Maybe I’m Amazed

What happened at summer camp.

Posted Aug 27, 2019

 David Nisley/Pixabay
Source: David Nisley/Pixabay

Children and teens returning home from summer camp routinely elicit amazement from their parents around both personal and educational growth. As summer winds down and planning for 2020 takes hold, it’s a good time to revisit those outcomes.

Indeed, the American Camp Association (ACA) states, “For years, campers' parents have reported that when their children return home … they are more caring, understand the importance of giving, are more equipped to stand up for what they know is right, and are willing to be more responsible …” (ACA, 2019a).

An initial 2004-2005 ACA study “confirmed that camps build skills necessary to prepare campers to assume roles as successful adults. Parents, campers, and camp staff independently reported growth in areas such as self-confidence, independence, making friends, exploring and learning new activities, and spirituality ...”  (ACA, 2019b).

The research, which included more than 5,000 families, also noted that children said camp helped them to feel good about themselves (92%) and do things they were initially afraid to try (74%). Significantly, parents said that their child gained self-confidence at camp (70%) (ACA, 2019b).

Other results reported by ACA relate to teamwork, family citizenship, perceived competence, interest in exploration, responsibility, an affinity for nature and problem-solving.

More recent data from ACA’s “5-Year Impact Study” revealed the following (Browne, 2018).

  1. Camp appears to be a key context for developing relationship skills. This is consistent with past research on camp, but … findings suggest that the relationship skills young people gain at camp might play a role beyond the camp experience.
  2. As a context for developing relationship skills, preliminary findings suggest that camp is an integral part of a young person’s overall learning, alongside school and other educational contexts.
  3. Camp is a unique learning experience that appears to promote skills transferable to 21st-century school and work contexts.
  4. Preliminary findings suggest that camp is a safe place for young people to explore who they are and how they want to be viewed by others.
  5. Camp gives campers the opportunity to practice being around and appreciating people with attitudes, values, and abilities different from their own ...

That same study highlighted the role that “even short or one time experiences impact people’s lives into adulthood … and were a huge boost in academic and workplace confidence.” In addition, the authors shared that what makes camp a different kind of learning environment were “opportunities to be present in the moment” and to “explore one’s identity.”

Such gains are no doubt facilitated by the very nature of camp itself. Kids say that they feel comfortable at camp and thus they are willing to do things they might not dream of doing at school.

About this type of positive risk-taking, Amy Broadbridge, director of Wisconsin’s Camp Deerhorn, says to parents: “It’s easy to stay in our comfort zone. But that’s not where the growth happens … The stretch zone is the sweet spot. It’s the place where we are a little out of our comfort zone, but know we are safe, and encouraged to try something new. Camp is the ultimate stretch zone. Campers are surrounded by people who care and will support them. They are encouraged to try new activities in a safe way. Effort is what is celebrated, not perfection. They can take ‘safe risks’ on a daily basis ... meeting new friends, trying new foods, attempting to get up on skis for the first time. The list is endless.

“Psychologists use a term called ‘experiential avoidance.’ It means we often try to move away from the things that make us feel uncomfortable, but this then takes us out of experiences that are meaningful and full of purpose. And isn’t that what we want for our kids? Experiences that are meaningful and full of purpose? As a parent (or a camp director) it is hard to see kids uncomfortable. It’s painful to see the tears of homesickness or hear the tale of frustration of multiple falls on water skis. But we get to see that transformative power of discomfort on a daily basis at camp. We can practically see the growth happening before our eyes. We see the changes in kids while they are at camp. And when they arrive back home, we hope you can see it too” (Broadbridge, 2019).

How do teenagers fare at summer camp?

Pretty well, according to ACA, whose research included teens in counselor and leadership training programs. It says, “Reported outcomes of participation in a CIT/LIT program can be subdivided into three distinct categories: technical skills, intrapersonal skills, and interpersonal skills. Survey respondents indicated that experience working with younger campers was the most important technical skill-based outcome of their CIT/LIT program. Gaining personal responsibility was the most important intrapersonal outcome while learning compassion and caring were chosen as the most important interpersonal outcome …” (Riley et al, 2017).

Similarly, a January 2019 article in Camping Magazine, “Rethinking Summer: Why Camp Remains Relevant for Teens,” offers, “In a world filled with out-of-school time options for young adults, new research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education in collaboration with Coastal Carolina University points to the enduring, and positive, benefits of leadership training for teens in both traditional and specialty camp settings” (Wallace and Mischel, 2019).

What are they?

According to youth ages 14-17, their time at camp yielded significant leadership-related gains in such areas as personal growth, innovation, and business and social entrepreneurship—along with some of the previously reported gains.

Some 17-year-old leaders in training weighed in (Wallace, 2018).

Julian: “I had always been a quiet and introverted individual, but around four years ago that changed. During my first year in [the] leadership program, I formed bonds with friends that stand strong even today. Throughout my second to third year, I not only saw myself improving as a leader but also as a person. By the time my final year rolled around, I had some pretty big shoes to fill. With the support of my friends and with the camp environment that has become like a home to me, I was ready to really step up as a leader. My camp experience has forever changed me and made me a more confident person.”

Sophie: “As a teen leader, I was exhausted every evening after a full day of taking care of the campers and fully engaging in the camp community. However, I knew that my girls were counting on me to be present and engaged in their lives as well. I also wanted to set a good example for them. Even as a younger leader, I knew that campers looked up to me and expected me to lead them. This confidence, especially in times of uncertainty, in activities I was unfamiliar with or when asked a question that I did not know the answer to, would never have come as easily if I had not devoted so much of my time and energy to learning how to be not only a good camp counselor but also a good leader.”

As discussed by ACA, such positive learning extends to preparation for college and the workforce.

Grace told me, “I believe camp has prepared me immensely for college. I have learned how to be more independent and to interact with adults better, and I have become increasingly more confident and able to lead. I am used to living with at least 12 others in a small cabin, so I know that sharing a dorm will be no problem. I have learned to work my hardest and communicate with those evaluating me, which has enabled me to interact with my teachers better and I know will help me with my professors in the future.”

Regarding work and career readiness, emerging waves of research suggest that many of the traits and skills employers are looking for can be learned at camp, whether as a camper, teen leader or counselor. These include the much-talked-about 21st century or “soft” skills.

In a July 2019 article for Forbes, Ryan Craig states, “Perhaps the only thing louder than the Camp Northland mess hall this summer is employers’ incessant complaining about the soft skills of candidates for entry-level positions. In survey after survey, more than 40% of employers say they’re not seeing the communication and teamwork skills they need.

“There’s no doubt that a good deal of the soft skill development at camp comes from removing digital devices (in the Director’s words, ‘when the distractions are gone … they talk, they tell stories, they laugh, they truly engage with each other in meaningful ways’). But a good deal of it is the intentional result of culture and curriculum.

“As the director wrote parents about one alumna who returned this summer for a nostalgic visit: ‘This is where she learned to manage conflict all by herself. This is where she learned to be resilient and rise up to conquer challenges. This is where she learned consequences to her actions socially and emotionally. This is where she learned about love and managing heartache. This is where she learned about compassion. She also picked up some skills here that she carries in her toolbox every day as a teacher now. She learned about teamwork and problem-solving. She learned how to be kind. She learned the value of friendship and loyalty’” (Craig, 2019).

Teamwork, kindness, friendship, and loyalty: truly amazing … no “maybe” about it.

References

ACA. (2019a). Benefits of camp. Because Camp. American Camp Association. https://www.acacamps.org/campers-families/because-camp/benefits-camp (20 Aug 19).

ACA. (2019b). The value of camp. Benefits of Camp. American Camp Association. https://www.acacamps.org/campers-families/because-camp/benefits-camp/value-camp (20 Aug 19).

Broadbridge, A. (2019). The stretch zone. Camp Deerhorn. February 8, 2019. https://deerhorn.com/stretch_zone/ (20 Aug 19).

Browne, L. (2018). Research 360: promising themes from phase 1 of the 5-year impact study. American Camp Association. January 29, 2018. https://www.acacamps.org/news-publications/blogs/research-360/research-360-promising-themes-phase-1-5-year-impact-study (20 Aug 19).

Craig, R. (2019). The best bootcamp for soft skills may be the oldest camp. Forbes. July 26, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ryancraig/2019/07/26/the-best-bootcamp-for-soft-skills-may-be-the-oldest-camp/#3f7f64461c0b (20 Aug 19).

Riley, M., Sibthorp, J. and D. Bialeschki. (2017). Counselor- and leader-in-training programs at American Camp Association camps: results from the 2017 CIT/LIT program survey. University of Utah. https://www.acacamps.org/sites/default/files/resource_library/research/Spencer-Leadership-Development-Phase-1-Report.pdf (20 Aug 19).

Wallace, S. and L. Mischel. (2019). Rethinking summer: why camp remains relevant for teens. Camping Magazine. January 2019. https://www.acacamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/rethinking-summer-why-camp-remains-relevant-teens (20 Aug 19).

Wallace, S. (2018). My better self. LinkedIn. September 19, 2018. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/my-better-self-stephen-gray-wallace/?published=t (20 Aug 19).