‘One of the few options that allow children to be childlike’

In years past, Canadian children traditionally went to camp for a month or the entire summer. After poring over brochures or choosing where mom or dad had gone, a camp was selected, and the kids would return, summer after summer.

This often led to leadership training, and then a staff position. Today, however, many families are unfamiliar with the benefits and opportunities offered through summer camp experiences.

Happy child group playing  on beach

Additionally, kids have a wide array of summer options from which to choose. Summer camp is no longer the only game in town and many families have now adopted a buffet-style approach to the array of summertime options.

As a result, one-week programs have become increasingly popular. Shorter program options have generally been offered as a tryout experience for very young or first-time campers. This was comfortable for kids who had never been away from home, and for their parents.

But it was considered a bridge to a longer program, the traditional wisdom being that camp was a summertime immersion, something that gave everyone in the family a break and a time of growth for kids away from home life.

A six-year study of camps across Canada conducted by the University of Waterloo confirms that summer camp promotes youth development in the following areas: self-confidence, emotional intelligence, social learning, physical fitness, and environmental responsibility.

A key finding is that this learning successfully transfers to home, school and community.

Yet today, parents often buy into what I call “sound bite” events. This being a succession of brief, diverse, “totally awesome” experiences for their kids. Why just have one flavour when you can have three or four? This kind of reasoning is really opting for the “trailer,” while taking a pass on the “feature presentation.”

Parents should remember that a child going to camp needs time to settle in. The first few days are exciting, but they can also be unfamiliar. A brief period of homesickness, usually one or two days, is not uncommon.

So if parents have chosen a one-week program because of perceived homesickness issues, this may not give their child enough time to acclimate and have a successful time.

Now multiply this pattern for each and every change in a kid’s summertime agenda. The camper will have several first days to deal with, several more settling-in periods, and most importantly, multiple last days of saying goodbye to new friends.

Considered from this perspective, the stressors associated to “sound bites” account for several unfulfilling or unproductive days — and these lost days become significant when the timeline is already short.

Time at summer camp is one of the few options that allow children to be childlike in a world removed from adult concerns and hectic schedules. As such, summer camp stands as one of the last bastions of community where young people can move through their days at a walking pace. This in itself is something that should be valued and savoured.

Stephen Fine, PhD, is owner/director of The Hollows Camp and Research Chair for the Canadian Camping Association.