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Learning the Value of Tradition at Camp

The holidays are around the corner.  During that time of year, the word “tradition” gets thrown around a lot.  But how many people actually understand what tradition is really?  Perhaps it’s the emphasis on forward thinking and constantly in-motion global community that has caused many to confuse “tradition” with “routine.”  They’ve both become something that we do on a regular basis in order to establish or maintain a consistency or pattern in our behavior.  So what really distinguishes “tradition” from “routine”?

First, routine is something that one person does but might not necessarily have in common with others.  Most people brush their teeth at some point in time in the morning.  Few people do it at exactly the same time.  Some shower first.  Others eat breakfast.  Eventually, everyone brushes their teeth but the experience is, for all intents and purposes, individual.  There is no shared significance.

Tradition, on the other hand, is by definition community oriented.  It’s a shared custom, belief, or activity with a common understanding of the reason for its practice.  Many of us eat turkey at Thanksgiving because we symbolically associate it with that first meal between the pilgrims and native Americans.  It’s a tradition.

Second, routine, unlike tradition, is not necessarily multi-generational or even long-term.  It’s something done for a specified length of time.  While we maintain some routines for all or much of our lives, others are short term.  If one gets the flu, for instance, one might temporarily take up a routine of antibiotics.  But once the flu subsides, so does that routine.

On the other hand, tradition is something that is a common bond between multiple generations.  It’s an acknowledgment that an event or action was significant to someone tied to our past, and the observance of traditions our way of paying tribute to that event or action as well demonstrating our understanding of it.

Finally, routine is task oriented.  We take up routine in order to accomplish a goal.  There is an intended result in routine.  Tradition, however, is an observance.  Routine is a way of moving forward, whereas tradition pays tribute to the importance of the past.

By now, you’re surely asking yourself what any of this has to do with summer camp. Simply this: in a culture that places a significant amount of importance on the establishment of routine, the value of tradition is increasingly less understood and appreciated.  Summer camps, however, are grounded in tradition.  They’re  a place where campers and staff members alike get refresher courses in the power of tradition.  Whether it’s at a campfire, a sing along, or an activity specific to the camp, there are literally hundreds of opportunities every summer for those at a summer camp to bond through tradition.  Many former summer campers and staff members actually name “tradition” as one of their highlights of summer camp.  So if tradition has become an element of holidays past, consider giving your children a future opportunity to enjoy tradition at summer camp in 2013.

Camp: A Different Set of Expectations

Okay, admit it.  You’ve found yourself spending a considerable amount of time admiring that candle your daughter gave you on her camp’s Visiting Day or those wooden bookends your son brought home.  Part of you wonders how come you never got to make stuff that cool when you were a kid while another part of you is mystified by how the arts and crafts staff of your child’s summer camp was able to draw out the Picasso in your little ones.    After all, you can barely get them to focus long enough to make a poster for their science projects.  What is it about camp that seems to facilitate children’s creativity?

Sure it’s woodsy and remote, even quaint–the perfect place for children to feel free to be themselves.  They certainly do a lot of things at camp that they don’t get to do at home.  And you did spend the entire summer looking at photos of your daughter posing in a rainbow colored tutu—Did she ever take that thing off?—and of your son covered in face paint knowing full well that neither of them would EVER dress like that at home.  And was that your son dressed as a dog singing on stage?  Singing?  Him?  Really?  And last night he just told you, by the way, that he is trying out for the school play this year because the camp play was really fun.  He would never ever—even if someone had double dog dared him—have auditioned for a play before camp.  What changed?  The Expectations.

There are a lot of reasons children find themselves exploring more creative avenues at summer camp, but one really big one is that the expectations are different.  Children learn to respond to expectations.  Moreover, they learn to respond to the expectations of individuals.  They understand that their parents have expectations as do their teachers, siblings, friends, coaches, so on and so forth.  Whether  we’re comfortable admitting it or not, a lot of the expectations in that ten month world campers know as “winter” in some way promote conformity.  Expectations placed on children at home, in school, etc. emphasize the importance of following rules and established guidelines.  Of course, camp expectations do this, too, but the emphasis at camp is not to find one’s place in that larger whole by blending in but by standing out.  Camp is a place in which children are encouraged to try new things in a quest to find their passion.

Sure you’re thinking of those photos of your daughter holding up her latest tie-dye creation for the camp photographer’s camera—those ones in ewhich she was covered to her elbows in dye—and you’re thinking that’s you wouldn’t really classify tie-dye as a “passion.”  Maybe not.  But it could be the beginning of one, the spark that leads to an interest in art or the arts, or even just the memory of trying something new that turned out to be fun that lends courage to trying other new things.  The expectations in the “world” of camp is that campers will explore it.  Perhaps this is why it’s no surprise that many well known figures attended summer camp and attribute it to being the place where they found long-term direction.  Sure, learning how to plunk out folk songs on a guitar is a long way from the philharmonic and being part of the chorus in the camp play is certainly not Broadway, but the idea is the same and, for many campers, it’s the start of building enough self confidence to stand out.

Re-asserting “Team” in Team Sports

Whether your family lives in a large city or a small town, there is likely not a shortage of organized sports  for children. Increasingly, the emphasis of team sports is less about what it means to be a member of a team and more about being the MVP of a winning team.   As a result, child athletes are often caught between sparring parents on one sideline and anxious, screaming coaches on the other.  Overly zealous parents and coaches seldom stop to consider that children often absorb their parents’ feelings and may project the resulting tension through their play.  The immense pressure to be a star who constantly wins is often why many children become burnt-out in the competitive sports environment and choose to take a break or even quit altogether.  Says Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, “If all the focus is on winning, kids may be scared to fail and make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process and it’s how one improves.”  One of the most undervalued benefits of team sports at traditional American summer camps is the environment that allows children to make mistakes without fear of backlash from the sidelines and to process those mistakes in a way that they can turn them into learning experiences.

Setting up children for success requires a welcoming environment in which they can feel comfortable being themselves.    Those who tend to be self-conscious are particularly challenged by situations in which tension runs high.  The spirit of camp is one of instruction, fun and safety more than competition.  It’s about making children feel like a valuable part of a unit that utilizes everyone’s talents in a way that is beneficial.  In short, the traditional summer camp environment is a team environment.   At camp, children have the encouragement of their counselors and fellow campers when playing sports.  A child making a layup shot on the basketball court for the first time is cheered just as much as someone scoring a winning three pointer.

Perhaps the relaxed positive reinforcement they receive while learning to play sports at camp is why so many children (as many as 60%) feel compelled to continue being active in an activity they tried for the first time at camp.

Camp Senses

The unseasonably warm and pleasant weather seems to be bringing on summer faster.  The flowers are blooming, the birds are back, and the days are sunny. It’s hard not to take advantage of the opportunity to prematurely engage in all of one’s favorite summer activities a little bit.  The other day, my sisters and I caved.  We decided to rally my niece, go to the park and, yes, even though three of the four us fully qualify as grownups, play on the playground.  I’m convinced that no matter how old one gets, no one ever gets tired of swings.  It turns out that we weren’t the only ones with such an idea.  The place was packed, children and adults everywhere.  The park had even opened up the boating dock, something that they usually don’t do until Memorial Day Weekend.  People were out on the lake in rowboats and paddle boats.  They were picnicking.  They rode by on bicycles, skates and skateboards.  The comforting familiar smell of campfire from the nearby campground even permeated the air.   It was as if 2012 had transposed May and March.  My niece and I managed to score the last two remaining swings while my sisters preoccupied themselves on the monkey bars.

My niece and I have this game we play.  We see who can swing the highest.  The little boy between us apparently thought our game looked fun because he joined in.  As we slowed down for a bit after tiring ourselves out, he started a conversation.  I think he actually wanted to talk to my niece but decided I’d make a good mediator—at least in the beginning.   His name was Hunter.  What is her name?  Angelica.  How old is she?  She is six.  Same as me, he said.  What grade in she in?  First.  Same as me, he said again.  He jabbered on.  His dad had told him that if he was good they might rent a paddle boat later.  Maybe Angelica could come on the paddle boat with him.  He wished the concession stand was open so he could get ice cream.  Earlier in the day he’d gone to his swimming lesson at the JCC.  Then his mom signed him up for camp there this summer. I perked up.  Every now and then, chance throws a writer a bone and you have to grab it and run with it. Camp, huh? Do you stay overnight at this camp?  No, I’m not old enough.  I didn’t tell him that I already knew this.  The minimum age for most overnight camps is seven.  Is this your first time at the camp?  Yes, my sister went last year.  She said it’s really fun.  What do you think will be the most fun?  Ummm…I don’t know.  I don’t really know what we do there.  I bet you swim there.  Yeah, I think we do.  I worked at a camp.  You did?  Yep.  Only everyone stayed overnight at my camp.  His eyes grew.  They did? Yep.  I think I would like to do that someday.  Was it fun?  Yep.  What was it like there?  I looked around at the bicycles and the boats.  I took in the smell of campfire in the air and listened to the sound of all of the children playing and laughing.  It’s a lot like this.  I think I would like that, he said.  Hunter had no idea that he made my day and helped me out a lot by literally handing me material for a camp blog.  I hope he has fun at the JCC camp this year…and that he makes it to overnight camp someday.  If you haven’t thought about sending your children to camp, take a trip to your local park on a nice spring day.  Your senses just may help the decision become clear.

Dance at Camp

A lot is made of sports at summer camp, but most summer camps also offer many programs in the arts.  Dance is one such program that is becoming increasingly popular among both boys and girls.  Like the many sports available to try, summer camp dance programs give campers the opportunity to experiment with several different dance styles.  Aside from the traditional jazz, instruction is often available in contemporary, modern, hip hop, and ballet.  In addition to offering instruction in multiple styles of dance, many camps also form competitive dance teams that, like sports teams, travel to other camps to compete in dance competitions throughout the summer.  Even if campers aren’t quite ready to audition for So You Think You Can Dance, being a member of a camp dance team is still well within reach.  Typically, because summer camp staff work hard to make their camps a safe environment for children to feel encouraged to step out of their comfort zones and try new things, more emphasis is placed on interest than ability.  Many camps create teams for beginners as well as the more experienced.  Summer camp dance teams are also the reason many campers find their camp dance programs a great way to pursue a non sports related interest yet still be competitive.

Another reason that summer camp dance programs have become so popular is that they provide an outlet to still be physically active in a creative environment. Summer camp is about letting go and not being afraid to act a little bit silly.  Dance provides the same disciplinary and physical training as traditional sports yet also gives campers the opportunity to express themselves and sometimes even be a tad goofy through artistic choreography.  Dance instruction is often provided by trained dance instructors or college students who compete on their university dance team or are pursuing a career in the field of dance.  The availability of instruction in popular forms of dance such as hip hop has also driven the popularity of dance.

Dance is also versatile. Even though not every camper has a desire to be competitive in dance, campers enjoy learning new moves in dance class and then using them to choreograph bunk or cabin dance numbers for camp shows or talent contests.  They also like showing off their moves on the dance floor during camp dances. Having the opportunity to practice new dance moves in an open, accepting environment such as summer camp gives campers the confidence to continue learning, practicing, and trying what they’ve learned at home.

It’s a Camp Thing

If you have children who attend sleepaway camp, work at a sleepaway camp, or know anyone who attends or works at a sleepaway camp, chances are that you’ve heard this at least once in your life: “It’s a camp thing.”  For those of you wondering what that means, here’s an exclusive look inside the world of sleepaway camp and exactly what constitutes “a camp thing”.

We’ll begin with a definition.  “A camp thing” is an experience or tradition that is unique to summer camp.  It’s also actually “camp things” rather than a singular “thing”, since there are a host of experiences exclusive to the summer camp environment.  For instance, have you taken part in a competition, spread over several days, that divides the entire camp into two teams and requires contestants to do such things as cover their heads with shaving cream so that a teammate can attempt to make cheese curls stick to it, dress in team gear that includes crazy garb such as tutus, mismatched socks, and face paint, or passed buckets of water down a line in a race to see who will fill their container first?  Nope?  Do you know why?  It’s “a camp thing”.  Ever sat alongside several hundred other people around a campfire while you watch friends and staff members perform crazy acts, sing songs or participate in games?  Nope?  Yeah…it’s another “camp thing”.

In case it’s not obvious, “camp things” happen every day at camp, from that first moment when you get off the bus and see your camp friends and your new counselors holding your cabin signs for the first time to the last when you’re saying ‘goodbye until next summer.’  Camp things are being part of a league sports team, whether it wins or loses, going on a special trip out of camp to get ice cream, performing rituals and eating s’mores around a campfire, sitting with your friends at cookouts, taking part in the traditions that are unique to each and every summer camp, and understanding the feeling of being part of a camp family.  Camp things are having sleepovers with your cabin or having a venue in which you and your camp friends can pretend to be a rock band, DJs, or magicians.  Camp things are that special inside joke that your friends  share all summer, end-of-the-summer trips out of camp, sing-a-longs when you’re arm-in-arm with your camp friends.  And hugging some of your best friends while singing your camp alma mater and watching candles burn or fireworks explode, knowing that you might not see them again until next summer, is definitely the most precious of “camp things”.  If only everyone could experience “a camp thing”…

Create a Camp Atmosphere All Year Long

Just because your children are no longer at camp doesn’t mean you can’t create a camp atmosphere in your home.  There are several things you can do to keep the camp spirit alive all year long.

This doesn’t have to be a radical flip of the switch that completely eliminates conveniences and luxuries from your lives.  In fact, such an act is probably not very realistic for many families.  But taking small steps to reduce your children’s reliance on things such as television, video games, and cell phones is a great way to remind them that don’t need them as much as they think they do.  Designate a day or two each week in which you won’t turn on the television or play video games.  Have a family game night instead.  Board games and card games are a great, light-hearted way to bring the entire family together for a few hours.  Turn off cell phones during meal times, before a designated time in the morning, and after a designated time in the evening.  Yes, with the invention of smart phones, we’re becoming increasingly reliant on these convenient little gadgets, but you may be surprised at just how much you enjoy the peace and quiet of a few hours without them each day…and, your family will also likely remember just how much they appreciate having a conversation with someone who is not looking at their cell phone or texting the entire time.

Keep supplies for creative bursts.  Arts & Crafts, Eco Science, and Nature don’t have to be activities restricted to the camp setting.  In fact, many of the projects that your children do at camp can quite easily be done at home, and they’re a great way to fill an afternoon or evening on which you’ve decided to have a break from television and video games.  There are books readily available that walk you step-by-step through such popular camp projects as tie-dying, candle making, beading, shrinky dinks, Mentos geysers, goo, and many more.  YouTube also has a host of videos that demonstrate kid friendly home science and nature experiments.  Keeping a closet or a chest of standard supplies for these types of projects will prevent you from having to make a shopping trip every time the kids want to have some summer camp style fun.

Have a “campfire”.  You might not have a backyard big enough (and there may be some local ordinances against this, even if you do), but consider having a backyard fire.  A patio fire pit, if you have one, is actually ideal.  An operable indoor fireplace works, too.  Make s’mores, tell stories, share memories.  This makes for a great evening to invite friends over because, as every camper will tell you, the more the merrier at a campfire.  If you live in an area in which weather permits, actually taking a weekend camping trip is always fun, too.

Start a garden (if you have a yard) or cook with your children once a week.  Gardening and cooking programs are popular at camp. Even if you don’t have the space in your yard, herb gardens are easy to maintain and can be grown indoors.  Besides being enjoyable and fun, cooking is a valuable life skill for children to learn.  Let your children look up healthy recipes, talk about nutrition with them, and, most importantly, let them do the work in the kitchen.

Have regular family “out of the house” trips.  At camp, children regularly take “out of camp” trips to places such as local sporting events, the movies, or bowling… They look forward to these trips as a special treat and time to create some very special memories with their camp friends.  Why not make special memories like these as a family?

By making just a few (fun) adjustments, your entire family can enjoy the spirit of camp throughout the year, and it just might make those ten months of waiting a little more bearable for the kids!

After Camp: Keeping the Momentum Going

Sure the kids are home from camp and are settling back into their school routines.  Maybe they’re still a little bit camp sick, but it’s possible to keep the camp momentum going throughout the year.  Here are a few suggestions we thought we’d pass along.

  • Talk about camp with them.  Not only do children love talking about their camp experiences, but doing so helps them process the events of the summer.  In sharing their experiences, they’re able to gain perspective about camp.   If they haven’t already told you by now (and they probably have a hundred times over), ask them to tell you about their camp friends, their favorite activities, and favorite events.
  • Encourage them to keep in touch with their camp friends throughout the year.  Of course, summer camp draws campers from all over the globe, so play dates and get-togethers might not be realistic for everyone.  But in the age of email, Skype, and Facebook (for some older campers), maintaining contact is easier than ever.
  • Encourage children to read camp literature, such as newsletters, and to keep up with the blog on your camp’s website.  Parents should regularly read camp literature and blogs as well.  Not only will they be informed, but they can pass along useful or exciting information, such as news about new camp activities or facilities, to their children.
  • If your children just can’t stop singing those camp songs, encourage them to teach you one or two.  Then you can sing along with them…It’s fun.  Trust us.
  • Encourage your children to share anything exciting that happens to them throughout the year with the camp.  Summer camps love to know what their campers are up to over the winter and are thrilled to share in something special whether it be winning a spot on a traveling sports team, landing a role in the school play, or earning a place on the honor roll.  Many are also happy to pass this information onto other campers and their parents via a special section in their camp newsletter.
  • Make a big deal over any projects they brought home.  Whether it’s a scented candle, a leather purse, a clay vase, or a wooden birdhouse, chances are they put plenty of time and energy into creating something special to bring home to you.  So display it somewhere prominent, even if it does have to be “archived” each year to make room for the next summer’s treasures.
  • Show them that you got their camp letters.  Point out your favorite parts.  Tell them which were your favorites, maybe even keep the letters in an album from year to year.  Children are much more excited about writing home from camp when they really feel that their letters are being read.  Someday, a scrapbook of camp letters might even make a neat gift to give back to them.

With a little bit of help from you, your children can keep the camp momentum going all year long!

The Importance of Being Creative

Arts and Crafts at summer camp is more than just stringing together a few beads to make a bracelet or gluing some spray painted macaroni to a cardboard picture frame.  It’s a program that gives campers the opportunity to explore their creative interests in several different types of art by offering a diverse array of age appropriate projects.  Of course there are the traditional projects that are just plain fun, like paper mache and tie-dying.  However, many summer camps also offer campers the opportunity to try things that are not only artistic but could be useful skills or even careers, such as metal work, jewelry making, calligraphy, cartooning, or soap and candle making.  Just like sports programs at camp, many campers have discovered a passion in their summer camp’s Arts and Crafts programs that they later pursued further.

Another way in which summer camp Arts & Crafts programs benefit campers is by providing a creative outlet for children who are being given fewer chances to explore the arts in their school programs.  Ashfaq Ishaq, PhD, argues that without being given the appropriate opportunity to explore their creative sides, children will not learn how to combine creativity with acquired knowledge to reach their full potential.   Art encourages spontaneity and exploration, two things that allow us, as people, to be innovative and prolific in our thinking.  Creativity also refines problem solving skills by helping us understand how to think “outside the box” when traditional solutions aren’t practical.  All three qualities are considered crucial to success in a child’s education as well as their adulthood careers.  Summer camp Arts & Crafts programs also give campers the opportunity to try some projects that might not be available in traditional school art programs, such as throwing clay on a pottery wheel.

For many campers, summer camp has become a way of maintaining tradition in environments that are ever changing.  Faced with a fast paced, changing world in the winter, children can still depend on summer as a way to fall back on activities and hobbies that may not be greatly valued in conventional schools anymore but are useful and bring satisfaction.  Arts and Crafts may be a dying art within American school systems.  But it’s thriving within American summer camps.

“Sports Camp” Isn’t Just a One Sport Term

It’s no secret that summer camps offer campers the opportunity to sample many different sports, but what may not be evident is why this may be preferable to sending children to a camp at which the focus is exclusively on one sport.  Dr. Jared Wood, a sports psychologist, believes children should be encouraged to try many different sports in order to find their favorites.  He warns that focusing on one sport too early in youth often “unnecessarily limits a child’s interest and skill development.”

Many child development experts recommend that children be given the opportunity to try out a sport before committing to it because it’s important for them to develop their self esteem prior to joining a team and engaging in intense training.  When children enter a sport with confidence, they’re more likely feel that they can do well and, therefore, strive to do well.  Many summer camp sports programs subscribe to this recommended combination of skill instruction and giving children the opportunity to use those new skills on the field or court.  Summer camps also emphasize skill development over winning or losing.  Campers learn sports skills in a supportive atmosphere and are taught by specialists who are proficient in their respective sports  Many summer camp sports programs are headed by college or high school coaches who lead counselors who played at the high school and college level.  This type of approach permits campers to try out various positions and get comfortable with the rules and general flow of a sport without feeling pressured to do well by overly zealous parents and coaches.

Another benefit of summer camp sports programs is that they offer a healthy mix of team and individual sports.  Child experts point out that some children prefer and perform at their best as part of a team while others are happier and better off playing individual sports.  By being able to simultaneously sample tennis and lacrosse, for instance, campers can get a feel for which one leaves them feeling the most motivated to further develop their skills while still being able to have a healthy appreciation for the other.

The variety offered at summer camp also gives campers the opportunity to try sports to which they may never have been exposed or would not otherwise have the opportunity to try.  Many a camper has tried a sport for the first time at summer camp and then gone on to play on a travel team, high school team, or even a college team.  Sports psychologist and author, Richard Ginsburg, Ph.D., suggests that children should be at least “12 or 13” before being encouraged to commit to one sport.  Dr.  Wood agrees, “It’s pretty clear that early specialization is much more likely to lead to burnout than it is to a scholarship or Olympic medal.”

So when you’re determining which type of summer camp is right for your child.  Consider the benefit of a summer camp that offers a diverse array of sports that will permit your child to sample a variety of choices.

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