ACA Camp Blog

November 5, 2013

Guest blog by Tish Bolger, ACA President

As advocates for children and youth, it is our job to make sure they are provided with the very best learning opportunities during their developing years. Some of the most important opportunities we offer the children and youth in our charge are nature experiences.

Camps and youth programs are continually striving to create “Carbon Footprint Champions” who have vast experience with nature, conservation, and stewardship. That is why a recent commercial from Toys “R” Us — which seems to place an emphasis on a trip to a toy store to the detriment of the outdoors — is so disheartening.

In response to the commercial, the American Camp Association (ACA)® has created a way for members and other youth advocates to reach out to Toys “R” Us CEO Antonio Urcelay to share the importance of nature and why — while we honor creative play as a child’s right — we should protect and encourage a child’s right to play outdoors.

Please use the link below to use ACA’s pre-written letter template or share your own thoughts on the importance of nature experiences for all children.

Take a Stand for Nature Experiences

Tish Bolger
ACA President

October 29, 2013

Did you know that on October 31st, the planet will become a 7 billion-strong population? And half of that 7 billion are under the age 25! An overwhelming number, isn’t it?

Yet, I can only get my head around the implications (such as available resources, including all of the issues surrounding climate change — water, food, weather) if I consider the issue from my small perspective. What do I do?

I know I can turn off the lights, drive less, watch less TV, reduce my use of plastic, turn down my heat, and recycle. Yet, the camp community also has an opportunity to help each camper become a champion of the “carbon footprint” effort. A campaign for our planet led by the world’s most important asset — youth. Youth changed our use of seat belts. Youth changed our sense of responsibility to pick up trash and not throw waste out of our car windows. Youth helped us support Smokey the Bear. They are powerful advocates!

So, how do we mobilize youth at our camps this summer? What will you do? We can conserve water and electricity, we can encourage kids to walk places when they go home, we can recycle, and we can help them understand how to grow and produce food. Yet, as a camp community, what can we do next summer to make a difference — for our campers and our world? One person at a time, as a collective 7 billion. What are your ideas for mobilizing each small footprint to impact the larger footprint?

(click image for enlarged PDF)

October 21, 2013

What is something that everyone who has ever gone to camp has done that is virtually impossible to re-create in any other setting? Campfires, of course! Our camp is 76 summers old and there are some long-standing traditions and songs that everyone comes to expect. I really appreciated the first campfire of our Girls Camp this summer, filled with beautiful singing and complete with harmony. Sitting there, it made me think about all the campfires I have experienced over 45 summers at camp, and the way singing has been an important part of my life, at camp and away from it.

It made me think too that we have moved away from the singing culture of my childhood, and those childhoods of my elders. I heard a monk once describe singing together as “breathing together.” There is recent research that documents its effects on our heart rates and heart beats; that when we sing together, our heartbeats come into harmony with one another. For me, and for many who share my love of campfires and singing, this makes intuitive sense and helps to explain why we may feel so connected to each other when we are singing together at campfires.

The evening of the first Girls Camp campfire was really beautiful. It was clear and the light from the little sliver of the new moon didn't outshine the stars popping out as dusk settled in our valley. Purple Martins flitted in and out of their bird house, swooping and diving to eat the mosquitoes that hovered over the camp family gathered around our big campfire.

Every song was greeted with great participation, and before I knew it, we were winding the evening down with a few quiet camp songs that have been sung since at least the 1960s when I was first a camper, including two of my favorites: “Heida” and “Mr. Moon.” Both songs are sung in a round, and the resulting harmonies were incredible to hear.

There is nothing that sounds as good to my ears or feels as good to my heart as those songs sung by our girls at a campfire, with the background sounds of birds, frogs, and crickets in their own chorus. It is also in those quiet moments as a camper and young staff member that I began to learn and practice the art of self-reflection that has helped me continue learning all my life since. The combination of the power of singing together and the quiet reflective time gives us opportunities to feel deeply connected in a community, our camp family, and at the same time to be alone with our thoughts and feelings. For many of our campers and young staff members, I could see in dreamy far away gazes, that the same thing was happening here. As it has for all summers previous, and as it has at any camp where in the quiet moments of singing together we can ponder and dream.

Mary Rogers is the executive director at Sherwood Forest Camp. She attended Sherwood Forest as a camper and has spent every summer at camp, in different roles, ever since. Mary is a longtime ACA member and has served in various volunteer roles at local, regional, and national levels. She holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University.

Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Abnaki, North Hero, Vermont.


September 30, 2013

I have talked about the early childhood movement in the past. The success of this movement was a result of practitioners working with researchers to take early brain development science and make a compelling business case. This helped the public think of child care as something other than warehousing children or “babysitting.” It was a movement that revolutionized early childhood.

As a result, I predict that we will see a second movement — this time in youth development — within the next decade.

Let me suggest a trifecta, if you will:

1.) The growth of youths’ emerging critical thinking, problem solving, reflective skills, communication, and creativity — when supported by active, participatory learning — makes the case for a recalibration and realignment of a comprehensive educational/developmental system for young people. Home, school, and out-of-school programming (camps) must come together to provide a system unequaled by any other when done well.

2.) Brain-based learning — added to what we know about the importance of outdoor experiences on physical, social, and mental health, and today's alarming decline and limited access to the natural world — makes it clear that access to authentic outdoor experiences must be reintroduced and introduced to our families.

3.) Replacing play, the rite of childhood, with the ritual of resume building alone is causing serious fissures in the healthy development of children. Play allows young people to practice “how” to survive and thrive in a community. Play is a process of experimenting and refining important life lessons — a form of self-regulation — that we must allow children to have.

I predict these three ideas will become critical to youth development conversations within the next decade. Will we champion such a movement?

What will you do? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.  


September 23, 2013

Guest post by Marla Coleman

10-for-2. It often feels like we live 10 months for 2 months! Campers. Staff. Directors. (And dare we say parents, too?).

Sadly, those precious months have drawn to a close. We intentionally design the last week or few days to ensure that it seals our memories forever. Whatever the traditions of each camp — Olympics, candles flickering on the lake, “burndown” of the year, closing ceremonies — they really are one giant zip-lock bag. These rituals allow us to preserve the fun, the growth, the challenges, and the triumphs.

We can expect a letdown of sorts when it’s all over, not unlike the experience campers have. After all, we were on quite a high for those 8 weeks or so, delivering the ultimate experience: It’s exhilarating to be at camp every day — be yourself, be appreciated for who you are, know that no one is judging you, and feel liberated to leave your comfort zone and expand your stretch zone.

The good news is that while they have left the physical space that has been home, they are taking much of their camp experience with them on their journey through life.

Campers have truly reinvented themselves this summer, and I posit, so have we as a result; we’ve had the privilege of having ringside seats as they have begun to describe themselves with some pretty authentic and empowering labels they have attributed to themselves:

Courageous. Compassionate. Cooperative. Creative. Considerate. Charitable.  Caring. And those are just the “C”s!

And we share another quality with our campers: passion. We know this, because we live it every summer — pursuing a passion can change the course of your life. It helps us thrive because we are using our talents, finding our joy, learning from mistakes, and helping others. Camp is where all of us discover our future best self.

The children, as we, may need some transition time to readjust and reconnect with the pace, pressures, and demands of life outside the cocoon of camp: school, grades, schedules, electronics . . . . Celebrating recent successes, staying connected with camp friends, having tangible remembrances all help to realign a galaxy that encompasses new stars in our personal constellation, helping to light the path to happiness and success.

Camp, after all, is the compass that points true north. No wonder we are so passionate about it.

Marla Coleman is a past president of ACA and a spokesperson. She is a founding director of Coleman Country Day Camp on Long Island. She also serves on the board of Roundup River Ranch in Colorado, a SeriousFun camp (formerly Hole-in-the-Wall) for children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses.

September 9, 2013

The picture to the right is a vine I planted outside of my mom's apartment. I failed to prune it. As a result, it grew to greater heights and beauty than I ever imagined.

Suddenly I wondered: How many young people do we prematurely “prune?” We limit what they can do by denying them opportunities as a result of our own fears. We limit what they think they can accomplish with our words of caution. Are we stunting their growth?

Jane Sanborn from Sanborn Western Camps recommended a book to me — Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown. He says that play “energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities."

Of course, many of you know that play is one of my favorite topics. But, he immediately steps into another of my favorite topics — brain development: "neurologists, developmental biologists, psychologists, [and] social scientists from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process." For me, this supports my opinion that we should not alter or eliminate healthy environments that support the biological process that many of us call the right of childhood.

We also should not diminish the importance of our work.

Dr. Brown goes on to say that play promotes adaptability, empathy, and the ability to make complex social groups, as well as fosters creativity and innovation. This illustrates my problem with labels such as executive functioning, 21st-Century Skills, or life skills — this is simply and profoundly sound, positive, child and youth development. If we would practice it instead of trying to commercialize it, it seems we'd get further along.

Have you read Dr. Brown's book?  What did you think? Share in the comments below.

September 3, 2013

Recently we celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was inspiring to see the honor and reverence paid for such a day in our history. That said, we must not forget that the spirit of MLK is not a one-day event. The spirit of his words must live in us every day to ensure we get to the Promised Land.

Each day, we must find a way to take the concept of unity and seek a shared framework for being. I fear too often we find it hard to define ourselves as “one” because we become distracted by our differences. It is fair to recognize the rich diversity of experiences, strengths, and weaknesses that we possess as individuals, communities, and the world.

Yet, what bonds us — allowing us to celebrate our differences?

One shared framework to consider is that of humanity, humility, and hope.

Humanity in our compassion. Humility in our ability to not assume an attitude of superiority. Hope in our trust we can find a better place.

Young people often discover these qualities of humanity, humility, and hope at camp.

MLK Day and the celebration of his "I Have a Dream" speech should not be seen as a one-day events — nor should the camp experience only be realized during a season.

Day after day . . .

Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts

August 26, 2013

We have reached the end of another summer season. I have watched the Facebook posts of those who are leaving camp to go back to school, home, or another job. Each post is overflowing with mixed feelings of both sadness and hope. The songs, words, and prose abound with memories embedded deep within the recesses of the emotional memory muscles.

What has been learned and shared over what accumulatively may seem like nanoseconds in time will repeatedly resurface during the forthcoming years, having a profound impact on future experiences that will draw from these moments. Ellen Gannett inferred such influence in her recent blog post when she wrote about Willis Bright’s ideas on navigational and interpretive skills. As Willis suggests, those skills actually serve as a moral compass, often for life.

Yet, why does this happen? I have often suggested it is the intensity and density of the camp experience. Yet, that is short-hand for something much richer. Why do kids have such a  visceral reaction to the camp experience — one that often is rarely replicated anywhere else in their lives? Or why do kids reveal to others during a camp experience a side of them (even their fears or life torments) when they have not done so anywhere else?

In an NPR radio story on August 8, 2013, “Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmetic . . . and Respect,” I believe we gain insight into our own phenomenon. As it has been suggested, we know where kids go to receive “academic equipment,” but where are the places they go to receive critical social and emotional readiness equipment? And maybe even more importantly, what happens to the functionality of the academic equipment if the social and emotional equipment has been neglected?

I believe the camp experience provides what many have called a “sacred space.” A space where kids can find authentic adult mentors who are accessible — one cannot share one’s feelings if time is not provided or someone is not prepared to listen. A space where words are used to “name” feelings and emotions, giving kids “emotional literacy” — feelings cannot be expressed, verbally, if one is not familiar with the words or is not exposed to others who know how to use such words constructively.

Finally, a quality camp experience understands and emulates justice and friendship; such attributes create a space that nurtures trust. When we trust others, we often put them in high regard — we respect them. I believe respect is the engine that ensures the social and emotional equipment is working — even through difficult times.

Photo courtesy of Camp Skyline, Mentone, Alabama

August 20, 2013

Guest post by Lance Ozier

Lance OzierSummers have always belonged to children, and the traditionally fun activities that kids enjoy while on vacation at camp might not seem to have any relationship to the skills needed to be successful in school and beyond. After all, most camps are not summer study programs — camps have always served as respites from school, as an oasis from the textbooks and homework associated with the classroom. But as recent research suggests, the seemingly fun and playful activities that engage kids at camp not only serve as important skill builders that mitigate “summer learning loss”; these camp experiences also develop what economists call “noncognitive” factors known to be predictors of life success.

As we drive at full speed into a new school year, and the memory of summer camp fades in the rear view, it seems apropos to recognize the complementary ways in which both school and camp shape the lives of children and young adults. In a recent blog, Peg Smith referred to camp as a “19th-Century Solution to 21st-Century Obstacles,” and I think she’s right. The adoption of Common Core State Standards in almost every state is a clear indication that policy makers are addressing the need for students to analyze rather than memorize in order to equip the next generations with the 21st-century learning skills required of them in college and careers. These new standards, and the assessments being developed to measure them, will focus less on what kids know and more on how they can use their knowledge in new and different situations. For over 150 years, camps have provided landscapes of learning for generations of campers the old fashioned way, and camps now have the opportunity to lead by leaning into the future and continuing to give kids the space to practice what they learn and opportunities to explore ways of making sense of what they know in new and different ways.

A recent review of literature on the role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance issued by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research identified behaviors, attitudes, and strategies that are critical for success in school and in later life. These factors included attendance, work habits, time management, help-seeking behaviors, self-control, persistence, and social problem-solving skills that allow students to successfully manage new environments and meet new academic and social demands. To anyone who knows the power of the summer camp experience, this list sounds very familiar. In fact, ACA has conducted important studies with conclusions aligning closely with this list of noncognitive factors — 3,395 families whose child attended one of eighty different day or resident summer camps measured growth from precamp to postcamp surveys in four domains: positive identity, social skills, physical and thinking skills, and positive values. 

Now, more than ever, by simply getting better at what we already do, summer camps are well positioned to be a leader in the rapidly changing educational climate by preparing learners who will make up the fabric of this country’s communities and workforce. The evidence is clear: children need more than academic knowledge to succeed in the world of tomorrow and camps have been proven to provide the kinds of experiences that 21st-century learners need.

Dr. Lance Ozier is the senior literacy specialist at the Institute for Student Achievement, a division of the Educational Testing Service. For fifteen seasons he spent his summers in the Catskill Mountains of New York at Morry’s Camp. Lance now volunteers on ACA’s national Committee for the Advancement of Research and Evaluation (CARE). Contact the author at

August 12, 2013

In July, I had the opportunity and privilege to visit a number of ACA camps in Southern California. Visits to camps are always inspiring. This trip was particularly enjoyable because I was given the opportunity to not only spend some quality time with camp owners and directors, but I was provided additional discussion time with counselors.

These young people are without question the best ambassadors and champions for the camp experience. They understand the intrinsic value and importance of the camp experience for youth. What I was also impressed with was their ability to articulate what they are gaining from the experience: leadership, ability to listen, contribution, problem solving, humility, joy, and friendship.

Amidst all of their impressive, thoughtful expressions of purpose and promise, I was buoyed by their laughter and camaraderie. They shared stories, embellishing and editing with great artistry of language. They used words to paint impressionistic pictures that invited you into their community. If they take their enthusiasm about the camp experience out into the world, they will have the power to create a camp movement.

Finally, a young woman, expressing the beauty in the simplicity but magnitude of the camp experience, shared that just that afternoon, when she was working with a very young group of campers, she had let them follow a butterfly. I was struck by her phrase, "Today, we followed a butterfly." It made me pause — you see, just as a cocoon goes through a process of metamorphism to become a butterfly, this young woman was facilitating the metamorphism of young children into tomorrow's citizens. Sometimes it’s as simple, and as difficult, as following a butterfly.

Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts

August 6, 2013

Am I missing courage? I am a Wizard in an Oz of my own making.

I love to assimilate thoughts and concepts that may appear ambiguous and create meaning. To do so takes courage because at times the results may appear foolish. Yet, when I apply my genuine emotions (my heart) and use my brain to utilize the best thoughts collected from others, every once in a while, new meaning and provocation emerges.

That happened this week when I was re-reading an article by Edutopia.

The article was discussing brain-based learning and emotion science. The term brain-based learning resonated with me more directly than simply saying “teen brain research,” which often expresses “how the brain is developing.” Attaching the word “learning” illustrated what I think is the real value of brain research! It is about how we learn — not just understanding how the brain develops. Combining brain-based learning with emotion science was equally exciting because I believe both of these credible and powerful concepts are practiced and applied every day at camp!

The article went on to talk about whole-person support. Of course, camp professionals know it is about the whole child — health, environments, and social contexts. We may use different terms and vehicles to deliver such contextual experiences, but nonetheless, our ability to provide such unique, rich environments means that without grades or textbooks, we help young people learn to focus and build healthy relationships that, in turn, give our country productive, healthy citizens.

Finally the article suggested the need to create “your own school movement.” I, of course, immediately said, “We should create our own camp movement” — one camp at a time — while working together as an association/community of camps. We are in a position to weave our networks of internal and external relationships together in such a way that we could build a natural bridge to the formal school movement. Can we not recast our image in such a way that camp is recognized for its contribution to brain-based learning, emotion science, and whole-person support? In truth, shouldn’t schools recognize true whole-person support means weaving together relevant systems that have been built and designed for children, youth, and families in such a way that the whole child, family, community, and society benefits? What happened to that “takes a village” concept?

Oh, if I only had a brain . . . a heart . . . courage!

Photo courtesy of Rolling River Day Camp, Oceanside, New York

July 22, 2013

Guest post by Audrey Monke

“Being considerate of others will take your children further in life than any college degree.” —Marian Wright Edelman

In our cut-throat, competitive culture, where assertiveness and achievement are glorified and valued, I believe the importance of focusing on kindness as a character trait is often overlooked. There are anti-bullying posters and speakers at most schools, but where is the message about the powerfully positive impact of kindness?

All youth development professionals, including teachers, coaches, and camp staff, know that wording things positively and telling kids what we DO want them to do is far more effective than a list of “don’ts” and “nos.” So, why hasn’t this message translated into how we teach children to treat one another? We’re talking with children a lot about not bullying each other, but we’re not talking with them enough about what we want them to be doing instead — which is, of course, to treat each other with respect and kindness. I propose that as youth development professionals we flip the “anti-bullying” message into a “pro-kindness” one. And, to that end, we need to teach our staff and parents specific ways to teach kids kindness.

Here are a few specific, easy ways to model and practice kindness in your home or at your camp:

  • Get kids to focus on kindnesses that they have seen by asking them to point out kind acts they have witnessed or done.
  • Brainstorm with kids kind things they can do for others and help them follow through. Focus on small, easy kindnesses rather than huge things.
  • Talk with kids about how they feel after someone has done something kind for them or after they’ve done something kind for another person.

Being a considerate, kind person who thinks about others is a great character trait that helps children form good relationships and leads to a happier life as an adult. And what should we say to super competitive parents who want their children to succeed at all costs, even if it means cheating and being mean to others?  It could be helpful for them to know that research has clearly shown that kind people are happier people, and happier people, in turn, are more successful in life. In jobs and in future relationships, kindness will take our children “further in life than any college degree.” Focusing on kindness needs to be a higher priority for everyone who cares about children.

“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” — John Wooden

Audrey Monke, with her husband Steve, has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp (Lakeshore, California) for the past twenty-four years. They have five children (ages nine to nineteen) who keep their life camp-like year round. Audrey has been a member of ACA since 1989 and was President of WAIC (Western Association of Independent Camps) from 2007–2010. She writes about camp and parenting at

July 9, 2013

Recently, camp has received some uninformed exposure in the media, and as stewards for youth and the camp experience, we must be prepared to respond with facts. We must use this opportunity to shine a light on the critical 21st-century skills our campers learn, our care in providing role models, and our continued efforts to reach every child with a quality camp experience.

If I were queen, I would wave my magic wand and ban all poorly researched articles that allow people to unfairly use their influence. (Although, I am happy to say that Dr. Drexler, who wrote the blog post I’m referring to, appended her post after receiving my letter and reading the many comments in support of camp.) If I were queen, television would look for ways to portray experiences with honesty and sincerity, instead of trying to sensationalize for entertainment purposes.

Ah, but alas, I am not Queen and probably for good reason. That said, I, like obviously everyone else, can share an opinion when dismayed — and you can, too!

Photo courtesy of Victory Junction, Randleman, North Carolina

July 2, 2013

Guest post by Marla Coleman

“Play is not a luxury we should ration, but rather a crucial dynamic of physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development for children of all ages.” So says Dr. David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child. In fact, play is the work of childhood, experts clarify. It is what gets children ready for learning in the first place.

But did you know that over the last two decades, children have lost eight hours per week of free, spontaneous play? And a recent study concluded that kids’ overall ability to follow instructions was inversely related to the amount of time they had to practice imaginary play. That’s because play teaches self-regulation and other lifelong skills needed for success. It is the catalyst that makes us more productive in everything we do and leads us ultimately to happiness.

Here’s the good news: Play is both the stage and the backdrop for the camp experience! It’s where children learn to dream big and to realize their goals for both themselves and for the world at large. And more good news: Play is actually instinctive for children.

Benefits of play include:

  • better social skills
  • higher emotional intelligence
  • superior self-discipline
  • greater creativity
  • school success

Christine Carter, sociologist at UC Berkley and author of Raising Happiness, asserts that “Parenting is one grand opportunity to find happiness in the messiness of life.”

So, as partners in parenting, camp directors and staff can encourage parents to sit back — revel in the joy and let the “stuff” of camp unfold for the summer — as we give their children opportunities to lead; have them engaged with counselors who are actively involved in their play; allow them to thrive by living in the moment; provide ample time for play; and celebrate their creativity and spontaneity, gratitude and forgiveness, grit, and optimism.

Camp is here — it’s time for kids to be kids — and play to their hearts’ content! It’s the power of camp!

Marla Coleman is a past president of ACA and a spokesperson. She is a founding director of Coleman Country Day Camp on Long Island. She also serves on the board of Roundup River Ranch in Colorado, a SeriousFun camp (formerly Hole-in-the-Wall) for children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses.

June 24, 2013

James (Pop) Hollandsworth passed away last week.

I met Pop Hollandsworth early in my ACA career. I was attending a conference in ACA, Southeastern and was advised to go to Pop’s workshop on “how to climb a tree.” To my surprise, when I arrived at the session (being held under a tree), I saw a diminutive, sparkling elderly man who was in his eighties. He reminded us of the simple beauty and magic of climbing a tree — a tree full of life lessons.

Regardless of Pop’s size or age, the power, energy, and spirit this man emitted was extraordinary. In the years that followed, whenever I had the privilege of sharing time with Pop, it was the same — I left his presence knowing there was good in the world.

The last time I was with Pop was in Hong Kong for the 2011 International Camping Congress. I was exhausted from the long flight and bemoaning my weariness, when once again, I saw that diminutive, sparkling elderly man, bent and gnarled by time, navigating his way through the camping congress with energy and zest. My youngest son, Dayton, had traveled to Hong Kong with me, and I felt it was such an honor to introduce him to this powerhouse of a man.

Neither Dayton nor I complained one more time about jet lag! We simply were in awe.

We will miss Pop but forever feel his presence.

Read more about Pop’s life and contributions.

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