To Camp Alone

May 16, 2016
Rob and Bob Wipfler
To Camp Alone image

Being “Home Alone” did not always work out so well for Macaulay Caulkin.  He should have gone to camp alone, instead. 

Many parents and children are under the false impression that camps are places for hometown friends to re-gather for summer vacation. They demand to be placed in bunks together and often choose nearly identical camp schedules. Consequently, their time at camp is considerably cloistered, which significantly reduces the best by-product of the experience — an opportunity to make new and enduring friendships.

A good example is witnessed when several children attend camp together and present themselves as co-joined at the hip. This association offers protection and cover, of sort, to that membership. This crowd is collectively “self-conscious,” often presenting themselves as a singular entity. Very simply, they succeed or fail as a group. A new camper in this situation, when choosing activities, is at the mercy of the whim and whimsy of the group (or the groups dominant personality) and is much less likely to get to do the activities which he or she actually wants to do, or the ones that will offer the most benefit to the individual camper.

Many parents vigorously defend this grouping arrangement as it affords their child an insurance plan against the most feared camp outcome — exclusion. But, as the saying goes “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” While those first few hours at camp may be a bit easier, the camper is nonetheless deprived of many of the prime growth opportunities of the camp experience: making new friends on his or her own, being "discovered" by others, and forging fresh identity. The camper who jumps into the camp experience independently will do so "with two feet" and will have a better experience because of it. Parents and children should work to get past this understandable emotion and trust the camp to do what it does best; absorb all campers into the full community culture. 

Camp leaders know that a gang of two or three newcomers wearing the same school shirt is less likely to be immediately hailed into an activity than a lonesome soul who politely approaches the crowd. We offer this advice to those who have come to camp with buddies from home: 

Just go to an activity by yourself and ask to be included.

Camp cultures are universally accepting and this suggestion will work anywhere. The new camper is not only invited, but completely welcomed. 

Now that the child branched out on her own, she is the sole beneficiary of that rush of excitement that comes with such a success.  Perhaps it is a game and her team gets clobbered.  No matter, she shares a camp experience with other children and, early in the summer, that is a hundred times better than winning the game with pals from home. 

Our recommendation to those who wish to come to camp with friends is that all of them — along with their parents — acknowledge that seeking and cementing new friendships is the prime value of camp.  Good camps have protocol in place to see that this happens. The directors break up groups into different bunks.  When a couple of kids end up in the same cabin nonetheless, (our camp allows requests) the cabin counselors arrange the bed assignments to keep them well apart.  Many camps assign children to tables in random fashion, thus assuring rich age and interest variety in the dining room. 

Moreover, the program directors put on their thinking caps every day to offer several alluring options to specific age groups during the same timeframe, which tends to alleviate the hometown effect quite well. Lastly, the directors themselves have eyes out for budding cliques.  The authors of this blog take personal pleasure in promoting new friendships whenever we see the opportunity, especially early in the session when kids are still a bit nervous about their prospects. 

Of course, camp counselors are always on the lookout for all first-year participants and know it is their job to bring them together in a friendly, welcoming fashion.  At every camp, the day is filled with informal encounters such as an invitation to play cards or ping pong, join an impromptu game, or just plain hang out. It might be counter-intuitive, but campers who go to camp alone (or if they come with friends, are open to experiencing camp independently and go to activities alone) are more likely to have their "radar" up and open to the often subtle signals of these opportunities to join the fun and make new friends. These are the moments when not being with buddies from home can give any child a real leg up in his quest for making new friends. 

Bob and Rob Wipfler are father/son co-directors of ACA-accredited Kingswood Camp for Boys in Piermont, NH. Together they have over 101 years of experience at residential summer camps. They have co-written a blog series for ACA, "Camp 101," since 2014. 

Photo courtesy of Kingswood Camp for Boys, Piermont, NH 

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