March 11, 2014
The Summer Camp industry has been around for 150 years, originally centered around major metropolitan areas in the northeast. With the longstanding camp tradition of children leaving the city every summer for rural camp settings, the question is often “Where is my child going to camp?” not “Will my child go to camp?” This decision determined your social circle, professional colleagues, and wedding party. These camps all ran 8 – 10 week seasons with kids spending the entire summer away at camp.
These trends are slowly fading and summer camps have expanded across the country with varying preferences for the ideal summer camp term length. And parents find themselves asking:
“How long should I send my child away to camp this summer?”
Short Sessions – One and two week summer camp sessions. One and two week camp terms are used to introduce kids to overnight camp.
Mid Length Sessions – 3 to 5 weeks. Many traditional camps with full summer sessions will offer a truncated half summer session (made up of four or three week camp terms). Many camps offer three week camp sessions as their main term length (Camp Champions being one).
Full Summer Sessions – 6+ weeks. Full sessions are typically offered by Northeastern camps that have the same campers throughout the entire summer. Some are as long as 10 weeks, but most are 7 – 8 weeks long.
Summer priorities are shifting fast for families. Being outside, enjoying nature were top priorities for most summers in the past. Now there is an ever greater push for children to excel on multiple levels in intensive programs such as foreign language camps, sport specific sports camps, focused academic camps, or long family vacations.
Industry trends are pushing towards towards shorter summer camp term lengths. In fact, a majority of first time camp families are interested in 1 or 2 week camps to introduce their children to camp. There are benefits to short one week terms, especially for very young campers who have not been away from home for extended periods. Short terms also offer greater flexibility in summer scheduling. So, when comparing one week versus two week summer camp, they are mostly equivalent: short enough to be comfortable for first timers, but not long enough to truly become invested in the summer camp growth experience.
We feel that Mid-length sessions offer the best compromise between summer scheduling convenience, youth development experiences and summer outdoor fun. (If you wold like to read more: Steve Baskin has written on some of the latest ACA research and the benefits of different summer camp term lengths.)
There are many factors for families when deiciding on the best sleepaway camp experience for their children. Short term, mid length term and full length term summer camps have their advantages and disadvantages.
Summer camp provides several outcomes to children including friendship, competence, independence and other non-cognitive skills. Summer camp term length and returning to camp year over year provide benefits to these outcomes. But let’s also not forget that longer is not always better: the programming and community must be intentional.
As you begin to make some preferences and decisions on how long you will send your child away to camp for, keep these criteria in mind.
Convenience and ease of scheduling - Scheduling one week of summer camp is much easier than fitting in a two or three week camp term into a summer schedule. Or especially a 6+ week summer camp! Terms start so frequently for one week camps it’s hard not to find one that works.
Price - If you are budget constrained, a shorter summer camp session lengths will be the lowest absolute price. However, you will often get better value from longer sessions.
Camper buy in – Campers who are reluctant to come to camp are often placated with the promise that it will only be one week. But there is a selection bias when it comes to term length. The summer camp experience is its most powerful once campers have bought into the culture, activities, new best friends and counselor heroes, and in short terms, there’s not always enough time for that to occur. With shorter terms, campers often look forward to the nearby end date, as opposed to be being excited and in the moment at camp.
Camper adjustment time – Unless campers have been at camp for many years, the first 3 – 4 days are all about getting adjusted to camp. New routine, new activities, new setting; kids learn to adjust, but it often takes time. The majority of campers’ time at one week camps will be spent either getting adjusted to camp or getting ready to leave.
Activity exploration - Most camps are offering customizable camp activity schedules to campers. With camps averaging 40+ activities it is very hard for kids to fit all these activities in a small term length. Camps work hard to encourage kids to try new activities. Part of the experience will be improving at core competencies but the exploration of full activity breadth is an important development experience for campers. Often its not until campers are encouraged to reach outside their comfort zone in weeks two or three that they find new passions and confidence from mastering new skills. Longer summer camp terms are certainly better for exploring new skills.
Friendship - Best friends aren’t made in a week. Relationships take time to develop. It is impressive how quickly children form bonds, but shared experiences over a second and third week of camp go a long way in solidifying these into relationships that will last a lifetime. An even greater predictor of these friendships is the number of summers spent together, returning year over year to strengthen friendships.
Community development – Campers have gleaming pride in the camp communities they are a part of. A place where they can truly be the best versions of themselves, make lifelong friend and be a part of something bigger than themselves. That sense of self and identity typically happens in the 2+ week range. A longer term, over multiple years, builds a community that has continuity and is passed down to younger generations. Shorter terms are often not long enough for campers to get the true gift of the magic of camp.
As you are conducting your camp research process, carefully consider how long your children will be away. So, when thinking about two week versus three week summer camp or a full summer, be sure to balance the time constraints and conflicts and price. However, also consider the long term growth benefits and youth development that can come out of a four or three week summer camp session.
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