May 29, 2017
In my 25 years as a summer camp director, the one question I hear the most is a simple, but important one:
Why should a child attend a sleepaway camp?
Some parents want to know the difference between a day camp and a sleepaway camp. Others are simply curious about camp in general. What they all have in common is critical concern – how can camp benefit my child?
Of course, one of the obvious benefits of camp is the fact that it is tons of fun! Campers have a blast. They learn new skills, try exciting activities and make powerful friendships.
But sleepaway camp provides so much more than just fun. Overnight camp prepares your child to be successful in the world beyond their properties – in school, in college and beyond. I know that sounds like a bold statement, but I see it happen each summer and I have seen the benefits accumulate over the years for our campers.
Here are the top three benefits of sleepaway camp.
Benefit #1: Camp builds confidence away from parents
As parents, we love our children more than anything in the world. As a result, we are willing to do everything in our power to set them up for success and protect them from discomfort and struggle.
This desire to help our children, however, can occasionally lead to us doing too much for them. We organize play-dates, afterschool activities, tutors and help with homework. We occasionally intervene in their struggles (with friends or teachers) when they could potentially resolve their own issues.
As a result, our children become highly dependent on us. Of course, this makes sense when they are toddlers, but makes less sense as they grow.
At camp, children get the opportunity to grow outside of their parents’ shadows. To be clear, the counselors provide oversight and advice to help campers navigate their world. Campers are not left alone. But they soon learn that they can not only survive, but they can thrive away from home.
They develop skills and know that their accomplishments are their own.
My wife likes to say that confidence comes from competence. As young people thrive in the camp environment, they grow in confidence and bring that confidence home – to the classroom, the sports field and everywhere else.
Benefit #2: Camp is tech free
Most sleepaways camp are either completely tech free or largely tech free. I know this sounds crazy, but campers do not have phones, game systems, tablets or computers . . . and they love it.
This is a tremendous gift.
As citizens of this age, we are blessed to live in a world of amazing technology. We have unequalled access to information. We can contact people throughout the world. We have almost unlimited entertainment options. There is no doubt that our devices give us amazing opportunities.
But I suspect that you, like me, also worry that our devices are a little too appealing. We allow ourselves to be distracted from conversations with loved ones by incoming texts. We interrupt complicated tasks to check email excessively. Our eyes drift to TVs in rooms or restaurants rather than to the eyes of those we are with.
Similarly, we are rightfully concerned that devices and apps have too strong a hold on our children. A survey in 2011 showed that the average teen spends over 53 hours each week looking at electronic screens, and this was before the widespread popularity of Instagram and Snapchat.
Sometimes we are tempted to say that our teens use their smart phones and connected devices like we used “normal” phones in our teenage years, but this is incorrect. Every day, thousands of the smartest people in the world are redesigning the apps and the devices to make them more “sticky” (read “addictive”).
Video game designers know how to get a teenager to play for 4 hours rather than 30 minutes and lose track of time. Design teams include neurologists and behavioral psychologists. A simple example of these efforts is the “Snapchat streak”. Snapchat encourages you to exchange at least one message each day with everyone that is in your network, creating “streaks”. So many teens measure they social status by the number and length of their streaks. Five years ago, people obsessed over Facebook “likes”. The Snapchat streak is the next level.
We will never get children to abandon their devices, nor would we want them to.
But we do want our children to own their phones rather than have the phones own them. They should have the ability to turn them off when they want to. When they are with loved ones and friends, we want them to be fully present.
Camp is perhaps the one place that a 14 year-old girl will put down her phone or a 12 year-old boy turn off his game system and be happy about it.
In fact, our campers tell us that they feel free at camp to have genuine friendships and enjoy the reprieve from incessant, banal text messages. In fact, they will ask for our advice on how they can continue to limit their usage at home.
In short, they learn increased control over their devices.
Benefit #3: Camp teaches critical skills that predict for success later in life
If you have an 8 or 9-year-old, you are probably not thinking about future careers. You want them to have fun, make friends and develop resilience.
But I have been shocked to realize how much camp prepares young people for success later in life.
Over the past decade, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning has polled over 2000 companies (for-profit and not-for-profit, large and small, technology and service) asking a simple question: “what skills are critical to success in your organization?”
When people think “21st Century Skills”, they typically picture computer skills like coding. But that is not what these companies (which include Apple, Intel and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) are saying. They say that knowledge is becoming less important because we have computers and Google that “know” more than any one person. Instead of knowledge, key skills are interpersonal skills and creativity. Teams are becoming more important; leadership is becoming crucial even as it is becoming more rare.
According to the surveys, the top two skills are “oral communication” and “collaboration/teamwork”. At camp, we practice these skills every moment of everyday. Without phones or other devices, we replace screen-based experiences with face-to-face experiences. We practice communication, collaboration, leadership and creativity constantly.
We have talked with former campers and counselors who have become doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, managers, teachers and multiple other professions. To a person, they told us that their camp experiences gave them a “leg up” on other people in job interviews and in the job itself.
So while you still relish your little ones playful childhood, it is a great gift to know that he or she is learning skills that will help them throughout their lives.