Making the Case for Summer Camp

It’s the same question every year: What are my kids going to do this summer?

Should he go to lacrosse camp to get a leg up on fall tryouts? What about math camp to lighten her load this fall? Better yet, maybe this is the summer to learn Mandarin? After all, there’s no time like summer to get ahead.

Then that little voice reminds you that your kids are burned out and need time outside, away from technology. Maybe this is the summer to stop over-thinking it all and send your kids to a traditional sleep-away camp.

More than just fun

While some might deem this a slacker route, there’s plenty of evidence that good things happen when you go to summer camp.

A study conducted by the American Camp Association between 2001 and 2004 found that summer camp builds skills for life. Kids become leaders—building independence, a sense of adventure and self-confidence—while also learning how to be team players by working together to solve problems and survive failure. These skills define lifelong success better than any report card.

So what’s the magic of camp?

Getting dirty in the woods

Kids aren’t just sleeping in the woods. They’re learning to identify poison ivy, spot animal tracks and navigate rushing water. They have time to study a bug, ask questions about what they see and learn a new skill. Even better, there’s no technology to distract them.

“If we don’t get our kids into the woods, learning about and loving nature, we’re not going to have people passionate enough to save our planet in the future,” says Ellen Flight, director of Songadeewin, an all-girls camp and one of three summer camps operated by the Keewaydin Foundation in Vermont.

Navigating the wild and unpleasant cabin mates

Camp isn’t always fun. The food is different, the showers are cold and at least one kid in your cabin will drive you crazy. But with this discomfort comes a lot of good.

“Old-fashioned sleep-away camp is the best antidote to the extreme nature of our culture,” professes Dr. Wendy Mogel, acclaimed clinical psychologist and the author of the best-selling parenting books “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” and “The Blessing of a B Minus.” “We try to protect our children from every danger, from failure and discomfort. Our goal should be to keep them as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.”

“Even better, you don’t have your nervous, over-intelligent, meddling parents there to step in and save you,” Mogel says. “You have to learn to be a team player, sleep on an uncomfortable bed, and get along with the annoying kid in your cabin.”

All this “good suffering” prepares kids for the realities of life better than any academic setting.

Learn to work together—or you may not eat

Camp offers authentic experiences and real consequences. If you forgot your raincoat, mom can’t bring it and you will get soaked walking in the woods. If you aren’t willing to paddle, the canoe will not move. Skipped the mosquito repellent? Prepare to scratch.

“Kids learn what they are capable of, particularly in the wilderness,” says J.R. Verkamp, director of Kooch-i-Ching, an all-boys wilderness camp in Minnesota. “It’s amazing to see on a canoe trip how each boy figures out what he can do to help. More importantly, each begins to quickly understand that if I don’t do my part, everyone suffers. And through this process of working together as a community and helping others, these kids are building confidence and character.”