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Building Character at Summer Camp

As parents, we are always on the lookout for experiences that help our children learn new skills. We enroll them in music lessons, martial arts, sports, theatre, choir and, of course, summer camps. But we all know that the best programs (and the best educational experiences) are ones that go beyond the basics of teaching skills to help develop our children’s character. The basics of character — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship — are all essential ingredients in summer camp experiences.

“Camp teaches values such as self-esteem, teamwork, and caring — areas where traditional schools sometimes cause more detriment than good. And camp allows everyone, not just the top student and the best athlete, to thrive and enjoy the process of learning,” says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA).

Everything we’ve written about on this blog so far — being ready for camp, unplugging from the digital world, traveling to camp, developing interpersonal communication skills, interacting with camp counselors, participating in camp traditions, and learning new sports and skills all contribute to building character.

When mom Martha realized that her son Jaden had come home with crucial life skills — taking care of himself and making good choices — she knew that camp had served a crucial role in his life.

“I felt like they were living a free life,” she says. The rules were there, just not stressful. This kind of independence creates the necessary space for the foundations of character to blossom. “I could not believe the person he had become – just a new person – totally confident in himself,” she says.

It’s no surprise, really. Camp activities, to be successful, require all the participants to have self-discipline and an unselfish sense of camaraderie. “There is just something about living with a group of boys,” mom Wendy says after sending her only son Justin to camp for the first time. Living communally in cabins and bunks requires teamwork, creativity and a willingness to work together.

The camp directors, staff and counselors deserve much of the credit for the character development Martha and Wendy saw in their sons after just a few weeks at camp. They work hard to develop programs that bring a diverse community together around common values and goals, and everyone benefits – campers, parents and staff, and the world they come back to each fall, bringing their good character with them. Camp is about educating the whole child and allowing them to flourish, so that we all as a society may do so.

Olivia, Guest Contributor

Everything I Learned Outside. . .

In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv retells a moment in a restaurant when his son asked, “Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?” Louv had been telling his 10-year old about how he caught crawdads by stringing bits of liver across a creek. When asked to explain, the son replied, “Well, you’re always talking about your woods and tree houses, and how you used to ride that horse down by the swamp.” At first, Louv thought Matthew was irritated and owns up to the fact that like other parents, he can romanticize his own childhood at the expense of his children’s current experience. But Matthew really felt that he had missed out on something, and Louv realized that his own childhood had been different.

If you’re in Louv’s age bracket, you may also recall a childhood filled with a kind of free, natural play that today seems like an antique artifact compared to current kid’s lives. Lives filled with mobile devices, instant messaging, screen time, digital games and fears of “things” outside. In his book, Louv explores “the increasing divide between the young and the natural world, as well as the environmental, social, psychological, and spiritual implications of that change.” He discusses the accumulating research that implies that secure children (and adults for that matter) must connect with nature to fully develop. This need for contact with the natural world is as imperative as good nutrition and adequate sleep. So, while multiple reasons give us less and less time to connect outdoors, more and more studies suggest that embracing nature is a human necessity.

The ways in which children understand and experience nature has changed beyond recognition for Americans born during the last two decades. While children today may be more aware of the global threats to our larger environment, they are much less aware of their immediate natural surroundings. As children, Louv and his peers may not have discussed global warming, or holes in the ozone layer, but they loved “their woods” and fields intimately and felt connected to the people and their location in the world. They identified specific bends and crooks in creeks and holes in backyards—explored the woods in solitude, lay in fields listening to the wind and marveled at clouds shape-shifting overhead.

Louv discovered that many people yearn for what they have missed living in de-natured environments and they are consciously making choices and decisions to ensure that they will not be “the last children in the woods.” Families and intergenerational groups are finding ways to better live with nature and each other. Summer camp, for example, is one marvelous way for youngsters to make long-lasting memories and deep connections in natural surroundings. With easy access to the great outdoors and opportunities to develop self-reliance within a nurturing community, today’s campers will remember fun-filled childhoods unplugged from urban life—and share their unique memories with future generations.

How can you make sure that you and your kids don’t miss out on the benefits of exploring outdoors? (For the record, I’ve been known to insist that my children at least squish mud between their toes and jump in puddles!)

Emma, Guest Contributor

I can do it myself!

While no actual human being develops in the precise sequence of a child development chart, new parents quickly learn that children do go through dramatic stages. Like other skills, becoming self-reliant takes time and can only develop through real time.

To begin with, parents often track all the “firsts” that a child achieves on a daily basis but as the list grows longer we come to expect changes. The way that most young children acquire language and skills is so rapid that later—even when parents are getting a little more sleep—it becomes difficult to remain excited about each previous new word or action! However, there is one stage that most parents don’t forget and that’s when a child starts declaring, “I can do it myself.” All of a sudden, totally dependent infants morph into adamant creatures with distinct needs and wants. This exasperating but essential stage is filled with cute moments when children seem to hover between babyhood and childhood. But it can also be a difficult time for some parents if they fear that their child may not need them any longer.

As children mature, they continue to develop and require more experiences where they can make independent choices without parents. If parents don’t allow children to make decisions and do things on their own, they won’t develop confidence or realize that they are not just extensions of their caregivers. It’s a tricky line that parents walk! Sometimes giving children room to spread their wings seems counter intuitive, but in order to grow into a self-reliant adult, children need to struggle without the offer of a quick fix. Even when parents can take care of things, the better choice is to support a child through the process of working through and solving problems. Long after a problem has been forgotten, a self-reliant child will remember hearing, “Wow! You amaze me! You really worked hard to figure that out.”

A child who is self-reliant can think for themselves, trusts their own judgment and feels in control of their life. This leads to becoming more active, independent and competent adults and citizens. The child also develops skills to draw on inner resources and use coping mechanisms even when they feel things are not easy. Sending a child to camp is a perfect way for a child to further develop self-reliance in a nurturing, safe and supportive environment. The whole camp experience is designed to illustrate to the camper that becoming a successful person takes personal strength as well as playing a role in a larger group–with the emphasis always on FUN. I can’t think of a more wonderful childhood experience for facilitating such important life skills!

Of course, the process of becoming self-reliant is not easy, but that’s where camp staff and counselors are there to help your child adjust and learn. If you wonder how to help your child develop self-reliance, remember that each child comes to conclusions for themselves, so the only way to experience camp is to be a camper. They are building on early determination to “do it themselves,” and those first fierce moments of independence are precious. Camp offers a full range of fun, adventure, and opportunities to experience emotions with different adults and in new, safe situations. By the end of summer camp, campers bring a lot of stuff home. There’ll be great crafts, stories to tell and some inevitable laundry to wash—but every camper in the world—also brings home a new understanding of themselves.

How did you learn self-reliance at summer camp and what strategies helped you support your independence? Which experiences do you think especially helped kids develop inner strengths? We look forward to your stories too!

Emma, Guest Contributor

Thanks for the image AmberStrocel.

Building Community At and Beyond Camp

I don’t know about you, but a good number of my current communities are one step away from reality — they only exist online. I have a Facebook community, which includes a good number of friends-of-friends that I’ve never met in person. I visit a set list of blogs every day and have a great time interacting with the authors and the other readers. While our definition of community might be expanding, I don’t think any of us have lost sight of the importance of a good, old-fashioned in-person community though.

According to the American Camp Association, parents have identified the development of social skills/living in community (such as making new friends, getting along with others, becoming more responsible, and learning group-living skills) as one of the main reasons they send their children to camp. The owners, directors and staff at summer camp all understand the power of community and structure these skills into their programs in several areas.

1. Communal Living

I am an only child, and as such, I always had my own room when I was a child, so living in a camp cabin for the first time was a huge learning experience. For the first time, I had to be part of a community of people who were sharing space, delegating work and working, communally, to make things work. It didn’t take long for me to get into the routine of doing my part and see how even the most menial job — mine was taking out the trash – contributed to the health of the community.

Cabinmates must also learn how to navigate the waters of communal decisionmaking. They must work through the inevitable issues and conflicts that come up in cabin living — and they must learn to adapt and get along when things don’t go their way. They learn to live by the will of the majority, while at the same time respecting the needs of others who represent the minority. Again, according to the ACA, “small group living also provides the necessary intimacy for individuals to achieve a sense of belonging, explore a variety of group roles, cooperate and form relationships with others, and have input into the group’s activities.”

2. Eating and Singing Together

In the past few years there has been a large ad campaign promoting family dinners. Sitting around the dinner table sharing stories, concerns and the high and low points of your day with family members — or fellow campers — creates intimate bonds between all of the participants. Most camps have family-style meals and singing traditional camp songs together is often a ritual. Songs are always a founding piece of any culture and at camp, at the end of session when everyone knows the camp songs, they too become community bonds that live through the years.

3. Connections that Last

Although sometimes I am annoyed with how much of my life occurs online, there’s no arguing that modern social networking has helped nurture the lifelong friendships developed at camp. Now, instead of waiting days or week from a letter from a camp pen pal, you can send a text message, IM, or just nudge them on Facebook. Many camps have Facebook groups, some devoted exclusively to alumni from certain years, so the 50-somethings reminiscing about camp in the 70s can be a subgroup of a larger online camp community.

No matter how much time passes, the camp community lives on and on and on, especially through our Facebook page.

How did you experience community at camp? How have you sustained it since? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.

Olivia, Guest Contributor

Summer Camp and Child Development

“The organized summer camp is the most important step in education that America has given the world.”

Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard University, 1922

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that we’ve focused a lot on how much fun kids have at camp — learning new sports; spending time with friends old and new; going on amazing trips; connecting with friends and counselors. But camp is also an educational experience for the children. We’re so used to education being “school” that it’s a real shift in perception to see lacrosse, tennis, living in a cabin, and other camp activities as education; but educational activities they are, as many parents can attest now their kids are back in school!

Summer camps make a huge difference in the year-round education of our children, but it may require a shift in our thinking about what education is and can be. The American Academy of Pediatrics, alongside many other scholars of child development, explains why, as “Play is essential to development as it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” Our kids learn while playing and they are learning important things about themselves as independent social beings, collaboratively working with others and consequential behaviors such as self reliance, responsibility and accountability.

So what kind of difference can summer camp make to your child’s development? As the Executive Director of the American Camp Association, Peg Smith has been telling the world for years, opportunities for growth and development exist in natural settings that promote experiential learning, improve social skills and physical fitness, teach children to take calculated risks in a safe environment, and expand the creative mind. The environment our kids learn in is important, and nothing beats Nature.

As you can see, summer camp is one of the most precious educational gifts you can give your children. If you would like to read more, check out The Experiential Classroom: Camp(3/10) by Marla Coleman in The American Camp Association’s Camping magazine. We’d also like to hear what you believe summer camp has taught you and your children! Please feel free to share in the comments section below.

Olivia

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