Sleep under the stars. Catch a fish. Learn how to play guitar. Paddle a canoe. Go waterskiing. Play ball. Make friends. Build a fire. Climb a mountain. Roast a marshmallow. These are just some of the things a child can do at a residential (sleep-away) summer camp. Summer camp builds character. Summer camp breeds affinity with nature. Summer camp forges bonds between children that last a life time. A parent that sends their child to sleep away camp is giving them a gift that will last a lifetime. The child who goes to sleep-away camp makes real connections. At camp, children do not have access to electronics or technology. It gives today’s child an important opportunity to “unplug.” These days, sleep-away summer camp may be the last environment where a child can unplug and have quality face time. Camp teaches a child about responsibility and the importance of meaningful relationships. Sleep-away camp, in particular, is an intense experience because it is 24/7. The sleep-away camp experience has always provided children the opportunity to go outside and play. For the current generation of parents who want to raise self-reliant, compassionate, and ethical children, summer camp is the best decision. As parents we want our children to become successful adults. Successful adults today require 21st-century competencies. These critical soft skills are: communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. These are all available and attainable at sleep-away camp.
Camp is a particularly effective way to teach critical skills; these include character skills (grit, self control and optimism) and “21st-century skills” (communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and leadership). Regardless if a child attends private or public school, the institution’s challenge is to become a leader in innovation. Are these schools fostering innovation? Some education systems put too much focus on testing, thus creating a group of children who become disciplined manufacturers, but not entrepreneurs or innovators.
At the inaugural China Camp Education Conference on April 10, 2015, it was revealed that some of the Chinese leadership is looking at new ways to create long-term advantage for their population. The Chinese government has reduced homework until the 4th grade and mandated non-academic after-school programs. The following is important to know:
- The economy is global.
- Market competition is fierce.
- Businesses innovate.
- Technology advances.
- Workplaces adapt.
- Individuals operate and participate.
- Jobs and lives change.
What does the aforementioned list have to do with sleep-away camp? Well, this is the way of the world we live in the 21st century. And successful adults need more than just 21st-century skills. Our world requires successful people to be peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers of all kind. Sleep-away camp offers all of these powerful lessons by teaching the very skills needed to flourish in the future.
Parents that truly understand and value summer camp and send their precious cargo to sleep-away camp have always appreciated camp’s educational potential. Yet the parent who never went to sleep-away camp thinks summer camp as only recreational or skill development. The parents that sent or send their children to my summer camp have always appreciated camp’s educational potential.
According to Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., who wrote the best-selling. The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, says “Parents today find it harder than ever to uphold their own values within their families, when they seem so at odds with those of our current culture. We seek security in a society that seems more and more dangerous, grace that thrives on competition, and gratitude in an age of ever-increasing materialism. How can this generation of parents raise self-reliant, compassionate, and ethical children?” The answer is summer camp, where kids go outside and play.
Preparing Children For Adulthood
At home, some parents fill their children’s spare time with organized activities, do homework for them, and resolve their conflicts at school with both friends and teachers. Children often receive trophies for just showing up. We must prepare children for the future by letting them fall, fail, and fear. If they don’t take risks early on--like climbing the monkey bars and possibly falling off--they are fearful of every new endeavor. There is more to preparing children for adulthood than receiving an academic education. Children who spend their summers at camp are better prepared for later decisions, like whether to go to college, and how to make the best life for themselves. Teens in particular need mentors they trust, separate from their parents. These role models provide guidance and help the children lay a solid foundation.
At camp, children learn to stretch their boundaries, experiencing life through the eyes of someone whose life is not a mirror image of their own. By doing so, camp increases their self-esteem and confidence, and fosters their independence. That’s what makes camp such a life-changing experience.
Charles Eliot, a former president of Harvard University said, “I have a conviction that a few weeks spent in a well-organized summer camp may be of more value educationally than a whole year of formal school work.” His statement still holds true, especially for the Millennial generation. Some of the coolest kids at camp might be labeled as nerds, geeks, or worse at home. At summer camp, children are accepted for who they are. When children are taken out of their usual environment, the rules are altered. Authenticity is rewarded. Responsibility is cool. Maturity adds clout.
Investing In Independence
There is more to preparing children for adulthood than an academic education. I believe if children spent their summers in camp, they would be better prepared for later decisions such as how to handle college, and how to make the best life for themselves.
Residential summer camp is an incredible and profound experience. It’s magical! I've seen it through camper and parent notes as well as college application essays. What makes summer camp special is the camp community. The long-lasting friendships made at camp are everlasting and priceless.
At camp, children learn to stretch their boundaries and experience life through the eyes of someone whose life is not a mirror image of their own. By doing so, camp increases their self-esteem and confidence and fosters their independence. According to Michael Thompson, Ph D, “The only way children can grow into independent adults is to have parents open the door and let them walk out.” That’s what makes camp such a life-changing experience.
I was at a camp fair a few years ago when a mother said to me, “I don’t want to get rid of my kids for the summer.” I told her that camp was one the greatest gifts she could ever give her child. Camp is an investment for the parents so their child can become a more independent and confident person.
Camp teaches a child how to grow up. Camp teaches a child about responsibility and the importance of meaningful relationships. Sleep-away camp, in particular, is an intense experience because it is 24/7. Unlike ”friends” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, Yik Yak, Finstagram, Vine, etc., camp friends often become lifelong relationships. Children can be who they want to be at camp; the pressures that exist at home do not exist at camp. At camp, kids don’t worry about being “cool.” They can truly be themselves.
Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder
In 2008, I read a book by Richard Louv called Last Child in the Woods. It made a profound impact on me. Louv said “The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea: the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of the children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.” Thankfully summer camp provides children with the opportunity to connect with nature, to participate in human-powered activities, and to benefit from personal and primary relationships.
Psychiatrist, researcher, and 2000 Nobel Prize laureate, Eric Kandel discovered that when we form long-term memories, neurons in our brains not only change their physical shapes but lay down networks of synaptic connections they have with other neurons. A child whose main experience of the world is one digitized screenshot after another, has formed memories and interpretations of someone else’s making and design.
More than ever before, there is an urgent need for children (and adults) to have lived experiences that are screen-free and truly natural. Camps provide an antidote for the epidemic of what Merrie Koester, PhD, calls Noticing Deficit Disorder - a serious condition made worse when one also suffers from what author and activist Richard Louv described as Nature Deficit Disorder. Noticing Deficit Disorder (NDD). This is a failed relationship with the natural world, a complete loss of the ability to see or appreciate what is directly in front of one. Without seeing, there can be no understanding, no relationship, no sense of connection.
A recent research study out of UCLA, Cal State and UNC-Chapel Hill, entitled "Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues" underscores how important it is for children to have experiences like summer camp. After five days interacting face-to-face without the use of any screen-based media, preteens’ recognition of nonverbal emotion cues improved significantly more than that of the control group for both facial expressions and videotaped scenes. Implications are that the short-term effects of increased opportunities for social interaction, combined with time away from screen-based media and digital communication tools, improves a preteen’s understanding of nonverbal emotional cues.
The easiest way to notice nature requires time, patience and, above all, turning off digitally streaming devices. Screens placed for long periods of time between a person’s eye and the natural world act as physical and neuro-psychological blinders. Campers and counselors may even mourn being separated from their digital devices. At my summer camp campers enjoy being unplugged. It gives their brain a much needed break and find an appreciation of the natural beauty around them. It also allows for real connections and genuine friends, not the hundreds if not thousands of virtual ones on social media. This is just another reason a child should go to sleep-away camp.
At my coed sleep-away camp, campers attend their activities based on their age group. Campers do activities in mixed groups. Everyone can go hiking, swimming, do archery or crafts to name a few. Parents understandably have sensitivities around gender and stereotypes. This factors into our planning and sets us and campers up for success. We focus on building campers’ self-esteem. Campers live in small groups and build trust within that group through deliberately sequenced and challenging team building activities: through intentional, facilitated discussions; and through learning how to be leaders, then encouraging them to take on leadership roles within the group. Staff helps campers create and maintain an open and positive space where peers can feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions. One of the great things about sleep-away camp is that no two days are ever the same. The variety of the summer camp experience comes from a variety of activities, watersports, outdoor adventure, land sports, creative, performing and culinary arts. The evening activity is the ‘cherry on the sundae’ at the end of each program day. Beyond these activities, sleep-away camp gives something very special to children. The campers may not know it but while they are making s’mores and doing activities such as wakeboarding, pottery and tennis are fostering their independence, building their self-confidence, gaining self-esteem and developing an element of perseverance. They also get the 21st Century Skills today’s parents are seeking. For the camper and perhaps their parents a little bit of summer is what the whole year is about.
So why choose a sleepaway summer camp experience for your child?
Because we love our children dearly and are lucky to live in a time and place of affluence and relative peace, we dote on them, sometimes to their detriment. Children need space for themselves, away from parents. They need to form their own tribe, test chaos, figure things out, choose their own adventures and live them out without fear of our reactions. They need to fall and get themselves up, without parents scolding or offering advice. It is absolutely critical that they develop the skills to function autonomously and in relation to others. Summer camp is special because of all of the give and take that happens at camp when they learn how to live with others. And it all plays out in a completely safe and controlled environment.
Childhood lasts only a dozen or so precious years, a time of learning, growing, play and seminal experiences that will shape the course of a life. Each year of childhood is divided into two times: the school year and summer vacation. And while the school year is crisp and crackling with possibility, books with unbent spines, new shoes, and maps of the world, the summertime is magical. Summers are when real discovery happens, when children run, and swim, and climb all day outside under a warm sun until late in the evening. It is a time to explore, create, and be free in a way that we chase forever after it ends. The months of June, July, and August can be spent in myriad ways.
Children learn to function independently, to work as part of a cohort of peers, in an unparalleled setting of natural beauty, in a place that is charmingly rustic yet provides everything they could want, and is nurturing, safe and a lot of fun. Why send your child to camp? They can sleep under the stars. Catch a fish. Learn how to play piano. Paddle a kayak. Go wakeboarding. Make more friends. Build a campfire. Hike a mountain. Make friendship bracelets. Something they will always remember. Camp helps nurture future successful adults. Moving forward into Twenty-Sixteen, children need more than just 21st century skills. Our planet needs successful people to be peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kind. Sleep-away camp offers all of these our children’s development depends on it.
Ephram A. Caflun of Ridgewood, NJ is director of a resident children’s summer camp in the beautiful state of Maine. He began working with children in a professional setting in 1993. Reach him at email@example.com.
China Camp Education Conference on the 10th of April, 2015
The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., 2001
Charles Eliot, former president of Harvard University, 1905
Homesick and Happy, Michael Thompson, Ph D, 2012
Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, 2005
Science teachers who draw: The red is always there. Merrie Koester, PhD, 2015
"Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues" UCLA, Cal State and UNC-Chapel Hill by Yalda T. Uhls, Minas Michikyan, Jordan Morris, Debra Garcia, Gary W. Small, Eleni Zgourou, Patricia M. Greenfield, Computers in Human Behavior, August 2014