize all the sports, crafts, and fun that camps offer. Most of them sound, and are, truly wonderful. But it is in the “Statement of Camp Philosophy” that you will find out what kinds of opportunities for growth the camp seeks to provide for your child. When a camp program is well-conceived and well-executed, your child will come home with an expanded sense of self and enhanced self-esteem. For these reasons alone, it may be worth stretching the family budget to make camp a reality for your child.