When former campers look back on their camp experiences, they often reflect on a nostalgic feeling of youthful freedom and exploration. Camp is where many people learned to paddle a canoe, cook over a fire, or conquer their fear of heights. It’s where they got to explore the woods, learn about nature, and how awe inspiring it can be to camp out underneath the stars.
I know this firsthand, because I was a camp kid myself. The first summer I went, I was terrified to leave home. I was anxious about being away from my family, learning new routines, and sharing a living space with twelve other people. Yet, after only two days at camp, I was a changed person; I became excited to challenge myself with new activities, try new foods, and meet other campers from across the country. On the first day of camp every summer after that, I would wake up early and sit on my front porch with my bags packed waiting to go, despite my mom telling me that we would not be leaving for hours.
When I was too old to be a camper, I applied without hesitation to become a junior counselor at my camp. After spending one summer at camp as a counselor, I went on to return each summer in various roles ranging from being a group counselor to being a member of the summer leadership team. Unquestionably, summer camp had a positive and personal impact on my life, and, considering that around ten to twelve million* children go to camp each summer, I am sure that I am by no means alone in having such an experience.
Ropes courses, canoes, stargazing, and swimming in the lake are undoubtedly key parts of the camp experience for children and youth all over the country, but it’s also clear that well-structured camp programs help children develop much more than just a love of the outdoors and an affinity for nature.
Summer camp is a place where kids learn to not only take pride in their own individuality, but also to act responsibly and cooperatively as individuals within a group. As screen-free environments, camp is an ideal place for kids to learn the value of face to face communication and develop strong interpersonal skills. Campers are taught to engage conflict head on, learning to resolve differences peacefully with respect and civility. Out at camp, children learn to view setbacks as opportunities for growth, and challenges as short-term issues that can be overcome with a little hard work and some ingenuity.
After joining the Motivate Lab team as a Research Specialist, I had the opportunity continue exploring my passion for summer camps by conducting four back-to-back weeks of descriptive field research at different camps across the country. At each of these camps, another researcher, Miray Seward, and I conducted activity observations, camper focus groups, counselor focus groups, and staff interviews.
At one of the four camps, we also piloted a reflection activity that prompted campers to write about difficult experiences at camp, how they overcame those challenges, and how they could use similar strategies to overcome challenges at home and school. We then sent postcards to those campers in the Fall for them to fill out, asking them to write to a hypothetical new camper about how camp has helped them in school.
In analyzing this study, it became clear to us that well-structured summer camps provide a rich learning environment that is ripe for promoting youth development. It’s also evident that, in order for campers to make lasting connections between what they learn at camp and their lives at home and in school, they need support and scaffolding from camp staff and parents, both in and out of camp. Campers would benefit greatly from having their counselors help them identify and elucidate teachable moments at camp that they can relate to their lives at home. Similarly, parents can help their children make connections during the school year by periodically asking them to think back on their camp experiences and helping them identify how things they did or learned at camp are helping them in school.
For so many children, camp is a place to escape the “real world,” build lifelong friendships, and learn endless new activities. But we would be doing children everywhere a disservice if we assumed that children bring these newfound skills back to their everyday, out-of-camp lives. Camps need to be intentional about identifying and capitalizing on teachable moments that can help campers make connections, and parents can help by prompting their kids to reflect on lessons learned at camp.
As the American Camp Association so aptly puts it, “Camp Gives Kids a World of Good!” It’s now up to us to make sure that this world of good extends beyond their summer lives, fostering positive impact for years to come.
*Source: Henderson, K. A., Bialeschki, D. M., & James, P. A. (2007) Overview of Camp Research. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 16. 755-767.
Kevin Foley is a research specialist at Motivate Lab. He is interested in motivation and individual development through outdoor education programs—an interest inspired by his time spent at a summer camp outside of Richmond, VA, both as a camper and counselor. He received his M.Ed. in educational psychology from the University of Virginia in 2016 and his B.A. in History from James Madison University in 2015.