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Summer camp 2020: Is close, close enough?

Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash
Source: Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

The recent turn from July to August marked a time traditionally filled with young people heading home from camp — at least from camps that opened, estimated to be only 38% (Leonhardt, 2020).

Indeed, organized camping — like so many industries — is struggling to both comprehend and respond to the vast reach of the coronavirus pandemic. For camps that did open, it meant strict protocols such as “family circles,” social distancing, and a ban on outside visitors. For others it meant going virtual, offering online content for children (and their parents) and some semblance of normalcy.

But, can modified programming, in-person or online, drive the same outcomes that are the hallmark of experiential education?


It’s worth revisiting the indicia so well known among educators.

According to the American Camp Association, experiential summer learning fosters the following outcomes for campers (ACA, 2020).

Campers Say:

  • Camp helped me make new friends. (96%)
  • Camp helped me to get to know kids who are different from me. (93%)
  • The people at camp helped me feel good about myself. (92%)
  • At camp, I did things I was afraid to do at first. (74%)

Parents Say:

  • My child gained self-confidence at camp. (70%)
  • My child continues to participate in some of the new activities he or she learned at camp. (63%)
  • My child remains in contact with friends made at camp. (69%)

For families, the closures turn those gains into losses.

In a February 2020 article, Everwood Day Camp (Massachusetts) founder Andy Pritikin outlines the benefits of camp (Pritikin, 2020).

According to the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (, which is comprised of Fortune 500 business leaders and progressive educators, the top skills sought by today’s employers are:

  • Oral Communication
  • Teamwork & Collaboration
  • Professionalism & Work Ethic
  • Written Communication
  • Critical Thinking & Problem Solving

Add to this picture that 30% of students entering 4-year college programs drop out after their first year, and only 56% graduate within six years. Why is this? Besides financial burdens, see the big five p21 skills above that our kids are lacking, especially #5 when Mommy or Daddy isn’t around to fix their problems!

So where can we help young people find these skills? At summer camp!

Similarly, David Himmel, author of A Camp Story, in his article “What Camp People Are Losing This Summer,” reflects on his own experiences, stating, “In those Michigan woods on the lake, I learned to sail, shoot a rifle, and build a fire. I also realized that I could take care of myself without my parents. I learned social accountability by sharing chores with my cabinmates during cleanup duty in the mess hall. I figured out how to talk with girls by befriending the female counselors. I found out that switching from tighty-whities to boxer shorts improved a boy’s social standing. (Thanks, Mom, for sending that care package.) … I learned how to make friends when I knew no one. As a whole, I learned how to be myself, on my own terms” (Himmel, 2020).

Forging a personal identity at summer camp (both day and residential) is commonplace.

Speaking to the latter in her Boston Globe Magazine article “Six Reasons to Send Kids to Overnight Summer Camp (That Are Good for Parents),” Julie Suratt enumerates other important outcomes (Suratt, 2020).

Turns out, camp is beneficial for kids — but maybe even more so for parents. Here’s why:

  • Our children flourish when we’re not around
  • They get to try activities you might never let them do at home
  • It’s forced screen detox — without all the nagging
  • You can see a different side of your kids through their letters
  • It’s prep for when they leave home — for both of you

While the creativity of camp leaders during the 2020 summer is to be lauded, the question remains: Do virtual camps come close to matching what Pritikin, Himmel, and Suratt talk about?

In an email, Brewster Day Camp (Massachusetts) director Dan Michel wrote the following.

COVID has forced camps across the country to grapple with the very foundations of their programs and ideals. Prior, camps marketed themselves on the notion that they were creating utopias free from digital distractions. In a world where the socially non-distanced, interpersonal connections offered in a camp setting become an incredible liability, we are presented with a challenge: What exactly is it that makes the camp experience special? Is it the activities that test our campers’ teamwork and creative problem-solving skills? Is it the chance to connect with friends in new ways? Is it the opportunity to reinvent oneself at camp, find new skills and develop confidences in areas not exposed during the traditional school year? The answer is yes, to all of these.

The cornerstone to our program and the camp experience is the social-emotional development children receive when they are able to look, listen, touch, and feel alongside their peers.

As many programs invent ways to transition to virtual programming, and are doing so successfully in many cases, we see the incorporation of technology. Yet, the true magic of camp, the individual skill-building, cooperative work, and social-emotional development is not found in the programming or curriculum of our activities. Instead, it is in the small moments that happen every day at camp — when we are learning agency in creating our own schedules and navigating the social challenges that accompany those decisions, managing a communal space and learning the concept of sharing, learning how to face a challenge head on, and overcome it, and simply learning how to make and be a good friend, supporting others and lending a helping hand when someone is in need. These moments simply do not translate to the virtual experience.

Will there be a return to “normal” in 2021? Nobody really knows. But what is certain is the camps that survive will be those that remained focused on maintaining relationships with campers and camp families during the different summer of 2020.

It’s not even close.


ACA. (2020). The value of camp. American Camp Association.… (29 July 2020).

Himmel, D. (2020). What camp people are losing this summer. The Atlantic. July 5, 2020.… (29 July 2020).

Leonhardt, M. (2020). Coronavirus forced 62% of summer camps to close this year and early estimates predict the industry will take a $16 billion revenue hit. CNBC Make It. July 3, 2020.… (29 July 2020).

Pritikin, A. (2020). Summer camp for kids – now more than ever. Everwood Day Camp. July 29, 2020.… (29 July 2020).

Suratt, J. (2020). Six reasons to send kids to overnight summer camp (that are good for parents). The Boston Globe. February 20, 2020.… (29 July 2020).

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