Parents and family members often marvel at how much children grow and change while away at overnight camp. “What is it about camp?” they ask. “What causes campers to walk a little taller when they get home?”
It is a universal thing, this overall boost in confidence and greater sense of self that children gain from being away from home. How does such individual growth happen in such a group-focused environment? And how does living, working and playing so closely with other campers in groups benefit children as individuals? The answer in short: Camps excel at providing optimal environments; everything about camp from the staff who are hired to teach children to the activities available to the physical environment sets the stage for children to grow and develop.
Summer camp worlds are dedicated exclusively to child development. In fact, it’s so exciting and inspirational to help children learn in the unique setting of summer camp, many educators dedicate their careers to teaching there because of its experiential education focus and natural setting.
Still undecided on whether to send your child off to sleepaway camp? Take a look at the benefits of residential camps below:
Separation from their children changes the perspective of parents/guardians. Going off to an overnight camp is often the first long-term independent experience outside the family for a child, even if it’s for a short session of a week or two and the child is accompanied by a friend. It’s that separation that influences the child to grow up in several important ways and provides the family with the chance to notice and appreciate that growth. Children grow and change daily; when you don’t see them for multiple weeks, change is easier to see and appreciate. While they may look taller or larger, physically, most campers also look fitter from all the walking and exercise, not to mention the fresh air and sunshine. Physical growth is just one way that overnight camp can change a child. Social/emotional growth happens, too, and it’s just as apparent.
Camp staff and professionals expect children to strive and achieve when skill building. Campers rise to those expectations, generally speaking, and give their best. It’s the pervasive growth mind-set of the camp culture that creates an environment that is so conducive to learning. The power of strong role models. Watching the adults in the community as they constantly learn inspires campers to want to keep improving and learning, too. Learning happens everywhere at camp! And, there is no shortage of people to cheer your child on as they advance program skills and social/emotional competencies. Resolving a conflict and showing leadership on a project are celebrated as much as learning to water ski or swimming across the lake.
Camp staff expect children to do as much as possible for themselves. Camp environments and programs are engineered for optimal child development through life-skill building. Systems and practices for living in the cabins, bunks, tents or other dwellings help children to be independent. The counseling staff backs them up, but this happens differently than at home. Whether it’s gathering the necessary equipment for an activity (swimsuit, beach towels and sunscreen) or keeping things organized in the cabin, counselors do less for children than parents tend to do. There are reminders and help when needed, but counselors don’t do for children what they can (and should) do for themselves.
Other campers can be a big inspiration and influence. Living so closely with other children has some great advantages. Your child might see a cabin mate who is doing independently what you’ve been doing for him/her or nagging your child to do – like hanging up a wet towel on the clothesline or folding sweatshirts on a shelf. At camp, people of all ages can be leaders, children included. Role-modeling is a powerful way of leading and other campers will inspire yours.
There is a context for doing chores and taking care of tasks that children often rely on adults to do at home. For instance, if a group is planning to go on an overnight camping trip, there’s a lot of work to do. Even though the project is child-sized, adults are supervising and supporting it. Once children understand what tasks are individual (like packing their own gear) and which are group tasks (like planning, shopping for and packing meals and equipment), they can understand how both individual and group tasks fit together. While on the trip, campers discover how they can contribute to the group. Maybe they’re cooking or cleaning up. Perhaps they are tasked with running the talent show or the story slam during the night’s campfire. Parents can be shocked to learn the complexity of tasks and challenges children are encouraged to undertake at camp. Campers are willing to work hard for group and individual goals that they buy into. The chores and jobs they are asked to do at camp are not random. Rather, they are connected to the activity, adventure or experience and campers can see why they must be done.
Time, space and safety to try out new skills and behaviors. The stakes can be high at home and time can be limited for trying new things. Camps specialize in providing appropriate challenges for campers and a safe culture where campers take risks. With the backup of the staff and the support of other campers, it’s amazing how campers will push themselves out of their comfort zone to take a risk – physical or emotional. Not only can they go down the zip line or challenge themselves physically with the support of their camp “family,” a camper can also try other new things, from public speaking to speaking up for themselves during a conflict or disagreement with a peer.
Children make more choices and decisions at camp than they are used to making at home. Campers have the chance to make small and large decisions as appropriate. Some of these decisions are individual while others are group decisions, like what dinner to cook over the fire on that campout, what to wear, whether to try out for the play, reach out to a new friend or go to an activity with a friend or independently. Deciding alone, with others and with adult guidance helps build solid decision-making skills that come in handy at school and college, around the neighborhood and in the future.
Success! Pure and simple, succeeding at challenging tasks, multi-step processes and group challenges is thrilling. Camp invites children to approach challenges with grit and it rewards them mightily when they master something. Imagine hundreds of people clapping and whistling for the canoers who have just returned from white water rafting on the Allagash River or at the end of a carefully rehearsed play or musical! In both tiny and enormous ways, camps provide the experiences that boost children’s competence. “I did it!” moments abound here. Skill mastery and competence builds confidence.
Campers benefit from coaching, receiving authentic, honest feedback and from the power of the debrief (processing and evaluating how the group has performed). Camps excel at getting groups to work together. It requires trained facilitators who can help discover, process, discuss and understand why a group succeeded at an initiative or task and/or why they may have failed. Debriefs happen formally on ropes courses, but they happen informally through the course of the camp day in many areas of programming and cabin living. Debriefing delivers the chance to ponder unique ways that campers fit and contribute to the group and their success. It highlights campers’ unique attributes. Because of debriefing, campers often leave with specific knowledge of what they bring/offer to a group and they can use this knowledge with family or school groups.
Group experiences at camp give children key information about themselves within the context of a group. Immersion in the unique group experience of camp builds self-esteem, enhances self-discipline, increases self-advocacy skills and helps children work toward self-efficacy, which is critically important to a successful adulthood. Consider sending your child to overnight camp for a life-changing group experience that will contribute mightily to an emerging sense of self.