Experts reveal the rewards of a camp experience
BY HAILEY EISEN
As if campfire singsongs and learning to paddle a canoe isn’t enough reason to send your child to camp this summer, the experts are also weighing in on the developmental and social benefits of a camp experience.
Building a lifelong network
You have only to search a camp’s name on Facebook, a popular social networking website, to understand the strength of the summer camp network. Connections made often last long after the final song has been sung and the last boat has been covered for winter. Studies suggest that camp friendships are likely to accompany your child for years to come.
“It is being called social capital,” Simon Adams, past chair of the Canadian Camping Association (CCA) and chief executive officer of the Family YMCA in Prince George, British Columbia, explains of a study held in partnership with the CCA and the University of Waterloo. “The camp experience builds relationships that are as valuable to children as those formed in a fraternity setting.”
This means that the camp experience can lead to a lifelong network of friends and colleagues who may later be able to help obtaining job interviews, securing employment and developing a career path.
“This bond you share with fellow campers means that you can call upon them in later life and know that they’ll remember you and your shared experience,” says Adams.
According to Adams, this advantage takes on an added dimension in the context of immigrant communities and new Canadians who may not otherwise have many established connections.
“With camp bursaries and sponsorship programs, it is possible for kids to develop relationships as strong as those formed in private schools, which will ultimately help them be successful far into adult life.”
From classrooms to cabins
Learning all summer long
If you tell your little camp enthusiast that summer camp provides excellent learning opportunities, she might not believe you. How can something so fun involve learning? But the truth is, it does! At camp, learning is often disguised in the form of outdoor activities, social interaction and free play.
“Camp has immeasurable benefits for kids as far as education is concerned,” says George Briggs, executive director of the Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario. “They teach a lot in what I would call the informal curriculum.” This includes self-confidence, co-operation, teamwork, and initiative.
According to Briggs, camps push children to test their own limits in a safe environment, allowing them to develop the independence necessary to become successful learners.
While these opportunities for learning and growth may go unnoticed by the children, they are being recognized more and more by parents and educators.
“Kids mature and grow so much over the summer and some of that can certainly be attributed to the camp experience,” says Briggs.
Just for the fun of it
The value of play
Though the days of allowing a child to run around outside with only his imagination for company may be a thing of a past, more research is pointing to the inherent value of free play to a child’s development. While many of us continue to fill our children’s time with structured activities and lessons, a slower parenting movement is beginning to take shape with a push for more balance.
According to a study published by the Canadian Council on Learning, play nourishes every aspect of a child’s development and forms the foundation of intellectual, social, physical and emotional skills, all of which contribute to success in school and life. “It is recommended that children have between 30 and 60 minutes a day of unstructured free play,” explains Tracy Lavin, a psychologist and principal researcher with the council, who suggests that parents choose a camp that is able to balance unstructured free time with organized activities and programming.
Limiting screen time
Does your teen rush to the computer to catch up with friends? Would your preschooler rather watch cartoons than play outside? We often don’t realize how much screen time our children are exposed to, says Michelle Brownrigg, chief executive officer of Active Healthy Kids Canada.
“Research shows that kids self-report spending five to six hours per weekday and eight hours per weekend day in front of a screen of some sort,” Brownrigg notes.
This is one reason that day and overnight camps (aka sleepaway camps) are so great, she explains. Camp breaks up the usual routine that many kids fall into at home, which often involves the computer and television.
“Kids don’t usually sit down and consciously decide to spend eight hours in front of the computer,” she says. “They just zone out and next thing you know the time has passed.”
While screen time can be positive in moderation, summer camps offer an opportunity to unplug from technology and focus on active play.
“It is important to teach kids that they can trade some of that screen time for other activities that are equally enjoyable, be it physical exercise or reading,” says Brownrigg.
Most camps offer an environment free of cellphones and laptops and encourage kids to form social networks, rather than virtual ones. “Camp gives you the opportunity to learn silly songs and games you might never learn otherwise,” says Brownrigg. “And these are the things that stay with you for the rest of your life!”
The great outdoors
A cure for Nature-Deficit Disorder
In Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv stresses the importance of nature and the negative implications of a changing society.
“The polarity of the nature/child relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the big-picture global threats to the environment, but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading,” he says.
“A child today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest but will just as likely be hardpressed to describe the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field and listened to the wind and watched the clouds move.”
Enter summer camp. From canoe trips and nature hikes to playing capture the flag, camp offers many hours spent in the sort of safe spaces our cities seem to have swallowed up. According to Louv, “Given the growing nature deficit, I believe that offering children direct contact with nature—getting their feet wet and hands muddy—should be at the top of the list of vital camp experiences, stimulating a renewed shared purpose. It’s time for a nature camp revival.”
First published in Our Kids Go to Camp Magazine.