What is Camp?
Joel Egbert, Camp Director
Here in Colorado, as the snow starts to melt and the days become longer, our thoughts start to turn from skiing and snowboarding to hiking, biking, sailing — all the joys of summertime in the mountains. Kids become energized and antsy at the prospect of getting outside more, and the fast-approaching end of the school year gets parents thinking about what they can do to keep their kids engaged and fulfilled over the summer.
Frederick William Gunn, a 19th-century Connecticut schoolmaster widely recognized as the originator of the camp concept, led mandatory outdoor trips with his prep school students to “strengthen their character, self-discipline, and muscle.” 150 years later, camp has become a cultural pillar in our country, with an estimated 10 million children attending approximately 12,000 summer camps annually in the United States. The American Camp Association hopes that by the year 2020, those numbers will double.
I've worked in the camp industry for 12 years, creating outdoor programs for children of all ages and circumstances. Whether they're adventurers or homebodies, every kid walks away from camp changed in a profound way. S'mores are fantastic, Capture the Flag is about as much fun as you can have with a tablecloth, and that song about the Hot Pink Gorilla is awesome, but camp affects change on a much deeper level. Here are some of the ways how:
Campers develop independence and coping skills. Even when you're somewhere as fun as camp, being away from home is rough. Missing home is normal. However, young kids who have the opportunity to learn how to manage outside the comfortable structure of home are better poised for confident decision-making as they grow into adults. Some colleges claim recent increases of up to 25% in freshman dropouts due to homesickness. I wonder how many of those had never before been away from home?
Campers develop self-awareness and social skills. When kids are small, their friendships often come as a result of who their parents choose to spend time with. Camp is an opportunity for children to discover who they are away from their families and to find kindred spirits. Thrust into a close-knit, small-group environment, they're also compelled to learn how to function as part of a team.
Campers experience a new environment full of new activities and adventures. Camp is like diving headfirst into a different world. Imagine what Alice felt like when she fell through the rabbit hole. It's unfamiliar and maybe a little scary, but pretty fascinating, too. Camp has its own culture and traditions: campfires, meals, songs, ceremonies. Filtered through the imagination of a child, nature becomes better than Disneyland, magic is real, and counselors are superheroes!
Camp improves athletic, artistic, and intellectual skills. Games, crafts, and imagination-based activities are important. They can both provide clues to and foster a child's development and sense of self. They teach critical thinking and problem-solving skills. At camp, leaders emerge in kickball games, face paint identifies the bonds of a new tribe, and arts and crafts reveal newly-discovered talents.
Camp fosters appreciation for tradition and relationships. When kids run into each other outside of camp, we're always struck by how intensely they bond over shared knowledge of camp songs, inside jokes, and relationships with favorite counselors. It makes them feel special to be part of such a uniquely joyful, cherished club. This appreciation often lasts well beyond childhood; we know lots of adults who met some of their best friends at camp.
The American Camp Association says “Camp gives kids a world of good.” It's true. But the real secret is that it isn't adults who create the magical world of camp: it's the campers. When given the tools to imagine, create, and express, kids blossom with purpose and ingenuity. The bonus? It's so much fun, they don't even realize how much they're learning.
Joel Egbert is the Camps & Retreats Director of Keystone Science School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about KSS camp programs for kids ages 5-17, visit our website: keystonescienceschool.org.