When I was 15, I was in my sixth summer at a traditional camp for boys in New Hampshire. One night after dinner, my counselor from the year before (a six-foot, five-inch English rugby player) asked me if I wanted to throw a baseball around. We spent an hour or two playing catch and talking about whatever came up. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversation. What I do remember, and still enjoy thinking about, are the positive feelings that resulted from having the undivided attention of someone I essentially worshipped.
As a former counselor with 15 years of experience, and now as a mental health professional specializing in working with children, I am convinced that the cumulative power of small moments like these illustrate the unique manner in which camp helps children reach their full potential.
Keeping in mind that children of the same age can vary widely in terms of emotional, social, and intellectual development, the following is a general set of guidelines for what you can expect your child to get out of camp, whether your choice is a day camp close to home or an overnight camp.
Four to Six Years
Children of this age are learning how to explore their world, gradually spending more time away from their parents’ side. Day camp, or a brief overnight camp, is an ideal place for young children to experience being away from their parents in a safe, nurturing environment. Good camps will have many structured, produc tive activities, such as crafts and field trips, that also help children get used to following a schedule. There is also no substitute for constant interaction with other children under adult supervision when it comes to developing social skills necessary for a successful entry into school.
Seven to Nine Years
Elementary school-age children are an entertaining group. Their interests change frequently as they are exposed to new ideas and opportunities. Think of this developmental period as one enormous “trial-and-error” episode, where children will “try on” all sorts of different likes and dislikes. Camp is a particularly good match for this age group, given the chances to participate in activities that are unlikely to be available elsewhere: archery, horseback riding, hiking, sailing, or nature exploration, as well as more typical activities, such as team sports. Social development is also critical in this period, as early friendships are formed and the child’s individual personality begins to express itself.
Ten to Twelve Years
Children of these ages are beginning to define their individuality. Particularly in girls, this period of time is characterized by great variation in physical and emotional development. I have worked with several children who voiced the frustration of feeling forced to “be too grown up” on one hand, as well those who are tired of “being treated like a little kid” on the other. The variety of social, athletic, and outdoor activities offered through camp address these issues very well. If your child is still “young for his or her age,” camp will allow him or her to spend time with other children doing “kid stuff’ until they are ready to move on. The more “mature” child will have similar opportunities with older children without the fear of being ostracized.
Thirteen Years and Up
Unfortunately, teens are often victims of a self-fulfilling prophecy: When we expect them to behave like stereotypically rebellious, troubled teenagers, we are in danger of acting in ways that elicit these behaviors. Camp is a tremendous way to reverse this process. Older campers have opportunities for service and leadership. For many teens, this will be the first time they are given responsibilities, and most will jump at the chance to prove themselves in a positive way. Older campers also learn that they can leave a constructive, lasting impact on the people around them, helping them develop firsthand knowledge of the benefits of service and altruism.
Originally printed in CAMP Magazine, reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association %uFFFD 2005 American Camping Association, Inc.