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The Afterglow

How summer camp accelerates positive youth development

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an “afterglow” occurs where light has disappeared or, more to the point, when there is a pleasant effect or feeling that lingers after something is done, experienced, or achieved. For children and teens at summer camp, it is that secondary consideration that resonates most fully.

But the modern day summer camp experience far transcends the warm remembrances of good friends, good times and good things … though they, too, remain important.

Indeed, according to the American Camp Association, research-based outcomes of time spent at camp include demonstrable growth in self-esteem, peer relationships, adventure and exploration, leadership, environmental awareness, social comfort and spirituality, among others. In addition, emerging research from the Louis August Jonas Foundation, operator of Camp Rising Sun, and the Center for Adolescent Research & Education (CARE) reveals links between lessons from camp to increased confidence in expressing ideas, solving problems, and seeking social justice.

But, wait, that’s not all!

Significantly, experiential education also accelerates a young person’s progress on the three primary developmental “tasks” of late childhood and adolescence: identity formation, independence and “object” – or peer – relationships.

Let’s take a look … with the help of Peter Worzala, a 15-year-old writer, camper and high school sophomore.

SW: Identity formation along such spheres as social, emotional, spiritual, and vocational is engendered by newly formed cognitive thinking abilities that allow for consideration and deliberation of a more abstract variety. Famed Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget referred to this as advancement from “Concrete Operational” thought to “Formal Operational” thought.

PW: When I started camp, I didn’t understand the impact it would have on how I would turn out as a person. I just viewed it as a place to meet new people, blow off some steam and relax before school started. It is just so much more than that. Camp has widened my views on almost everything. It is safe to say that my own personal identity is largely based in my camp experience. Camp has been an important tool in helping me form the image that I present. Without it, I would be much less confident and even intelligent. Camp helped me to grow and mature. It truly is a place where you can be yourself. I, like so many others, have become who I really am at the magical place that is camp.

SW: Perhaps more than anything else, this stage of human development is marked by increased independence from parents and other adult authority figures. Generally speaking, this is a good thing, assuming the young person has begun to successfully shift from an external locus of control (we tell them what to do) to an internal one (they guide their own interactions and behaviors).

PW: Almost every kid wants to be more independent. For children to grow into functioning young adults, they must learn to make decisions on their own. That’s not to say that we should be left to our own devices, because we still need guidance. But camp has really helped my independence blossom. At camp I exercise independence in some pretty simple ways. For example, just having the freedom to walk around and talk to my friends without having to ask anyone allows my independence to grow. Camp really helps a person grow in many ways, and independence is one of the most powerful ones. I know that the independence I have practiced at camp will be really useful when I go to college and move out of my parents’ house.

SW: Finally, peer relationships change during this period in a way that may not be obvious through casual observation. Friendships become subtly deeper, richer and more long-lasting. In that way, they more closely resemble adult relationships than those from earlier in childhood. Cognitive ability plays a role here as well.

PW: Peer relationships are my favorite thing about camp. Some of the people I have met in these past years are so unbelievably fascinating. I know that when I am older and have children, I will tell them stories about the incredible people I have met. Many of them are absolutely stunning. They are all so interesting. Meeting people at camp is so unlike meeting people elsewhere. In the ‘real world’ when you meet someone you generally see them in the way that they want you to see them, and oftentimes that isn’t who they really are. At camp, you meet the real person. People at camp just feel comfortable being themselves. I sincerely hope that I remain friends with my peers at camp for years to come.

According to Teens Today research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), these three developmental advances inform one’s “Sense of Self,” affecting overall mental health and decision-making. For example, more so than their low Sense of Self peers, high Sense of Self youth report feeling smart, successful, responsible and confident and cite positive relationships with their parents. They are also more likely to avoid alcohol and other drug use and to cite increased resistance to pressure from peers to engage in substance use or intimate sexual behavior.

Net-net: Long after the last song has been sung, the final campfire doused, the tearful goodbyes completed, camp lives on in an afterglow of immense and pragmatic proportion.

Stephen Gray Wallace is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to promoting positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. Stephen is also senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association, and a parenting expert at and NBCUniversal’s For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

Peter G. Worzala attends Edgewood High School in Madison, Wisconsin, and is a rising third-year junior counselor at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts.

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