The most important lessons learned at camp may be the ones you can’t see.
If you’ve ever been a camper, counselor, worked at a camp, or knew someone who did, you know there’s something special about the anticipation of summer camp. Many live 10 months for two, waiting for the minute they can fling off their school backpacks and run full speed ahead toward their summer home. Sleepaway evenings are spent around a campfire. Day camp afternoons are filled with special activities and snack-time galore. There’s canteen and cabin nights, swimming and sports competitions, whimsical adventure and waterfront fun.
Ask those of us who went to camp (no matter how long ago it was) and you’ll find smiles, friendships cultivated, and words to songs that we can sing at a moment’s notice. We can tell you about our beloved counselors, reminisce about a shared past, and recall our fondest camp memories. We went to camp, our lives have been enriched, and we want others to share the same experience. There’s wisdom in summer camp and it seems that it’s not until we leave that we realize the weight of so many of its gifts.
Today, there are lessons from camp I use every day. There were, of course, the tangible lessons, such as learning to swim and clearing your plate from the table, but the most important lessons may be the ones you can’t see.
Be the Change
Spending time with people from different places provides a time to share stories and hear various ways of life. At camp, kids learn that if there is an unfair practice somewhere (whether it’s how the captains for a team are picked or that a friend might struggle with a difficult home life), the way to make a difference is to listen, get involved, and act with a kind heart.
In my Counselor-In-Training program, we did many activities that continue to apply to life today. One was an exercise in giving directions. While some had to write directions, others had to draw a map. It showed us how people view things, learn, and deliver information differently.
Include and Value People
Whether it’s day or sleepaway, camp showcases fun and inclusivity for all. Regardless of the activity or role, kids quickly learn there is a vital place for everyone. There are the experts at storytelling, acting, geocaching, swimming, arts and crafts, sports, and ropes courses, and others who are able to have their firsts in these experiences. There are cooks and maintenance workers, nurses and swim staff, directors and CITs, bus drivers and office staff, and campers and counselors from every walk of life—and everyone plays a vital role in making camp the special space it is. Knowing she is valued and that she matters is something your child takes with her when the camp gates close at the end of the summer.
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Embrace Diversity and Don’t Judge
At camp, I met counselors from Camp America (a camp counselor exchange program) whose accents and histories were different from mine. My friends and fellow campers all had different religions and came from varying socio-economic backgrounds. Whether listening to stories around the fire or having snack time chats with counselors, the message gets across: Each upbringing is different and each struggle or triumph should be valued equally.
Laugh, Sing, Dance, and Dream
Whether he’s laughing at a friend’s story, finding his feet in a new choreographed move, working his lungs in the talent show, or staring at the lake dreaming of what’s to come, camp offers your child the magic of creativity, wonder, and imagination. With much needed downtime away from the stressors of school and the pull of screens, parts of the brain awaken that foster the artist and dreamer in him.
Camp helps kids find themselves. She’s away from home, but cared for, fed, and provided with a safe space. Little by little, she takes her first steps at independence. With each summer, the scary becomes less so and her confidence builds. Cultivating your child’s independence in a safe environment at an early age leads to strong personal development and continued growth.
Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Whatever it was that seems different, terrifying, or impossible is achievable at camp. I learned to swim at camp and later became a lifeguard and aquatics director. I was petrified of spiders and have subsequently gone bush camping in sub-Saharan Africa and the Australian Outback. Leaving home for camp was difficult the first time, but it made going away to college that much easier. He’ll learn that although experiences may be filled with nervous anticipation at the start, what he gets when he reaches the other side of that fear is priceless.
Be True to Yourself
My three closest friends (from camp) and I are each incredibly different. In our youth, we were an equitation lover, a farm fanatic, a waterfront fiend, and a fan of arts and crafts, and we rarely chose the same activities. There were four different religious beliefs, four different hometowns, varied socio-economic backgrounds, unique style senses, each with a different conglomeration of immediate family, and yet, 30 years later we’re still on each other’s speed dials.
The Simple Things Matter Most of All
Camp is ghost stories and campfires, beach days and arts and crafts, free swim and nature hikes and sea glass hunting and searching for shooting stars. Without the need for high tech screens, the camp experience reminds kids that it’s the simple things that matter most.
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Treat Others How You’d Like to Be Treated
At camp, as in life, kindness matters. Campers learn lessons of working as a team, sharing kindness, and trying to lift others up on a regular basis. The overall message of treating others as you’d like to be treated flows through the day’s activities from cabin chores to sharing the last bits of chocolate for a s’more.
Take Time Out for Yourself
Day camps have snack time and many sleepaway camps have canteen or time to relax, recuperate, and rejuvenate. This translates years later to a community of people who know they need to listen to their bodies, take a break at times, and care for themselves.
Believe in Yourself
Staff members believe in campers and often propel them to believe in themselves. Knowing someone believes in him at a young age stays with a child—it’s what he will grab onto as an adult when things get tough. People believing in you so fiercely makes you believe in yourself.
Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things
I learned to silkscreen, went on my first hike, took my first horseback ride, and took a fearful plunge off of a 10-foot boulder into open water—all for my first time at camp. Knowing there is always someone there to encourage her to take the plunge, hold her hand, and catch her if she falls (literally and figuratively) makes the anticipation of trying new things easier. Later in life, being scared but plunging ahead anyway takes many different forms. Whether it’s starting a new school, a first job, learning to drive, or going away to college, those lessons from camp stay with her—always.
We All Have Talents
He might be the best at finding bugs along the nature trail. She might love to build things, create stories, or solve problems. He might be the best listener, give the best hugs, or love to help others find their smile. Camp provides outlets for all to find their talents, embrace them, and continue to thrive.
Life Is What You Make of It
Sometimes at camp it rains for a week straight. Here she learns she can be miserable, sulk in her cabin, and be negative about the weather. Or she can learn to dance in the rain, find the joy of splashing in puddles and playing in the mud, and listen to the soothing sounds of the water as it hits the leaves. Life is what you make of it—be mindful, turn the negatives into positives, and always leave the place you’re in a little better than how you found it.
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Show Compassion and Learn Empathy
At camp, I met people who were different from me, which helped shape my perspective of the world and my place in it. For two weeks each summer there were kids living in foster care in New York City who came to camp. For many, it was their first time to see a large body of water or to work on a farm. For those two weeks we all had a fabulous time at camp—just like any other two-week session. Camp allowed relationships to grow, people’s stories were shared, and we learned that people most certainly do change people.
Share What You Have
I’ve officially been borrowing my best friend’s clothes since the age of 12. Flip flops made their rounds and whatever sweatshirt one could grab in the morning became yours for the day. We shared hair dryers, stories, canteen money, visiting day treats, memories, and experiences. Sometimes sharing meant your bed when a friend had a nightmare. Sometimes sharing meant your family when someone else’s wasn’t around. Sometimes sharing meant your experiences to put someone else at ease. Camp showcases that sharing is necessary, teaching us to build bridges, not walls.
Always Try Your Best
The only failure at camp is in not trying. Putting your best foot forward, jumping in, and trying your best is one of the hallmarks of camp. New campers learn there is no harm in coming in second, not getting the lead in the camp skit, or missing the goal. This lesson transfers through the decades, keeping camp’s positive attitude afloat in all of us.
Nature is Good for You
Whether it’s sleepaway camp or day camp, each day kids return to their cabins or homes dirty and tired after an energetic day. Inspired by nature’s ability to flip a mind switch, lower blood pressure, and change our perspective, kids who go to camp turn into adults who appreciate the magic of nature.
Friendships forged at sleepaway camp are some of the best I know. Camp teaches kids to meet new people and get to know one another. Counselors from 20 years ago continued to be my mentors for years after camp, and today we share travel advice and are willing to meet up all over the world. My best friends from camp have been a part of my story for more than 30 years. We’ve been there for the happy and the sad, both around the corner and across the globe. Today we may utilize social media and technology to communicate, but these friendships stand the test of time.
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