Remember those warm summer nights roasting hot dogs over an open flame to the tune of a beloved—and totally goofy—camp song? Many adults recall magical summer camp experiences and current research from the American Camp Association corroborates those memories, showing that camp has all sorts of positive outcomes. It can increase a child’s self-esteem, strengthen social skills and leadership qualities and instill a sense of adventure.
“The camp experience offers an experiential learning environment that contributes to the positive development of a child,” says Tom Holland, American Camp Association CEO. Here’s a look at the tangible qualities and assets children gain at summer camp—and how those advances will benefit parents, too.
1. Problem-Solving Skills
“Kids have the opportunity to get things wrong at camp,” says Kim Schulz, executive director of youth programs for the Denver YMCA. “Counselors will help guide decisions for safety’s sake, but they have time to let kids totally blow it,” she says.
At Avid Adventure, staff members ask campers to solve their own problems. “Counselors are empathetic, but we really put it back on the kids to come up with ways to handle any situation,” he says. Team building activities—common to most camps— also offer a great opportunity for practicing problem-solving. The YMCA’s “Across the River” game, for example, asks kids to team up and get from point A to point B with two-by-fours and a tire. Talk about a head-scratcher.
A good problem-solver is an asset at home. By learning to look at problems in new, innovative ways, your child becomes more capable of tackling day-to-day obstacles—without constantly asking for your help. Imagine folding an entire load of laundry without having to stop to mediate a sibling conflict.
According to the American Camp Association, 96 percent of campers reported that camp helped them make new friends. Camp doesn’t just introduce kids to one another, it also fosters an environment that supports the development of “incredible, life-long friendships,” says Littman. “There’s a lot of power in meeting kids from other schools, and we really see friendships accelerated here.”
Intentional friendship-building activities help initiate interactions and intimate group sizes and shared experiences further encourage bonding. And, Sullivan points out, “You only get so deep of a connection when you’re sitting at the lunchroom at school. But when you’re whispering in cabins at night before bedtime, that’s when strong bonds form.”
Camp friendships have been known to last a lifetime and that means both you and your child might be introduced to a new network of peers—ones who may share similar interests, or help you expand beyond your neighborhood or school network.
3. Near-Peer Mentorship
Camp counselors are special role models. They’re capable of giving campers near-peer mentorship, since they’re closer in age to their campers than, say, a typical teacher or a parent. On average, YMCA counselors—typically college students or recent graduates—are between the ages of 18 and 24. These young counselors are asked to learn their campers” names and interests and to eat lunch with them, too. All of this makes it easier for campers to relate to their counselors. Meaning, they might open up to them in a way they don’t with other adults.
Don’t be surprised if your child comes home more interested in school or college even. Near-peer mentorship from college students and recent graduates has been known to inspire kids to excel academically.
Parents and teachers have a lot to accomplish on any given day and sometimes there simply isn’t time to let a child explore his or her independence. When you take away the academics and busy schedules, though, you can accomplish quite a bit, according to Kyle Littman, COO for Avid4 Adventure, a Colorado-based day and overnight adventure camp.
At summer camp, kids get a chance to “do things on their own; to stretch their wings and try new things,” says Matt Sullivan, summer camp director at Camp Chief Ouray. In a safe environment, campers experience freedom by exploring the campgrounds on their own during recreational time. They might also be asked to take ownership in daily activities by choosing from a list of a la carte activities. Freedom and control foster the sort of independence that creates a breeding ground for all of the positive attributes to follow.
Parents today are heavily focused on their children, but there’s something to be said for having a little parental independence, too. While kids are safe and happy at summer camp, parents might pick up an old hobby or reconnect with a friend over coffee.
5. Self Confidence
“Camp takes kids outside of their comfort zone,” says Littman. According to the American Camp Association, 74 percent of campers surveyed said they had tried things at summer camp that they were afraid to do. Whether it’s singing a silly song, practicing a new sport, challenging counselors to a competition or trying different foods, campers are asked to explore the unknown and the results can be transformational.
At Avid4 Adventure, for example, it isn’t uncommon for a camper to feel nervous before trying something new, such as paddle boarding. “He might struggle; ideally, he’ll overcome it and that’s a victory that can be transferred to other areas of the child’s life,” explains Littman, who has noticed many children leave camp more confident than they were when they entered.
Confident kids are happy kids and happy kids are much more enjoyable to be around. Parents might find that their job is a whole lot easier when a child grows his confidence and becomes a better communicator.
6. A Positive Connection to Nature
At Camp Chief Ouray, Avid4 Adventure and Denver YMCA day camps, one overarching goal is to help campers develop an affinity for an active outdoor lifestyle. That’s because there’s something truly special that happens to a child when she turns off the technology and connects with nature.
“At CCO, we’re right-smack-dab in the middle of nature,” says Sullivan. Campers might wake up to see a mother deer and her fawns eating breakfast; they’ll hear a range of bird calls during their stay and learn about ecology at an on-site creek, too. They’ll even pick up a few survival skills.
Even in an urban setting, YMCA campers interact with nature during weekly field trips to nearby reservoirs, parks and trails. “We are only on-site one or two days a week,” explains Schulz. Being close to nature often makes children appreciate their environment and that, in turn, gives way to environmental stewardship. Avid4 Adventure nurtures that, partnering with Leave No Trace to incorporate eco-curriculum into camp activities.
Active, outdoorsy children who are passionate about nature are often begging their parents to go on weekend hikes, bike rides, and camp outs. Before long, your whole family might be connecting with each other while connecting with nature.
Day Camp CAMP vs. Overnight Camp
Any camp has a profound and positive impact on children and adolescents. At overnight camp, though, the experience is intensified. According to the Denver YMCA’s Kim Schulz, the bonding that happens when kids cohabitate is unparalleled. From late-night campfire chats to working together to keep a bunkhouse clean, children experience the sorts of life lessons that can’t be taught. Sleeping under the stars, adds Camp Chief Ouray’s Matt Sullivan, is another experience that’s unique to some overnight camps. During special campout nights, CCO’s visitors have a chance to connect with nature on a whole new level. The result, Sullivan says, is usually awe: “They realize that they are kind of small in this universe. From there, the questions just start flowing.”
Overnight camp is powerful; but Schulz says, “I think when it comes to the core things—making true friendships, learning independence—children will get that, even if they only go to day camps.” And, Schulz notes, “Residential camp isn’t for every kid.” She recommends taking into account your child’s age and personality when deciding between day and overnight camp.