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Play

We recently listened to a man who has spent many, many years studying the effects of play on humans. While it sounds a lot like our job as camp directors, he’s got the Ph.D. so we thought to give him our attention. We are glad we did.

Dr. Stuart Brown said several fascinating things about Play:

  • It overrides what is sometimes fixed in our natures – it brings individuals together in ways which allow them to expand their knowledge of others and the world around them.
  • If the purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play.
  • People who have not played with their hands (fixing and building) do not solve problems as well.
  • The basis of human trust is established through play signals. We begin to lose those signals as we age.

When you look at camp through the prism of these statements on play, you encounter a big ‘duh!’ moment. Watching our campers play together shows you how the common act of laughing together, or playing gaga, or chase, or different table games allows the kids to spread their wings and learn.

While we have a good bit of unstructured play at camp, there is also a great deal of play within teams such as soccer, basketball, baseball, dance teams, and more.  Campers build trust with their teammates, learn from mistakes, and are taught to keep a great attitude throughout their time at camp.

In woodshop, robotics, and ceramics, we give kids a great opportunity to explore with their hands and make, fix, and tear apart things they don’t normally at home. These experiences lead to wonderful outcomes both over the short and the long term.

Thankfully, Dr. Brown reminds us that we, as humans, are designed to play throughout our lifetimes. We couldn’t agree more. And, since play signals help build trust, we hire camp counselors who show the right mix of maturity and experience while keeping playfulness close to the surface.

We are excited to remain a place where play leads to several much needed outcomes: relationship formation, the development of confidence and independence, and a community in which campers know they are accepted. Whether through our traditions, choice based program, evening activities or during free time, our campers laugh and learn while playing!

Making Decisions at Camp

If your child regularly spends a half hour in the cereal aisle of the supermarket choosing his breakfast cereal or takes the better part of a day debating whether he wants to go to the movies or have a play date with a friend, there is a somewhat underrated and under appreciated aspect of sending your child to summer camp that you may want to consider.  Camp helps children learn how to make decisions.

For many campers, sleepaway camp is their first real experience away from their parents. They find themselves faced with decisions every day, some of which are traditionally made by their parents.  Camps, for instance, often offer campers several different dining options each meals.  Without their parents there to tell them to eat salad because they don’t like tuna or pasta, children find themselves faced with the decision about what to eat.  This sounds like a small thing, and in the scheme of larger things, perhaps it is.  However, it’s not an exercise without long-term benefit.  Once children understand the decision is theirs, they tend to get adventurous.  As a result, many will try—and be surprised to realize they like—foods that they might not have tried at home if steered toward safer choices by us parents who, let’s face it, sometimes choose the path of least resistance if for no other reason than to maintain peace.  The sense of adventure gained also carries over into their daily activities.

Most camps programs are designed around camper choice.  While the level of choice varies from camp to camp with some giving campers exclusive control of their daily schedules while others plan part of the day and allow campers to choose a couple or a few activities, campers are still faced everyday with choosing at least some of their daily activities.  Making such decisions forces campers to consider whether it’s better to stick to a tried and true activity that they love or try something new.  While some campers are inevitably more adventurous than others, the ability to make decisions without the pressure of peers or parents and in the open, accepting environment of camp at which being adventurous is not only accepted but encouraged, children learn to choose what they want rather than what they feel that others want for them.  Again, this may seem like a relatively small accomplishment in the larger scheme of growing up, but many books about success emphasize that the children who grow up to become the most successful adults learned early to understand what they wanted and how to make the choices in life that would help them achieve their goals.  Additionally, when children know what they want, they’re able to be more assertive in pursuing goals and voicing when they’re unhappy.

So if you’re tired of perusing the aisles for the second, third, and fourth time while your child tries to decide between Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Cheerios or are frustrated about not being able to make evening plans because your child can’t decide what he wants to do, consider sending him to summer camp where he can get a crash course on learning to make decisions on a daily basis.

Who is Watching Your Children? A Look at Camp Staff and Leadership

If you submit prospective babysitters through background and reference checks just for a date night with your spouse or significant other, then you probably have an extreme interest in just who will be taking care of your children at summer camp.  Thanks in part to movies and television, many parents have images of young, barely out of high school teenagers filling counselor roles.  However, the truth is that camps conduct searches for months to locate and fill leadership and key staff roles with mature, knowledgeable professionals, many of whom work with children in some capacity year round.

Even though camp is still six months away, chances are that your child’s summer camp (or prospective summer camp) has already kicked its recruiting season into high gear.  To find counselors, many camps traverse college campuses across the country searching for college students and recent grads who are pursuing careers in education, social work, youth athletics, or other fields related to working with children.  In order to avoid staff members that are too immature—or mature—the target demographic for counselors is typically between 20-25, although some camps will vary from this in certain scenarios or for special needs.  A successful camp counselor works 24/7 and must be mature enough to make split second decisions that concern the welfare and well -being of children.  Although counselor staffs tend to have relatively high turnover rates from year to year because college students complete college and move on to full time jobs that they cannot leave for an entire summer, leadership staff tends to return more regularly.

Camp leadership is often comprised of seasoned teachers and coaches who have been involved with summer camp in some capacity for several years or even decades.  Some of them grew up as campers and worked their way into leadership positions beginning as counselor assistants or counselors.  Others began as counselors and loved the experience so much that they have returned from year to year.  Still others are hired directly into their leadership roles after extensive searches by camps to find the best candidate for the role.  However their camp experience began, one thing that all camp leaders have in common is that they not only have extensive experience working with children, but thorough knowledge of the intricacies and behind the scenes goings on of summer camp.

Aside from leadership staff, other mature individuals are employed to staff health and dining facilities as well as offices.  In fact, parents are sometimes surprised to learn that so many mature, experienced professionals spend their summers at sleepaway camp.  But, for many, the experience, as it is for the children, is beyond compare.  Those who return each year will tell you that they wouldn’t consider spending their summers anyplace else.  They love what they do, they love their campers, and they love their camps!  How many traditional jobs can boast such high morale and collective years of experience?

One of the Most Memorable Summer Camp Activities

One of the biggest parts of the summer at most traditional  summer camps and nearly as big of a tradition as the concept of summer camp is the color war.  For several days, campers and staff members parade around camp in their team colors.  Body paint, capes, mismatched socks, colored hair spray, pom-poms, and tutus are the en vogue accessories, and enthusiastic demonstrations of team pride via spirited cheers are infectious.

Although an emphasis on friendly competition geared toward giving campers an opportunity to put their camp skills to the test while exhibiting exemplary sportsmanship has prompted many camps to change the name to such things as Challenges, Tribals, College Days, and Olympics, the concept remains the same: Campers are placed onto teams and, for several days, engage in a host of activities designed to re-cap the summer—a sort of “best of” replay.

Whatever the name, the competition is often full of traditions regarded as sacred by campers and staff alike.  The beginning of the games is invariably a surprise to campers and much of the staff with the reveal being is a closely guarded secret about which there is quite a bit of discussion and speculation in the days leading up to it.  The breakout is unquestionably, one of the biggest events of the summer and always on everyone’s list of favorite moments from the summer.  Counselors are included in the action as team leaders and coaches.

The end of the competition often involves some sort of bonding activity designed to bring the teams back together as one camp family to finish out the summer because, in the end, the emphasis of a color on color contest is not whether one is on a winning team when all is said and done, but that each and every camper has had the opportunity to demonstrate what he or she has learned over the summer and, thus, gain an understanding of how each person brings something different and valuable to the camp family.  Such a focus makes these types of camp activities a valuable lesson in diversity and teamwork.  Everyone has a unique role on the team that directly affects the team’s overall performance.  For anyone—camper or staff—who has ever been a part of camps, it’s the part of the summer that is undoubtedly one of the most memorable.

A Summer Camp Daily Food Schedule

“What about food?”
This is undeniably one of the biggest questions posed to summer camp directors from prospective parents who not only want to know what their children will be fed during the summer, but when and how.  Although serving styles vary—some camps eat “family style” while others serve buffet style–a day of food is fairly similar from camp to camp and an important aspect of the daily camp schedule.  So America’s Finest Summer Camps has decided to dedicate an entire blog to a typical camp eating schedule.

Shortly after waking up in the morning, campers head off to breakfast. Aside from a hot entrée  choice such as eggs, pancakes, french toast  or oatmeal, several cold staples like cereal, bagels, fruit, and yogurt are also available to ensure that campers have plenty of fuel for morning activities.

Around mid-day, everyone takes a break from the fun in order to eat lunch, which is usually the same fare they might expect to eat for lunch at home like pizza, macaroni and cheese, or sandwiches.  A soup and/or salad bar is also typically available.

Many camps also offer fruit or a snack in the late morning or afternoon, to keep campers energized throughout the day.
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After a full day of adventure, campers need to re-fuel, and dinner fare appropriately reflects that. As with lunch, the choices are typical of what they might expect to eat at their evening meal at home such as pasta, meat and potatoes, tacos, etc.  A large salad bar is also typically available at dinner, and dessert is served as well.

Before going to bed, children often get a snack or a chance to go to their camp’s canteen for a special treat.

In addition to the primary meal and snack schedule, throughout the day, children may enjoy other snacks or treats while participating in their camp’s cooking program, during a bunk or cabin mate’s birthday celebration, or as part of a special event.  It should also put parents’ minds at ease knowing that when constructing their menus, many camps purposely design meal combinations that quickly replenish energy and/or consult nutritionists.

Food allergies are also typically addressed.  Many sleepaway camps do not serve any tree nut products and those that do take great strides to insure that campers with allergies do not come into contact with them.  Some make soy milk available to those with lactose intolerance and/or provide special gluten free bread to those with wheat allergies.

Camp meal schedules are also extremely important to the daily camp schedule because they help campers and staff mark time throughout the day.  Since meals and snacks are served consistently at regular times, they contribute heavily to summer camp routines and help campers define their expectations.

The Subtle Pleasures of Summer Camp

Have you noticed subtle pleasant but odd changes since your children returned from summer camp?  Have you peeked into your son’s room and noticed that he made his bed?  Were you tempted to take your daughter’s temperature the other night because she volunteered to clean up her room?  Maybe they just seem calmer or are better about sticking to routines about which you went hoarse more than once preaching to them before you put them on that bus or plane headed to their favorite summer zip code.  Perhaps they’re better about saying ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ or spend less time all out at war with each other over little things like the remote control and whether they’re going to watch The Voice or Modern Family.  Did they really mature that much at summer camp?

Not that you’re complaining.  It’s a nice, unexpected bonus.  When you initially enrolled them for camp, you were thinking it would be good for them to spend their summer working on arts and crafts projects, learning how to sail, going swimming, doing the silly things that kids do at camp, and playing sports instead of using up your entire cell phone data plan during twelve hour texting marathons or playing the Kinect so much that you can no longer tell whether you’re watching a video game or an actual television program.  You thought, ‘Maybe they’ll even make a few new friends.’  But, oddly, it’s the smaller things they seem to be bringing away from their summer camp experiences that you find yourself enjoying the most.

Sure, you read all about the benefits of sending children to summer camp before you decided to send them.  But you didn’t allow yourself to actually have expectations that your children would come home friendlier, more dutiful, more flexible, able to manage their time better, and generally happier–in short, more mature. Those are the special changes that you enjoy seeing and that make summer camp that much more valuable your eyes.

Ask Me More about Camp

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar…
Your child comes to you and says, for what seems like the billionth time, “Ask me more about camp.” It’s now December and you’ve heard some of the stories so many times that you can actually recite them along with her.  You wonder what odd but amusing little story your little one has managed to scour from the back of her mind that somehow involves the solitary five minutes of summer camp about which you haven’t yet heard.  While you’re doing this, your child only grows more impatient, “Go ahead.  Ask me,” this time becoming so excited that she hops up and down a couple of times and appears to be choreographing her own little “ask me more about camp” dance, which somewhat tops the bemusement of the time she sang for you to ask.

You can’t resist her enthusiasm because you think it’s great to see her this excited about anything other than the latest episode of iCarly, so you cave and wait for her mile-a-minute relay of some cute story about that time she held hands with six friends and they all jumped off the water trampoline and made a really big splash, which was really funny because it made so many waves that it almost tipped over a paddleboarder nearby…No, really it was SO funny!  Or the time they went on the nature walk, and it started raining, and they were trying to hurry back to camp, but they slipped in the mud…THAT was the funniest! You’re still trying to get the stains out of the shirt she was wearing that day, but you get an image in your head, having seen the photographs of your child and her friends covered in mud the camp posted on its website, and knew from the ear-to-ear grin that she was obviously having the time of her life, and you have to chuckle because, yes, it’s funny.

Your child starts a new story about a soccer game and how her friend had really wanted to score a goal all summer at camp but really wasn’t that good at soccer, so she blocked another player so the friend could try to score. And you realize that even though you might get asked to quiz her about camp a few hundred more times before the line turns into “I can’t wait to go back!” you don’t mind because you realize that hearing about little moments like this is nice. Not only did your child just have the time of her life, her enthusiasm in sharing her experiences with you adds great value to your decision to send her to camp because not only is she having fun but she’s learning valuable life lessons.

The Decision to Return to Summer Camp

Deciding to return to summer camp is a big decision that many families are already making.  Sure, it’s difficult to think about summer camp when the temperatures begin to plunge and the holidays are just around the corner.  However, it’s actually the perfect time to decide about returning to camp. The camp season is far enough removed that campers have had time to reflect on their summer.  Parents, also, likely have adequate feedback by now to be able to evaluate the value of sleepaway camp as registrations begin opening to returning campers and, in fact, at some camps, registration is almost complete. Beyond memories and adventures, there are many factors to consider, particularly as campers get older and new options begin to present themselves.  Here are some to think about:

Each summer is a new and unique experience highlighted by changes from year to year: the introduction of new activities as well as the tweaking of existing ones, fresh staff faces, new facilities or remodeled ones to accommodate new programs or expand popular ones.  Camp is truly never the exact same experience twice!

Aside from the physical changes to the camp program, campus, and staff, as children journey through their camp years, they look forward to age-specific traditions each year.  Some of them are relatively small, such as sitting at a special place during meals or a later wake-up in the mornings.  Others are fairly monumental–the trips get bigger and longer, the leadership roles become more significant, and the impact of the traditions themselves grows.

Bonds strengthen over time.  It’s always touching to hear returning campers talk about meeting their best friend at camp or share stories about their favorite counselors.  There is the intimacy of the bunk or cabin environment as well.  As children move through camp with their friends, they become very close.  Fresh opportunities also present themselves each summer for campers to make new friends while trying different things.

When one considers how much change happens at camp each summer, it’s easy to see that by not returning–even for a summer–campers miss out on something big!  The primary goal of sleepaway camps is to make sure campers are safe and have fun.  Their staffs work tirelessly during the winters and dedicate long hours during the summer to make each summer better than the last, which means that probably the most important thing to contemplate when deciding whether to return to camp is that next summer could be a camper’s best summer ever!

Past the Post Camp Lull

It’s here.  The lull.  The point at which the reality has set in that summer is over but next summer isn’t quite real enough.  By now, most of us have shared our favorite memories of camp at least a half dozen times with anyone who will listen  and we’ve actually started to settle into our fall habits, even if we still catch ourselves humming camp songs in that off moment while riding in the car or doing homework.  There is a peacefulness about this time of year, though, because it’s the point at which we really begin to grasp the summer couple of months, reflect on them, and embrace the memories of them.  Believe us!  We’re not joking when we say that for those of us at camp, the summer passes with lightning speed.  Blink more than once and miss it speed, in fact.

It’s hard to really take it all in in the moment.  But one of the best things about camp is that it is something that can be savored.  Henry David Thoreau wrote, “But the place which you have selected for your camp, though never so rough and grim, begins at once to have its attractions, and becomes a very centre of civilization to you.”  And he was right.  Camp is as much a mindset as it is a place.  For the next ten months, things will regularly happen that will remind us of something that happened at camp.  Whether it was a heart to heart with a counselor, a favorite activity, or even just the adventurous spirit that comes with discovering something new, each summer at camp is full of about a million opportunities to learn just a little bit more about life, some of them impossible to realize until well after the original moment has passed but each of them capable of taking campers and staff back to that “place.”

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