A joke telling session in the cabin during a rainy morning, lying in the cabin during rest hour, or sitting by the waterfront and talking with friends as the sun goes down are what we call downtime at summer camp. Children need downtime to process learning experiences and recharge their creative juices, notes parenting expert Michael Grose. He believes downtime is an important life skill that every child should learn to enjoy and appreciate. Yes, sleepaway camps like to keep campers busy. After all, that’s what they come for. But camps also place emphasis on the value of the summer camp experience as a way to get out of the routine of everyday life, which is what makes summer camp the perfect place for children to learn downtime.
At home, it’s easy to get lost in the constant “go” routine to which so many children are accustomed. Many of them go straight from school to sports rehearsals or music lessons, sometimes both or several in one night. Then there is the inevitable stack of homework waiting when they finally get a few moments in the evening. They also see their parents constantly on the move. In such an environment, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that one should always be operating at full speed. At camp, however, the environment is decidedly one that is about slowing down and appreciating individual moments and accomplishments.
Camp is also contained. Campers have only a few weeks each summer to maximize their camp experience. They can’t look too far ahead without looking beyond camp, which no camper wants to do. That’s why campers like to take advantage of that brief rain shower, an hour of rest in the afternoon, or a few moments after dinner to enjoy the camp environment and bond with friends.
Says Grose, “Free, child-initiated play is the ultimate in relaxation. Fun games, games with few rules and games that kids control help them to unwind.” And learning to unwind is what camp is all about.
The sugary drink made from mysterious powder – a fruit punch with no resemblance to real fruit – may be the only “food” generations of summer campers remember from their years in camp dining halls.
Today, parents from Camp Laurel and Laurel South are glad to hear that bug juice has gone the way of buggy whips.
Today too, campers are glad to drink water, 2% and skim milk, real lemonade and unsweetened iced tea. They also like having choices: fresh fruit, salad bars, homemade soups, grilled chicken. But they’re equally glad to see old standbys like chicken nuggets and make-your-own sundaes.
Kids today eat healthy. But they are still kids.
Menu planning at Camp Laurel and Laurel South is a constant balancing act. As children have grown more conscious of the right things to eat, we’ve evolved too. For example, we replaced canned peas with cut celery and carrot sticks (part of our popular veggie platters).
We offer barbecue chicken and fresh asparagus. Lemon chicken with brown rice. Turkey tacos with guacamole and corn chips. Baked chicken, matzo ball soup and knishes (Friday nights only!).
We’ve got multi-grain pancakes – most of the time. But we haven’t forgotten our “S Day breakfasts,” with chocolate chip and M&M pancakes.
There’s a 20-item salad bar, with 8 types of dressing. And a pasta bar. And a baked potato bar. And even a special smoothie bar for 2013!
Lewis (Camp Laurel) and Teddy (Laurel South) – our beloved chefs, whip up soups from scratch like corn and clam chowder, vegetable barley, chicken noodle, Italian lentil and cream of broccoli. But the sides of Saltines have been replaced with whole-grain crackers.
Canteen snacks are as anticipated as ever. We’ve added granola bars and healthy popcorn to the list.
Camp is still camp. If you sat with us for a meal, you’d be reminded in many ways of your own camp days and be impressed to find healthier options and variety.
But try as you might, you would not find one silver pitcher filled with bug juice.
From the rituals they lead to open camp on the first night until the moment they say teary farewells to their final summers, summer camp plays as significant a role in older campers’ lives as they play in carrying on its traditions. There are a lot of camp articles that sing the praises of summer camp for young children, but few focus on the value of the camp experience for young teens. By the time many campers reach their teens, they already have several camp summers behind them. For them, it’s not really about newness anymore, but reliability and tradition: who is at camp, what is at camp, camp rites to which they’ve looked forward since they were young. In a period of child’s life that can be a roller coaster full of ups and downs that come at full speed, summer camp is oasis of stability. It’s solid ground, a safe place where teenagers go to be themselves and to let loose of the stress and strain that are inextricably part of the teenage years.
At summer camp, teenagers can still be young while getting a taste of what it means to be grown up. They connect with a small group of people with whom they’ve shared experiences since they were very young and with whom they continue to share experiences. They not only share experiences, they share memories that only a select group of others shares. Both give older campers a distinct sense of belonging. Regardless of who or what they are to their school peers the other ten months of the year, camp is a circle of inclusion that often extends far beyond the camp years. Older campers also benefit from privileges that come from being older. They’re tapped to lead camp activities, given leadership roles on teams of younger campers, and charged with being examples in honoring camp traditions. In short, older campers “train” younger campers how to be good campers. For many of them, being a role model and a mentor is one of the best aspects of camp. The pride in having played a role in a younger camper’s life is what brings many former campers back to camp in their adult years to work as counselors.
Beyond rituals and traditions, there is also the encouragement that many older campers get from staff members in pursuing college and career goals, be it allowing them to sample career life through Apprentice type tasks, giving them the opportunity to write an essay for the camp blog, giving them a camera and letting them take photos for the camp website, helping them write a college essay or work through a summer reading assignment, or just talking to them about what life as a teacher or a coach is like. By the time campers reach their teenage years, they’ve learned to appreciate what staff members bring to the table and are eager to learn and listen. Ask any former camper to name a camp staff member who had a special impact on their lives, and within seconds they’ll share the story of a beloved counselor or staff member who taught them something about life that they still practice today.
Although many bonds form when campers are young, some of the most special form when they’re older. Sometimes something as simple as a team building exercise helps teenage campers realize that they have more in common with a fellow camper than they thought they did. At an age when it’s all too easy to feel isolated, being able everyday to realize life as a valuable part of a whole translates into some of the most special memories of a camp career.
Camp is more than just a summer away from home hanging with friends. It’s a learning experience, and some of the most valuable lessons are learned in the midst of teenage fun at summer camp.