In popular culture, summer camp is often portrayed as a place where pranks are played, romances unfold and underdogs triumph. Classic summer camp movies such as the 1979 film “Meatballs” or, more recently, the 2012 movie “Moonrise Kingdom,” are just a couple of examples. Movies aside, summer camp can be a meaningful experience that helps kids learn important life lessons and have fun along the way.
There are countless reasons why American parents spend a collective US$3.5 Billion on summer camp each year. Not all summer camp experiences will be great. There may even be some experiences that parents and participants would rather forget. However, as researchers who focus on youth development and outdoor activities – and who are doing a study financed by the American Camp Association that looks at the impact of camp – we believe that, on balance, summer camp makes a positive difference in children’s lives.
1. Kids gain independence
Traditional overnight camps create a “third space” for kids to learn valuable life skills in different ways than they do at home or school. Going to camp offers kids needed time away from family and regular friend groups. These experiences give them the space to gain independence.
Qualities to seek in a summer camp include high expectations and opportunities for campers to be responsible and accountable for individual and group tasks. These opportunities can be as simple as pitching in on kitchen duties or as involved as leading the planning of the camp-wide talent show. A quality camp experience is one in which kids gain the confidence that they can take care of themselves and also contribute to something bigger.
In the world of summer camps – much as it is in educational settings that range from child care to college – accreditation is seen as a seal of approval. To see if a camp has accreditation from the American Camp Association, you can check the association’s database.
2. Kids develop essential relationship skills
A great camp experience involves making new friends, offering kids opportunities to practice the skills needed to build and maintain relationships. For most campers, this social function of camp is central to their experiences, unlike school where academic outcomes drive most of their daily activities. Adults who went to camp often report that camp was critical to developing their ability to be open with others and create friendships over a short period.
The social environment at an overnight camp can be intense, as kids can’t escape the daily drama by going home at night. This means that camp counselors encourage kids to deal with conflict rather than avoid it. Great camps have well-trained, caring adults able to guide kids through conflict, providing opportunities to practice communication, empathy and compassion – key components of maintaining positive relationships.
3. Kids learn to appreciate differences
As adults, building and maintaining relationships requires the ability to understand and appreciate differences among people. Great camps provide a space where kids can interact with people from different backgrounds and worldviews. At some camps, this might be interacting with kids of different cultural, religious or racial backgrounds. At others, it might mean making friends with campers and counselors from different parts of the world or being with kids from different economic or family conditions.
Building awareness of our differences, and learning to be empathetic to challenges that some people with different life experiences face, takes practice. Camps, especially those unaffiliated with a school or specific neighborhood, can bring together all kinds of kids and caring adults, providing an excellent opportunity for young people to see the world differently than how they might at home.
4. Kids connect with nature
Summer camps have connected kids to nature for about as long as kids have been going to camp. Around the turn of the 20th century, many camps focused on being a place for kids from the city to experience the wonders of the natural world. Fortunately, great camps continue to connect kids to nature through nature-based programming and simply being outside.
Time use trends show us that kids (and adults) are spending more time indoors leading to what Richard Louv has called a “nature deficit disorder.” Great camps can provide a safe space for kids to be outside and explore the natural world. Former campers often report that camp was the place that helped them develop an affinity for nature and outdoor activities more than any other place during their childhood.
5. Kids get to be kids
In a highly connected and stressful world, there has been an increased interest in being more authentically engaged with others and our world. If you are a parent looking to help your kid put down their phone, reduce their screen time, worry less about “likes” on social media and just be a kid, then the old idea of camp seems like a custom-built solution.
Great camps allow kids to play in non-virtual worlds and interact with friends face to face rather than through a device. And most importantly, at camp kids get to be kids – and that might be the most compelling reason why camp still matters.
Despite the benefits of summer camp, unfortunately, not every family can afford the traditional overnight summer camp. And not every kid or family is ready for such an experience.
Day camps near home can provide similar developmental opportunities, minus the benefits associated with being away for an extended period. The upside is that they are often less expensive and more accessible.
For those kids that are ready for overnight camp but whose parents can’t afford such camps, scholarships and camps targeting youth from poor families can help. For instance, there are several prominent programs that provide access to camp experiences for low-income youth. They include the C5 Youth Foundation in Boston, Atlanta, Austin, Dallas and Los Angeles; Sherwood Forest in St. Louis; and College Settlement in Pennsylvania, just to name a few. Yet, there remains a significant “opportunity gap” between the rich and poor that needs to be addressed so that more kids can have transformative camp experiences.