Longer Camp Sessions: Disappearing Dinosaur or Timely Treasure?

Andy Sangster

Gone are the days when most, or even many, camps offered only full sessions of seven or eight weeks. Shrinking summer vacations for all age groups, staggered college start dates for staff populations, and encroachment on dates of availability by an ever-increasing cadre of specialty camps (often offered, recommended, or even mandated by leaders/coaches of organized, year-round sports and other activities) have all made it more challenging for families to consider sending their children to traditional, full-season camps.

Given the recent economic turmoil and uncertainty, families have also been understandably more cautious in committing to extensive (one could perhaps substitute expensive) summer experiences ahead of time — affecting traditional reenrollment patterns, in terms of time frames, as well as first-time camper and overall camper numbers for many camps. Unthinkable a few years ago, some “half-season” camps are now reporting being similarly affected! Over the past two years, we have been hearing reports of lower numbers of half-season campers enrolling in exclusively three-and-a-half-week camps, as well as at camps that once only offered full-season sessions but now offer shorter sessions, too. This is a significant change in marketplace behavior — one that perhaps indicates that half-season camp is likely now being considered by the public to be a “longer” or even “ full” camp season. It is becoming clear to many full-season camps that simply offering half-season options is no longer a surefire (current or future) “fallback” solu¬tion for the challenges faced by a shrinking marketplace and potentially declining full-season enrollments.

There are no real surprises here for anyone who has been listening to Fred Miller, president of The Chatham Group, Inc., (who has been writing articles and speaking at ACA national conferences on this topic for years), and others who study trends and market forces influencing the camp industry. That said, one wonders what the hundreds of camps who are still offering longer sessions are doing or saying in the open marketplace, in support or defense of their longer sessions.

Almost every camp professional I have spoken with who works at a longer-session camp seems pretty adamant that their longer sessions are somehow better / more impactful than shorter-session camp offerings. It would, therefore, seem reasonable to assume that many longer-session camps would be shouting these benefits from the rooftops in an attempt to maintain their current and future viability. However, after searching many full- and half-season camps’ Web sites, it becomes clear that those of us who are maintaining longer camp session offerings are not sending a consistent, comprehensive (or even abbreviated) message to the public about what we believe are the specific benefits of longer-session camp experiences.

Having spent multiple hours entering names of dozens of camps I could think of in Google and then accessing multiple pages of each of their Web sites, in an effort to find some mention of the benefits of full-or longer-season camp sessions, I realize there is a staggering dearth of information being presented by camps in support of longer-session camp experiences. In fact, upon closer inspection, it is extremely difficult to find any camps that are actually addressing, in any way, why they are only offering longer camp sessions today! I did finally manage to find a few camps with Web sites that included something about the benefits of their longer camp session(s).

Camp Fernwood — Poland, Maine

Accessed directly from their home page, via a tab with only three drop-down options, is a page entitled, “What makes Fernwood so special?” Included in that page is the section, “Why full summer?” with the following content:

We are often asked the question, “How does Fernwood continue to thrive as a full summer camp?”It takes a long time to do what we do. Camps of many different kinds and lengths of session are overall healthy summer choices for children. However, our experience has shown us that to see the full benefit — experience the depth of relationships, establish the vital sense of connection, and to become a part of something bigger — a longer period of time or immersion is essential. It is in essence the key to our success.In a world that is increasingly hectic and impersonal, Fernwood isn’t. Fernwood is not just any experience. Fernwood is a series of life-changing, reinforcing events that teach girls how to be happy, well adjusted, and confident young women.

Camp Pemigawasett — Wentworth, New Hampshire

Found in the text of a page describing the Camp Pemi activities program: “In most instances they may also pursue a given activity for a number of weeks, allowing for significant growth and progress in that discipline.” And then, under a sort key entitled, “Parent Resources” in the Blog section of their site, the following para¬graph appears, in a posting that addresses a boy’s readiness for a camp experience: “That being said, as with a college year abroad versus a half year abroad, there is no doubt that the full season allows boys — who by the fourth week have fully settled into Pemi and feel comfortable with routines and friendships — to step further out of their comfort zones to try more new things and/or to refine expertise in a given area. It is this combination of confidence and extra time that leads to further development in an almost magical, expo¬nential way. For this reason, we suggest that a family consider a full season, if schedule and finances allow.”

Camp Laurel — Readfield, Maine

Another excellent rationale for full-season camp appears in a blog by Jem Sollinger, director at Camp Laurel, which I discovered by entering the words, “Full Season Camp” in my computer’s search engine. (It can also be found by searching through the blog content on their Web site or some of their additional Web marketing initiatives.)

Even as a targeted and motivated searcher, these were the only three camps I could find with concrete references to the specific benefits of longer sessions. Access to the quoted information varied significantly in terms of ease of discovery.

Validating the Value

From Camp Wawenock’s Web Site: www.campwawenock.com

Why Seven Weeks?

A “full season” at a camp like Wawenock offers many advantages over shorter-stay programs.

Relationships

Settling in to camp takes some time — whether the first or tenth year we attend — and, over the longer (seven-week) camp season, relationships between campers and their peers have time to develop and unfold naturally. At Wawenock, camp begins with more focus on getting to know and bond with cabin mates, and then campers are encouraged to branch out into the broader age group and beyond, as the days unfold. Relationships built and sustained over longer periods tend to be more stable, deeper, and based on the “real” person — rather than their projection of a particular image for a shorter period of time. Relationships are also able to develop at their own pace and to a greater depth within the whole camp community — with campers and staff of all ages getting to know each other well as summer progresses. Relationships built over time tend to stand the test of time best.

Skill Development

Campers are grouped with others who have chosen the same activities, and the same staff members work with these activity groups all summer long. This allows detailed group and individualized planning to be done by staff members who have the time and consistency of contact to help each camper work toward broader programmatic goals, as well as her individual goals in that activity. The same principles apply to cabin living, where a stable group of campers and staff live and laugh (and sometimes cry) together for seven weeks. Social skills and different approaches to group membership and leadership can be identified and encouraged by involved, caring counselors and senior support staff. Seven weeks gives campers the time to relax and settle in, to learn about each other, and even to try out new approaches to building trust and friendship within their cabin groups and units. This unhurried, intentional approach to skill acquisition in all areas of camp life cements learning and promotes confidence among the campers — confidence that spills over into other areas of their lives.

Feeling of Belonging

At Wawenock, everyone is considered “new” every summer — as we all grow, change, and experience new things in our lives between summers. (Those who are spending their first summer at camp are simply referred to as “first timers.”) To avoid cliquishness and to promote broader friendships within the unit age groups, cabin groupings are shuffled each year (so every cabin, by default, also becomes “new” each year.) As summer progresses, campers and staff get to know others outside of their cabin, unit, or existing circle of friends. There is a tradition of welcoming all people to camp, and nowhere is this more evident than when first-time campers and staff join the camp family. The seven-week season allows us to change dining room seating each week, where we mix campers of all ages and interests with different staff members. Each week the campers get to know a different group of campers and staff. An awareness of knowing many people from different places in camp and being greeted by older and younger friends from previous tables in passing permeates the psyche of first timers as the weeks unfold. Traditions and rituals are repeated multiple times over the course of a summer, allowing first familiarity and then “ownership” to develop in first-time campers. After seven weeks, a sense of belonging to the camp family is well established!

Spreading the Word

In the interests of full disclosure, I must now confess that I am passionate about this topic of spreading the word about our longer camp sessions (and also reliant upon it, as we only offer a single, seven-week session). Here then, is some information about what we are trying to do to keep the notion of a full-season camp experience on the radar screen of those who find us . . .

1. What are we doing about it as an organization?

Based on feedback from our camp families, we decided last year to include a section in our re-vamped Web site dedicated solely to the topic of “Why Seven Weeks?” (see above). We do also highlight the “enough time to . . . ” factor — and the benefits we believe stem from the way we approach structuring our pro¬gram in light of this — by organically sprinkling the same message in various places throughout our site and in other promotional materials. We emphasize the fact that we are a seven-week experience and do our best to help prospective campers and their parents understand why we choose to fight to remain this way, despite compelling forces from all sides tempting and pulling us in what some might consider “easier” or more sensible directions.

2. Why did we do this?

Our campers, staff, alumnae, and their families have told us repeatedly that they believe this is fundamental to who we are and to their experiences here. Their feedback was used to help formulate both the paragraph headings and much of the content. Though certainly not perfect, or close to being fully comprehensive by any means, our families have described the page, and similar messages found in other pieces/ places, as being particularly helpful to them in articulating to others (in some cases they used the word “justifying”) their choice to send their daughter to a full-season camp and, for many, to Wawenock in particular. None of this information is propriety, or seems par¬ticularly “earth-shattering” on its own, and I am sure that many camps’ camp¬ers, staff, alumni, and parents would/ could come up with a very similar list of benefits/topics that would become their own rationale for their longer camp session(s).

3. Is it helping?

What has been particularly surprising for us is the amount of positive feedback we have received from prospective camp families about their willingness to now consider a full-season camp experience — after only reading the rationale on our Web site, versus their feelings before. This fact alone validates our decision to include the page on our site, and it is why I encourage all of you who consider yourselves to be offering longer sessions to find ways to articulate and spread the word about the benefits of your particular camp’s longer experience. This way, if we all chime in, those camps that are still thriving and/or surviving as fundamentally longer-session operations can collectively inform the public of the benefits of choosing a full-season or longer-session camp experience, and perhaps maintain a genuinely differentiated profile and position in the marketplace going forward.

Looking to the Future

As we look to the future and decide how to market our camp programs to the camp families who might still consider longer sessions, (in isolation but also in competi¬tion with each other!), I believe we must also take some time to articulate what we believe to be important about the greater length of our own camp experiences. We should all be talking about what can be gained from a single, longer-season camp experience, as well as from successive years of experiences in such programs — versus the benefits of single or multiple shorter-stay programs. If we do not, the driving forces affecting today’s marketplace will continue to endanger the existence of longer-season camps, and we will have to substantially alter our emphasis and offerings, or close our doors forever.

Long-Term Residential Camp: Benefits at a Glance

Among the many benefits of the camp experience, long-term residential camp uniquely:

  • Allows relationships between campers and their peers to develop at their natural pace, as well as providing many opportunities to connect with other campers and staff, fostering a broader community spirit.
  • Gives a longer break from the digital world and a sustained period without reliance on home support systems, fostering greater independence and resiliency in participants.
  • Allows time for skill development in both activity and social areas, cementing learning and instilling confidence among campers, which spills over into other areas of their lives.

 
The author would like to thank Camp Laurel in Readfield, Maine, Camp Pemigewasset for Boys in Wentworth, New Hampshire, and Camp Fernwood for Girls in Poland, Maine, for allowing their Web sites and/or blogs to be quoted or referenced in this article.

Andy Sangster is a director at Camp Wawenock for girls, in Raymond, Maine. He is a standards visitor and serves on ACA committees at both local and national levels, including Camping Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee.

Originally published in the 2011 November/December Camping Magazine.

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