Happy Camper (and Counselor): The Benefits of Summer Camp

girls campingA few weeks prior to my first trip to Girl Scout camp, my older brother passed away from a drug overdose. My parents debated whether it would be okay for their 11-year-old daughter to be away from home during such a difficult time for the family, but I am forever indebted to them for choosing to send me to camp. Girl Scout camp was an experience that forever changed my life. At camp, I found a supportive environment filled with role models, friends, and opportunities to try new and exciting activities. I loved learning how to build a fire, singing silly camp songs, and spending time with equally adventurous youth. Most importantly, I loved having a group of young adult counselors teaching me new skills, making sure I ate healthy meals, and reassuring me when I started to get upset about my brother’s death. Over the next four years, I continued to spend two weeks of every summer at camp and it became the highlight of my year.

At age 18 I applied to work for the Girl Scouts of Maine, knowing that I wanted to give children the same positive experience that I had had. Over the next five summers, the tight-knit group of staff and campers became like a second family. As a young adult working at camp I found opportunities for leadership that I would not have been able to find in other positions. For three years I worked as the program director, a position which required me to supervise and train 30-40 staff, oversee the safety and well-being of the campers, and ensure program quality. This position allowed me to gain skills in conflict resolution, staff management, and customer service; skills that are easily applied to any work I do as an adult. Additionally, this role gave me a new respect for the power of camp; despite our campers only being with us for one or two weeks each summer, I could see the impact that camp made on them. Now that I’m working in research I’ve realized that I’m not alone in my positive experience with camp. Youth attending and young adults working at all types of camps are benefitting from their experiences.

Each year an estimated 11 million children and adults attend a camp in the U.S. There are a wide variety of camping options available. Camps vary based on many factors, including residential or day camp, duration, population served (age, gender, special populations), activities, affiliation or religion, and cost. The American Camp Association offers a searchable database of all their accredited camps so that families can find the right one. Accreditation is one way for parents to judge the quality of the camp program; accredited camps are required to maintain rigorous trainings and procedures to ensure the camp will provide a safe, nurturing environment. Families concerned about making camp fit their budget will find that many camps offer a variety of discounts or scholarships (“camperships”) that allow all to attend. In addition, there are camps available for many specialty populations including youth with limited mobility, youth in foster care, or youth with terminal illnesses.

Not only is camp fun and exciting, attending camp has been shown to have positive impacts on youth, both mentally and physically. While there are few rigorous studies of summer camp available, there is a growing body of suggestive evidence using small survey samples, focus groups, and observations. One study found that camp improved positive identity (such as independence), social skills, physical and thinking skills (such as adventure and exploration), positive values, and spirituality. Other studies have found that camp decreased anxiety, aided the formation of caring connections, and increased hope and goal-directed behaviors. Additionally, camp has a positive impact on physical health; camp professionals believe camp is a good setting to establish healthy eating habits, and promoting healthy eating in the camp setting has been shown to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. Overall, camps have been shown to be a supportive environment for positive youth development.

However, camp is not just a positive experience for campers, but for camp staff as well.  Most camp staff members are young adults with little to no work experience. Given that this age group frequently needs support for workforce and educational readiness, camp provides a unique opportunity for workforce-development. Working at camp has been shown to improve emotional intelligence and camp staff report gains in skills such as interpersonal interactions, communication, problem solving, and leadership. Additionally, the majority of camp staff view camp as a positive experience and recognize long-term positive impacts on their lives.

As somebody who went to camp looking for a supportive environment, I certainly found it. If camp could help me cope with and heal after my brother’s untimely death, I’m confident that it can reap positive benefits for children and youth facing any number of adversities. We must continue to push for more rigorous evaluations of youth programs in all settings, including camps. I know I would not be the person I am today without camp, and it is my wish that every child have the opportunity to have a positive camp experience.

Heather Fish, Senior Research Assistant, Child Trends

Comments

Terrific article. I am in the weird position of being a summer camp owner that also works as a professional evaluator with QRIS and Head Start programs -when Child Trends epublications end up in my evaluator inbox, with “summer camp” in the content, that threw me for a loop!

I especially appreciate the inclusion of the links to the research, and the approach to consider both the effect on the child AND the counselor. Over the 25 years I’ve done this, I’ve come to realize that the most powerful benefits of camp are indeed on the young people leading camp – the college aged cohort somewhat “sandwiched” between childhood and adulthood who nowadays have been “helicopter parented” and come to camp displaying what might be called an appalling lack of skills/poise/experience. In a remarkably short and powerful duration of time, the camp counseling experience dramatically shapes their lives, right when they need it most (as you describe in your article).

Thanks for the pleasant surprise this morning!
Sincerely,
Stuart Jones
Owner/Director
Outpost Summer Camps
San Diego, California

Hi Julie,

Thank you so much for sharing you and your daughter’s story. It’s gratifying to hear from others that camp is making a difference in their lives. One of my best friends had a similar experience as your daughter- she was adopted from Ethiopia and struggled with the transition and learning English; camp became her safe space as a youth. She went on to become a CIT (Counselor in Training) and then worked at camp for several years! I hope that you continue to have a positive experience with camp!

Heather

I feel so fortunate to have watched you, Heather, grow physically, emotionally and socially over those first three or four years you attended camp under my direction. Just the mention of “camp” brings back a flood of wonderful memories for me, as I spent seven summers attending camp as a child. It is a magical experience for children and the adults who care for them.

Heather-

I really enjoyed reading your article. I recently signed up my eleven year old daughter for summer camp. My daughter was born in Guatemala, and adopted by me, a single mom. She is darker than most of the other kids in her school. She has really struggled with her color, and with feeling like she doesn’t fit in. This has resulted in many changes in her behavior and attitude. Since starting camp, she”s been like a whole new kid! She seems happier, more confident, and much more sociable than before. She has made several new friends, and is now looking forward to starting middle school in the fall. I never realized how much of a difference that going to summer camp could make. Thank you for your article…..it is so true!

Sincerely,

Julie Pelletier
Maine

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