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Camping Alone? Connection, Consistency, and Contribution: How Summer Camps Build Social Capital
Eight years ago, Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam published a book, Bowling Alone, chronicling the demise of connection in modern-day American society and warning that the precipitous decline in "social capital" (the collective value of all social networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other) impoverishes our lives and communities. As evidence, Putnam cites plummeting rates of membership in PTAs, unions, and clubs of all kinds; long-term declines in blood donations, card games, and charity; and drops of 40-60 percent in dinner parties, civic meetings, family suppers, picnics . . . and league bowling.
More recently, in a column in Time magazine, Putnam highlighted a study by sociologists that compared surveys of Americans from 1985 and 2004, revealing a significant decline in the number of people with whom we say we can discuss important matters.
Putnam poses the question: "Why? Is it two-career families? The Internet? Suburban sprawl?" And, perhaps more important, he asks, "Does it really matter?" Many studies say, "Yes!"
With social isolation comes rising crime, political coarseness, and shriveling generosity. People fail to connect and, more to the point, children fail to thrive. Could summer camps soon go the way of other, perhaps less integrated, social institutions of our time? Given the connectedness, consistency, and contributions of the camp experience, probably not.
Putnam's Saguaro Seminar at Harvard promotes civic engagement, long a hallmark of the summer camp experience, as the antidote to the disconnected. Such engagement, they say, is "the new hybrid health club for the 21st century," pointing out that there's no cost to join and highlighting the pervasive individual and collective benefits of the work performed and the social ties established. Sounds like summer camp to me.
Doing some back-of-the-envelope qualitative research for a camp alumni banquet speech, I traveled far and wide, from the tennis courts nestled against the sand dunes of Cape Cod Bay to the archery range hugging the main thoroughfare of Route 6A in Brewster, Massachusetts — covering the swimming pool, aerobics class, and the woodworking shop in between. To scores of campers, I asked a carefully constructed question, "In one word, tell me what camp means to you." Here's what they had to say: family, community, friends, pride, love, compassion, adaptability, trust, camaraderie, reminiscence, diversity, and . . . connectedness!
Connectedness at camp is achieved or attained not through some laborious or even time-intensive process but rather by simply coming together to form a community inextricably linked to the social construct of civic engagement through collective play and work, weaving a tapestry of volunteerism, mutual respect, trust, and fulfillment along the way. It can happen almost in an instant and transcend any particular length of stay: a week, a month, a summer . . . or ten. It takes place against a backdrop of sailboats on the water at sunset; the rustling of the pines at bedtime; or the fog lifting slowly off the playing fields at sunrise; the laughter at assemblies when children dare to perform that which would never see the light of day at school; the satisfaction that comes with that first bull's-eye; the elation at winning the tennis tournament or the pride of just being able to compete; the completed art or woodworking project; morning reveille and evening "Taps." It is the magic of growing up at camp.
Growing Up at Camp
Perhaps unlike other places in our fastpaced, high-tech world, growing up at camp means not so much leaving behind the sheer joy of childhood as it does the embracing of companionship, of imagination, of excitement, of lessons to be learned, lakes to be swum, balls to be batted, pictures to be painted, and targets to be shredded. Growing up at camp is not about relinquishing "childish things" but rather learning which of those childish things to cherish, to nurture, to carry forward, and to share with somebody else.
Growing up at camp means learning to "live in the moment" — extracting from the experience, and the people within the experience, the impetus to become more selfconfident, more understanding, more accommodating, more loving, more human.
Michael Eisner, former chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company, shares some conclusions about the experience in his book, Camp. "I've spent nearly as much time trying to understand the strange appeal of summer camp as I have the appeal of a talking mouse who favors red shorts. Quite frankly, I'm still stumped about the mouse. But, I think I've figured out the amazing allure of summer camp . . . . When all is said and done, people of all ages want to be a part of something bigger and more important than themselves. More than anything else, this is the value that camp teaches kids. It offers them a perspective and provides them with a headstart on the road to becoming fully human."
Isolation Versus Connection
In his bestselling book, Loving Each Other, Dr. Leo Buscaglia also wrote of our increasingly detached society, its cynicism, and the isolation it breeds. "If you love, you are considered naïve. If happy, you are considered frivolous and simple. If generous and altruistic, you are considered suspect. If forgiving, you are considered weak. If trusting, you are considered a fool. If you try to be all of these things, people are sure you are phony." He offers deeper connections as an antithetical approach, citing scientific literature that highlights the physical and psychological value of relationships and intimacy.
Indeed, last April, Mental Health America (MHA), a leading nonprofit dedicated to helping people live mentally healthier lives, challenged us to make positive and lifefulfilling connections, arguing that social networks can reduce stress and promote overall health by providing a sense of belonging, self-worth, and security. Among the steps MHA advocates in its "Mental Health Connection Challenge" are these:
- Connect to Family and Friends — Loved ones are an important source of support and encouragement. Talk to them when you need extra help, allow them to provide guidance, and be prepared to help them when they need you.
- Connect to Community Members — Shifting from your own issues to the needs of others can be a healthy change of pace.
- Connect to Yourself — Taking time for yourself can decrease stress and improve health and relationships.
Summer camp seems to be a breeding ground for just the type of relationships and connectivity that Dr. Buscaglia and MHA are talking about. In fact, a four-year study of more than 5,000 families from American Camp Association (ACA)-Accredited® camps found that parents, staff, and children reported positive outcomes from their summer camp experiences, including significant growth in social comfort, friendship skills, and peer relationships.
Breadth and Depth of Camp Connections
What makes connections at camp so different and so special? If you listen to the kids, breadth and depth seem to be key.
Reflecting on her camp friendships, sixteen-year-old Kelsey says, "Although camp seems like a place to simply spend your summers, it is truly so much more. Besides the wonderful learning experience, I have forged many friendships that will last a lifetime. Friends you get from camp are not just those you spend the summer with, they are your escape. The fact that they can be so unbelievably secure in your friendship that they expose their darkest secrets to you inspires others to be honest with themselves. Not only have I grown up with these kids, I grew with them."
Matt, eighteen, adds, "Many of the best friends I have ever had are from camp. We learn to work together and live like a family, setting aside our differences to make our experiences greater. Nobody holds grudges because people realize that camp is too short to be mad at anybody and that they should figure out their differences and go back to being friends. Camp is amazing for the friendship and problem-solving skills you learn."
And fifteen-year-old Julia offers, "The friends you make at camp, at least for me, are the ones that are always there for me and I know I can depend on. They don't judge you like some people might at school because you all have something in common: you love camp."
Adding to the sense of connectedness at camp is the allure of its consistency. Grounded in tradition — and perhaps repetition — summer camp offers a nesting place for children and young adults caught up in the frantic, competitive, ever-changing social fabric that is America in the 21st century.
In his book Cabin Pressure: One Man's Desperate Attempt to Recapture His Youth as a Camp Counselor, author Josh Wolk refers to camp as a "reliable touchstone." Reflecting on returning to his boyhood home, he writes, "I didn't have to worry about getting to the archery range and finding incredulous kids saying, ‘Wait, you had to aim the bow and arrow yourself?' Everything was so constant, so consistent, that the more I saw around the quiet camp, the more logical it felt that soon a bugler would blow reveille and my old friends would tumble blearily out of their cabins, scratching their bedheads, scuffing down the steps in their worn Teva sandals striped with dirt, while wearing stained college T-shirts inside out and backward, a Hanes Beefy-T tag flapping under their chin. The woodshop had the same band saw, the sports lawn had the same soccer nets, the same kickboards were stacked at the swimming dock, so why shouldn't the same friends be lined up on their bunks?"
In their address at the alumni event I was keynoting, sixteen-year-olds Dana and Mark spoke of a similar sentiment, noting, "Camp serves as a balancing point and a source of stability and comfort in comparison to the school year and just our everyday lives. It is the one place we can go where we know that everything will always be the same. Each summer we come back to camp and know that our friends here are true; we can start again like it was yesterday. The unique thing about these friendships is how strong they are and how long they last, even though we only see each other during the summers. It's almost like we have to live our entire year with these people in just two months. We all joke that each day at camp is equivalent to a week at home because of our limited time."
Those of us in the camp business hear almost daily testimonials to the enduring legacy of the work that we do — often expressed most simply in the form of happiness, a worthwhile goal according to Project Happiness, whose mission is to inspire and empower people to create greater happiness within themselves and others and which, among other things, advocates for young people to be the leaders in a new, interconnected world.
We've got a good head start.
According to Teens Today research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), young people who have attended summer camp are significantly more likely than those who have not to report that they feel happy almost every day and to say they perceive themselves as friendly, confident, outgoing, liked by others, and looked up to by kids their age.
Other good news can be found in the survey of more than 2,700 middle and high school students: camp kids are significantly more likely than noncamp kids to feel good about their personal development, including their relationships with peers, and, just as important, to take positive risks, such as volunteering for community service.
Indeed, camp provides the very type of interconnectedness, shared values, and common goals that nurture fulfillment, encourage leadership, and embrace contribution to others and community. And those community contributions often extend far beyond summer camp, transferring the positive presence of youth from campgrounds to school yards, from the United States to South America, and to young and old alike. As seventeen-year-old Lauren, a community- service volunteer, says, "The positive atmosphere camp provides is reflected in my decisions. The camp environment, including my camp friends, defines who I am."
Who They Are
Despite our society's tendency to sometimes view youth, particularly adolescents, as more of a problem than a solution, there exists ample evidence of an alternate, credible, conclusion. For example, in his book The Good Teen, Tufts University Professor Richard M. Lerner reveals that his study of about 4,000 adolescents found the existence among young people of what he calls the "five Cs": competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. These may coalesce, says Lerner, in a sixth C, contribution. And contribution is what civic engagement, wherever it takes place, is all about.
Thus, perhaps it's no surprise that young people seem to be less self-absorbed and more other-oriented than they are given credit for — a fact supported by data from Youth Service America, which reports that millions of young people are engaging in disaster relief, registering new voters, educating their communities about good nutrition, and distributing HIV/ AIDs prevention materials, for example.
At my camp, we have embraced a reciprocal approach to community service, or service-learning, mirroring the route of many schools — offering credit toward prescribed achievement goals for service rendered outside of, as opposed to within, the camp environment. As a result, many of our campers have been motivated — perhaps even inspired — to engage in youth coaching, peer counseling and tutoring, and assisting the homeless and elderly.
In a very important way, camps serve as a training ground for the very type of values that promote a sense of civic responsibility and a true desire to "give something back," such as the ones developed by members of my camp community . . . kindness, pride, acceptance, open-mindedness, sportsmanship, honesty, friendship, and empathy. Dana and Mark, the sixteen-year-old alumni banquet speakers, said, "That's the great thing about camp: we hold the same core values. These shared values are the most essential part of what holds us together."
Better Together In its final report Better Together, the Saguaro Seminar states, "Social capital is built through hundreds of little and big actions we take every day." Among the 150 suggestions of "what you can do" to add to the building are some that sound very familiar: "Say hello to strangers; ask a new person to join a group for a dinner or an evening; exercise together or take walks with friends; organize a neighborhood pickup — with lawn games afterwards; join in to help carry something heavy; fix it even if you didn't break it; pick it up even if you didn't drop it; start a tradition; make gifts of time . . . and take pottery classes."
In the end, better together is clearly better than being apart. And while bowling alone seems practical, camping alone, fortunately, does not.
Buscaglia, Leo. (1984). Loving Each Other. New York: Fawcett Columbine Books; Ballantine Books.
Eisner, Michael D. (2005). Camp. New York: Time Warner Book Group.
Lerner, Richard M. Ph. D. (2007). The Good Teen: Rescuing Adolescence From the Myths of the Storm and Stress Years. New York: Crown Publishers; Random House.
Mental Health America (formerly National Mental Health Association). (2008). www.nmha.org (29 May 2008). National Conference on Citizenship.
National Conference on Citizenship Announces New Leadership Team. February 4, 2008. www.ncoc. net (29 May 2008).
Project Happiness. (2007). www.projecthappiness. com/tv/en/aboutWelcome.jsp (29 May 2008).
Putnam, Robert. You Gotta Have Friends. Time. June 25, 2006. www.time.com/time/magazine/ article/0,9171,1207822,00.html (29 May 2008).
Putnam, Robert. (2000). The Collapse and Revival of the American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Putnam, Robert D. and Feldstein, Louis. (2003). Better Together: Restoring the American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster. www.bettertogether.org (29 May 2008).
SADD, Inc. (2004). Positive Risk-Taking Cuts Alcohol and Drug Use Among Teens — National Study Links Adolescent Risk Profiles to Substance Use, Academic Performance, and Mental Health; Teens Shatter "Myth of Risk." Teens Today 2004. www.sadd.org/teenstoday/ survey04.htm (29 May 2008).
Wolk, Josh. (2007). Cabin Pressure: One Man's Desperate Attempt to Recapture His Youth as a Camp Counselor. New York: Hyperion Books.
Youth Service America. (2008). www.ysa.org (29 May 2008).
Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., author of the new book, Reality Gap — Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex, What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling (Union Square Press, 2008), has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as chairman and CEO of SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about Stephen's work, visit www.stephengraywallace.com.
Originally published in the 2008 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.