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The Efficacy of Downtime at Summer Camp

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.

Going to Camp with Your Siblings

They may fight like cats and dogs at home, but attending camp together is special for siblings. Parents may be surprised to learn that at camp, they don’t accuse each of being the one to lose the television remote. Instead, they wave and smile when they pass each other on campus. They don’t fight about taking up each other’s space in the car either. Instead, they make special meeting places to talk about camp—everything they’ve done, new things they’ve tried, new friends they’ve made, and how their sports teams are doing how they got a bullsyeye in archery or are going to be singing a song in the show. Siblings don’t taunt each other when they do something silly at camp. They cheer for them. And, parents, you may be surprised to learn that siblings don’t pretend that each other has an infectious disease that prevents them from ever touching at camp. They readily hug.

As you can see, summer camp may as well be Hogwarts for its ability to transform sibling rivalry into a special relationship. Camp is a distinct set of memories they share apart from their parents. Those camp experiences will always be just theirs, which creates a bond that helps them grow as brothers and sisters as well as individuals. It’s an opportunity that many children who do not attend sleepaway camp don’t get to experience until adulthood. By being able to share a special set of traditions and values, siblings are able to appreciate their relationships at a much earlier age. The thrill of seeing each other experience camp firsts and pass camp milestones also helps them learn to appreciate each other as individuals.

And, let’s face it, we know that seeing your children smiling together in a camp photo after hitting the refresh button a thousand times each day makes it all worthwhile for you. Those smiles are why you put them on the bus or plane each year. They’re why you post the photos to your on Facebook pages and pass them around, accumulating likes. You love hearing them asking each if they remember a certain time at camp or singing the same songs and doing the same cheers. In that respect, being able to send your children to summer camp together is special for you too.

Learning to Lose at 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!

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.

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.

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.”

Summer Camp Helps Children Maintain Routine

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.

Choose Your Own Adventure at Summer Camp

There is a new trend sneaking into summer camps.  An increasing number of sleepaway camps are foregoing the traditional pre-determined summer camp schedule in favor of giving campers complete control over their summer camp experience.  This approach to summer camp has become  a particularly popular approach to the summer camp experience at session camps, which tend to attract a less traditional family of campers than seven week camps.  And the appeal is mutual.

Allowing campers to customize their experience gives them the opportunity to experience a traditional summer camp while enjoying many of the same benefits that they might enjoy by attending a specialized camp.  It’s truly a best of both worlds scenario, and the response has been overwhelming.

There is certainly no shortage of children who want to experience summer camp.  The conflict seems to arise from increasingly busy summer schedules and the pressure placed on children to be great at—well—everything.  Despite our inclination as adults to want them to be everything we are and more, along with everything we are not, children need time and space to be…children.  Enter the session sleepaway camp, an environment catered to letting them be themselves while improving their skills in those activities they love while giving them ample opportunity to try out new ones in shorter, more realistic segments for the busy family.

In addition to having freedom over their activity choices, the independence children gain while at summer camp is also a great way of letting them try out their wings. For many children, camp is their first experience away from their parents.  It’s the first time they’re choosing their own clothes, deciding what to eat, determining which activities to try, and learning how to be part of a social network without the assistance of mom and dad.  For those children not quite ready for the full summer experience, a session camp is the perfect way to give camp a test drive.
So if you’ve hesitated to enroll your children in summer camp because you’re afraid it’s too much structure, or if you’ve been thinking you would like them to learn how to be a little bit more independent, consider a session summer camp.  It just may be the perfect fit.

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