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.
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.
Robert Fulghum wrote a great poem entitled “Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.” Since so many campers and staff members often speak of all of the valuable things they learn at camp, we thought we’d do a tribute to Fulghum’s original poem, as well as to all present and former campers and staff members, with our own camp take on the classic…
Everything I Need to Know in Life…I didn’t learn in a classroom or in a book. I learned it at summer camp. I learned….
The world would be an awesome place if everyone went to summer camp!
Whether it’s a school spelling bee or a soccer game, as parents we want to see our children win not just to experience the joy of seeing them excel but because we know that they want to win. Being raised in a competitive culture naturally makes us all want to be number one. Children equate being number one with being the best. However, as grownups we know that it’s impossible to win all of the time and that winning doesn’t necessarily mean being the best so much as being the best on that particular day. The idea that losing, in reality, is closer to not winning in that it’s possible to “lose” yet gain something valuable from a contest or competition is one of the most difficult concepts for children to embrace. Camp is a place where not only is this point driven home daily, but it’s a lesson learned at camp in a fun, constructive environment.
The pressure of anxious parents and coaches on the sidelines of sports competitions combined with the knowledge that school performance affects everything from what kind of classes they can take, extracurricular activities in which they can participate, and what colleges they will be attend place a great deal of emphasis on children’s performance. The ability for children to be able to process that good can come from not winning is clouded because the end goal is the emphasis. The underlying message that children sometimes inadvertently receive as a result is that they will be valued or loved less if they lose. Camp, on the other hand, emphasizes process and embraces novice. One of the primary messages conveyed to campers is that winning is a great thing at camp, but it’s not everything. Improving skills, finding activities one really loves, having fun and making friends are valuable attributes at camp. In such an environment, winning
takes on less prominence. Children are less likely to feel less valuable as campers for losing.
Camp leaders and staff work very hard throughout the summer to make sure this atmosphere is maintained. Children are encouraged for performance, accomplishment, and attitude regardless of being winners or losers in a contest. Many special camp games or competitions are also structured in a way that encourages children to work together in order to win and provide excellent opportunities for those children who may not be excellent athletes or extreme intellectuals to have their moments to shine.
Learning how to “not win” at camp makes it much easier for children to put “not winning” at home into proper perspective!
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.
“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.
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.
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.
If you’re a first-time potential camp family who has combed the websites, followed the blogs and Facebook pages, spent several weekends touring summer camps, spoken with the directors, and have made the decision that summer camp is definitely for your children, you’re probably wondering right about now when to enroll. Even though the obvious answer might seem to be when the snow melts–right about the time your children begin complaining of having to spend so much time inside and you hope the snow melts soon so that they can before you pull your hair out—most camp families are beginning to think about packing by then. Welcome to the world of summer camp! In fact, summer camps typically open early registration in late fall.
Because camps typically have a very limited number of remaining spaces after returning campers and their siblings commit to another summer, the earlier you enroll the better. Aside from guaranteeing your new campers a place at the sleepaway camp of their choice, it gives you adequate time to begin planning for the summer ahead. After all, now that you’ve made the big decision to send your children to summer camp, you’ll want to set your campers up for success.
Camps often give returning campers the first opportunity to enroll, and use the return rate as a way to determine how many new campers they can accept. However- there are almost always spaces in certain age groups throughout the year. Call the camp – they will help you and be the best source of availability!
If you’re a new or returning family who is not quite ready to commit yet, reach out the camp and let it know that you’re interested. Share concerns if you have them and get answers to questions. The camp is more likely to reserve a place for you if you are communicating with the directors than if they don’t hear anything at all. And, of course, if you’re a little behind the game, never assume that the camp of your choice is full. Sometimes additional space opens late in the registration season and camps can accommodate late comers. Always contact the camp!
We can’t wait for you to join us next summer!
Summer camp is a lot of fun. One need only ask any camper on virtually any summer camp campus to confirm that notion. Children love the activities and the relatively relaxed environment of sleepaway camp. However, there is something else that summer camp children crave, although they might not know it: structure. Dr. Laura Markham asserts that routine helps children develop self-discipline, cooperation, change tolerance, and responsibility.
To an outsider, summer camps may seem like little more than organized chaos. However, most summer camps operate around set daily schedules that move children from activity to activity at specific times throughout the day. Although the daily activities may change, the times and length of the periods do not. Meals are also held at set times. The use of bugle calls, bells, music, or announcements assist campers in transitioning from one part of their day to another, which, according to Markham, helps eliminate power struggles by setting parameters and giving children a recognizable sign for knowing when it’s time to bring one activity to a close and move onto another without being told.
A daily routine also helps at night. Research shows that children who have a structured schedule sleep better at night. Routine also lessens anxiety and improves behavioral issues. Children feel less anxiety when they understand what is expected of them and can confidently anticipate what will happen next. Summer camp is built on traditions that happen from year-to-year. Many camps are also divided into age groups that serve as steps through the camp experience from the first year of camp to the final. From their first day at camp, there are certain rites and privileges related to sleepaway camp traditions specific to each age group to which campers can look forward as they get older. That children can see from the beginning that summer camp is a progressive process also helps them to understand the concept of patience when working toward a goal.
Because of the benefits provided by the structure of summer camp, many parents are increasingly seeing the advantages of time spent at summer camp. As a result, summer camp is experiencing a revival of sorts as a summer staple. More than eleven million people attended camp last year, according to the American Camp Association. If you’re trying to think of a way to add value to your children’s summer, consider sending them to summer camp.
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