During my 15 years as a summer camp counselor and director, I often spoke with friends and parents about summer camp’s impact in helping young people develop independence. But it was not until I was a parent myself with children who were campers that I truly appreciated how profound this aspect of camp was on a child’s life.
As overnight campers, my son and his sister developed navigation skills as they had to figure out how to get around the staffed facility. These skills further developed on hiking and canoeing trips throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Maine. They became competent in noticing landmarks and being aware of surroundings, assessing distance and problem solving when they went off course. For my city kids, this led to them feeling comfortable taking public transportation alone and traveling to new parts of the city. Now, as young adults, they have done much independent travel. While not unique for people their age, as their parent, I credit much of the skill development and courage needed to navigate alone in these new areas to their summers at camp.
The showering and tooth brushing routines at camp were different than at home. Instead of having a parent to sometimes guide or nag that they attend to these basic hygiene tasks, as campers my children needed to negotiate the new routines and provide their own self-discipline to make sure they attended to them. They had to decide each day what to wear, putting on more layers if it was a cold and rainy day without a parent questioning whether they would be warm enough as they stepped out the door. Similarly, they decided what clothes went into the weekly camp laundry and had to fold these and put them away upon their return. Heading out on the aforementioned camping trips, they learned how to pack appropriately and how to negotiate safety rules, how to drink enough water, eat enough food and ask for help when it was needed.
At 9-years old, my daughter left for her first summer at sleepaway camp and packed five pairs of shoes, all of which she lost track of during her first week away. Luckily, she had cabinmates who lent her shoes to wear, and she was reunited with her shoes at summer’s end. However, experientially she learned the value of holding onto her things. Her second summer she regularly consulted the checklist of items that were attached to her trunk and developed strategies that allowed her to return home with all of her things. This increased responsibility extended beyond just looking out for herself. Through chores like table setting, main lodge clean up, and dishwashing that are a feature at many sleep-away camps, my children learned to be responsible to their community and gained an appreciation of how their labors helped the whole. Each summer, they returned home more ready to help out.
The aspect of summer camp that brought my children the most immediate joy was their independence in finding and developing friendships. Not restricted by a school or extracurricular groupings, they could choose their friends independent of adult vetting, interference or approval. These were kids with whom my children shared interests, perspectives, and experiences. At many summer camps, Farm & Wilderness included, fun is not digitally produced, but consciously created by the participants. Being unplugged without the 24-hour pressure to keep up with an online life is an aspect of camp most consistently appreciated by campers. It allows them to develop real, not virtual friends, with whom they share stories and adventures, work out problems, provide mutual support through highs and lows, and with whom they have fun. My experience has been that unlike with kids from school or neighborhood groups, these were my children’s closest friends and are ones that they have remained close with into their young adulthood.
5. Finding one’s best self
The most profound thing that summer camp provided to my kids was that it gave them the space to develop their own identities. Away from the peer pressures of school groups, as well as separated from family roles and expectations, campers can sort out for themselves what they really think and what is important to them. And, like the costume boxes that are a feature of many camps, they can try on and experiment with different versions of themselves. Because camps are mostly staffed by many 18 – 25-year-olds, kids are surrounded by many young adult role models who have recently gone through a similar self-discovery process and are closely connected to the current realities of young people. Having engaged in some of this experimentation long before leaving home for college or young adult life, I have found that my children were less likely to engage in many of the more-risky behaviors that await young people who are first on their own as 17 and 18-year-olds. They also have had the opportunity to discover the ideas from their family and upbringing that they truly value and want to make their own.
Summer camp most often is appreciated for being a place where kids can have fun during the summer – and fun we most certainly have! However, we hear from campers and alumni all the time who describe Farm & Wilderness as a transformational summer experience. Fun on its own isn’t life-changing. It’s the combination of fun, support, and challenge that spurs growth and independence.
Do you have a camp story that taught you independence? We’d love to hear it! Interim@farmandwilderness.org. Would you like to have an unforgettable summer with us?