Life Lessons Learned at Camp

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Kids learn to be independent, confident and adventurous when they go to camp — just listen to Ben.

With summer on the horizon, you’re probably eyeing those long months ahead with your kids in mind. June may include a day camp or two and you may even send your child to a residential camp. Regardless of the exact ingredients, kids will learn the true meaning of what summer camp is all about.

Camp provides the opportunity for kids to connect with nature, participate in counselor-lead activities, and to benefit from personal relationships. Many kids who attend camp experience an increase in self-esteem and are able to establish a true sense of being on their own. For most kids, that’s music to their ears. It certainly was for Ben.

Ben was the boy in the boat; a gregarious go-getter whose journey through camp was inextricably linked to sailboats on the water. The lessons he learned at camp originated from challenges he faced as a skipper, navigating the constantly shifting conditions of wind, tide, crew and competition. Learning lessons about self-reliance, self-confidence, exploration and responsibility — all important metrics of a successful summer camp experience. Ben grew up to become a successful sailor. I asked the grown up Ben about the experiences of his summer camp life and a whole lot more.

Reflecting with the Camp Director

On Self-Reliance

Wallace: Developmental dictates eventually steer young people away from dependence on their parents and toward independence and self-reliance. In psychological terms, it’s called developing an “internal” as opposed to “external” focus of control — meaning that what formerly was other-directed (“Do this”; “Don’t do that”) is now self-directed (“I should do this” and “I shouldn’t do that”). Without long-established support systems, kids at camp have to identify the resources that can help them meet personal and group goals, resolve conflicts, and find success.

Seifer: When my parents’ SUV moved out of sight, I was, for the first time in my nine years of life, on my own. It didn’t hit me right away that the next morning my mom wouldn’t be there to wake me up, my dad to help me sail, or even that I wouldn’t come home at the end of the day to find my bed nicely made. My camp counselors introduced me to something new: adults who would show me the way but not hold my hand the entire time. I did a lot of active learning. I would always try something the first time and if I couldn’t figure it out on my own, my counselors would be there for guidance.

On Self-Confidence

Wallace: For campers, becoming self-reliant is related to self-confidence educationally and socially. In turn, self-confidence is born of a positive sense of oneself: the experiences one has (and one’s evaluation of those experiences) and how closely one’s achievements match one’s expectations. Campers gain self-confidence when they find meaningful, fulfilling educational and social experiences at camp, interpret those experiences correctly, and have reasonable, achievable expectations for success.

Seifer: At my summer camp, activity awards were handed out at assemblies. Campers’ names were read aloud as they walked onstage to the sound of applause. In retrospect, I realized this simple act served a much greater purpose than just handing out certificates. It is not always essential for campers to become the best at whatever they choose to do, but it is essential that they feel they’ve accomplished something. Publicly recognizing a camper for his or her accomplishments builds self-confidence.

On Exploration

Wallace: Camp is, in short, about learning: learning about oneself, learning about others and learning about new ways to approach the world. Self-confidence leads to learning through exploration of one’s interests, abilities and relationships. To maximize exploration, young people need to feel safe — free from fear of ridicule, sarcasm or insult. Creating a community of caring where young people feel comfortable moving beyond their “comfort zone” to the “challenge zone” promotes exploration.

Seifer: My counselors were always pushing me. Pushing me during unit games, pushing me in the cabin towards new activities, pushing me to be a better sailor and pushing me towards girls at dances. In their own ways they encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and take a risk. I developed a trust with them and in turn with the entire camp community. Whether I was on the water, on a field or in my cabin, I always knew that my counselors and the camp would “have my back.”

On Responsibility

Wallace: Beyond the buddies, baseballs and bonfires lies the true value of the summer camp experience: a heightened sense of personal responsibility toward self and others. That “other orientation” manifests itself in many ways, including a strong sense of connectedness and a commitment to give of oneself. Indeed, research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) points out that young people who have attended summer camp are significantly more likely than those who have not to feel good about their relationships and to take positive risks, such as volunteering for community service.

Seifer: I met some of the greatest people in the world at camp. In fact, I made such real friendships that the time I spent at camp each summer was enough to make me feel good the entire year. One of many lifelong things I learned at camp is a conscious responsibility to always be there for my friends and for others. Away from camp, I have volunteered as a peer leader, facilitating discussions about alcohol and drug use with middle and high school students and their parents, and I have joined fellow athletes in performing community service.

Life Lessons Learned at Camp

The benefits to young people of a summer at camp have long been discussed and more recently evaluated. What are they? Simply put, they’re opportunities. Opportunities not exclusive to camps but rather concentrated at camp, where under the direction, supervision and influence of caring counselors, young adults can learn to become more independent, more confident, more self-aware and more giving toward others. These are just some of the life lessons learned at camp.

Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., is a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. Reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association.

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