The Importance of Summer Camp Friendships

When summer camp is over and campers return home, many kids experience “camp sickness,” a phenomenon that’s the reverse of homesickness. “There’s a definite yearning to see camp friends,” says Dan Weir, director of camping services at Frost Valley YMCA, in Claryville. And while camp facilities may be lovely and the atmosphere free from anxiety, it’s not the camp itself that kids miss most. It’s the friendships they formed that spark these feelings.

“When you hang out together with camp friends, it rejuvenates your soul,” says Andy Lustig, a fashion designer, who attended an all-girls camp in Maine growing up, and maintains close friendships with the friends she made there. 

These relationships motivate kids to return to camp, year after year, building enduring, lifelong friendships. “My camp friendships are definitely my strongest and longest friendships,” says Erica Edelman, who went to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, a sleepaway camp in Wingdale, for eight summers as a camper and three more as a counselor. She hasn’t strayed far from the world of camp in adulthood, either: She works now as a division head at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. 

If, like me, you never attended summer camp, you might not get it: What’s happening there to make friendships so powerful? After all, even for loyal campers who attend every summer, the time spent at camp is a relatively small fraction of childhood. And yet, during those brief weeks or months, whether at day camp or sleepaway, kids are able to open up in a way that leads to what Edelman describes as “friendships so deep that they become a part of who you are.” 

Making Friends at Summer Camp 

Camp, as it turns out, is uniquely suited to provide all the very best ingredients for forming friendships: an escape from routine, shared activities, and exposure to new things—all happening under the watchful eye of well-trained role models. Here are a few reasons why those camp friendships form—and last—so powerfully. 

Goodbye tech; hello connections: At Frost Valley, as with many camps, no electronics are permitted. And if kids bring phones along anyway, good luck using them: Cell reception is non-existent. There’s a certain stress that comes with being a kid, between exams, daily homework assignments, phones vibrating with alerts, and ample after-school activities to attend. At camp, “kids and staff really get to connect with each other in a way society doesn’t provide anymore,” Weir says, and the removal of stressors helps that process along.  

With the pressures of the outside world removed, what remains is a common routine and activities. It’s an environment that encourages kids to let down their guard and open themselves up. The hope, Weir says, is that you’ll unplug from your phone, spend time with others practicing to be a good person, and return home a better participant in society. 

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A chance to define and reinvent yourself: At home, a child may be popular, the class clown, sporty, a slow reader, or forever tagged by an embarrassing event that took place in fourth grade. Labels are removed at camp; it’s an opportunity for a fresh start with a new community. “That’s the beauty of camp: You get to define who you are and who you want to be,” Weir says.

When Lustig began camp, she seized the moment to jettison the personality traits she didn’t like about herself. “Andy, you’re going to go there and you’re not going to be shy—you’re going to be outgoing,” she resolved. For her, camp was a place where “you can recreate yourself.” Camp provides another reference point for kids; at camp, kids get a big reminder that their lives will be bigger than the communities (school, activities, etc.) they inhabit the rest of the year. For one of Lustig’s friends, a late bloomer who struggled at school and wasn’t well-liked, “camp was a parallel universe that kept her sane” throughout the tough time in middle and high schools. During summers, fellow campers were eager to be her friend and saw her positive qualities, and this self-esteem booster kept her going year-round, Lustig says. 

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Concentrated time: “When you’re at camp, we really slow down time,” Weir says. This puts the focus on kids having safe and fun experiences, and above all, forming connections. The shared experience is a big factor. Weir points out that experts believe shared experiences are foundational to friendships. “By doing something together—even if the other person is a complete stranger from a different background, different socioeconomic status, different race, different religion, anything that you can divide people up by—we find that by having that common bond over something, and an experience, really forms a lifelong friendship.”

The time spent at camp becomes a touchstone moment, something that feels meaningful even years after attending. Many of Lustig’s friends returned to camp as counselors in their early 20s, because it felt like a secure place to pause and reassess career and life choices. Similarly, Edelman says, “I continue to find an unbelievable ability to connect with other ‘camp people.’ We speak the same language, have a shared past—even if we didn’t actually live it together.” 

A new vantage point: Not only does camp allow kids the possibility of reinvention, but it also gives them the opportunity to see the world from a different angle. Weir grew up in a small town—defined by his home by default and unable to easily explore new things. Going back to camp every nine months gave him the opportunity to start fresh each time, with new interests, and to look for friends who had the same hobbies.  

Is Camp Right for Your Child? 

The answer will always depend on your child. While camp offers much in terms of relationship building and freedom from the everyday distractions, not every child will enjoy the experience, or flourish away from family. Lustig’s son Gus is only 3—too young even for thoughts of kindergarten—but she feels confident that the question for her family will be less if Gus will attend camp, and more about whether it’ll be an all-boys camp or a mixed-gender one. Edelman’s children all attend Ramah Day Camp, where she works, and one son also attends Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, the same sleepaway camp she went to herself. But, she says, “my oldest son is not ready for sleepaway, and as much as I clearly have strong feelings and memories of my experience, it isn’t right for everyone.” 

Whatever magical mix of elements makes camp friendships develop—from engaging in shared experiences to spending gadget-free time away from home—the power of summer-camp connections cannot be denied. Campers have unstoppable enthusiasm and nostalgia for their camp experiences, and with good reason: The bonds created in the short weeks away from home endure well beyond the summer all the way to adulthood, to weddings, shared vacations, camp reunions, brunches, and all the everyday get-togethers that make up a lifelong friendship.

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