Camp directors and parents alike will enjoy hearing children report about their week at summer overnight camp as the “best week ever!” And it just may be that some of the best evidence that describes the benefit of camp comes directly from the experiences of campers, parents, and leaders.
Camps have selected to offer shorter sessions with the interest of today’s parents and families in mind. As the cost of longer sessions rose, the desire for more economical options was a common refrain. As families faced a greater variety of other summer opportunities for their children to participate in — from summer school to sports leagues to arts and music programs — so too did the desire for a shorter overnight camp experience that would permit children to participate in many programs, to attend camp, and maybe fit in a family vacation. Thus came organized camping’s effort to meet the needs of parents in providing the shorter, more economical camp weeks to meet their interests.
Although shorter in days, parents have the same high expectation that their children will benefit from the best of camp experiences. There is no allowance for how much less may actually fit into sessions that are substantially shorter than a longer traditional camp session. While camp professionals may acknowledge that a longer-length session may often provide deeper relationships, stronger skill building, or a wider range of experiences, the powerful effect of a week at camp is for many children a lifelong memory.
Over decades of the camp experience, comments from short-term camp participants, parents, and leaders are not at all unusual in capturing the true value of a week or even a few days at overnight camp. Visit a good camp on the closing day of a one-week session, and you will surely see groups of girl campers hugging each other, exchanging phone numbers and e-mail contacts, and promising to keep in touch. If you stop to hear their stories they will ring with new friendships, adventurous times of discovery with their cabin group, attributes that they admire in their counselors, and other memories of their group experience. In many cases they will be talking about their next year at camp.
You will see a boy grabbing his mom or dad by the hand and starting off on a tour of the cabin and then onward to every place of importance to him while at camp for the week. The tour might include everything from his cabin bunk to the waterfront, dining hall, campfire ring, and the hiking trail to an overnight site. It is not uncommon for lingering camper–parent tour groups to be enjoying this enthusiastic journey for an hour or more.
And those that have simply rushed off for home, a weekend trip, or another vacation week will most likely hear stories for several hours followed by some well-deserved sleep. Parents often comment, too, on the attitude and behavior of their children that continues well after a week at camp. Parents often report that their children came home from camp with a whole new interest in helping out around the house, spending time with family members, speaking up positively about camp activities, skills they learned, and the quality impressions of counselors and staff leaders. Campers often are more adept at relating to others; demonstrating confidence, independence, and character values; and making decisions about their own behavior choices according to their parents.
Perhaps an even more impressive story is the teacher from an outdoor education session with sixth grade students who watched her students during a simulation on survival as the instructor invited the small group to consider how they might use items in a survival pack. One shy student offered that the rope and fishing line could be used to make a trap. Without hesitation he adeptly took about ten minutes to construct a snare using the materials on hand and a few sticks in the woods. Needless to say, the entire class looked on in rapt amazement. The teacher was even more amazed — this student was one who, previously, never raised a hand in class and rarely spoke up to answer a question. Yet, in the small-group, outdoor environment at camp, he had the attention of the entire group and received the positive recognition of the teacher.
Or consider another story of a middle school outdoor education student from a Southeast Asian immigrant family who had self-selected to be mute in class for years — he never spoke a word in class, but the family said he spoke at home. While the boy was with a small student group on a late night star hike at camp, he was both moved by the experience and comfortable enough to speak for the first time in front of his classmates and teacher. Although the magnificence of the star-studded dark night sky was splendid, the words spoken to the group by this unheard classmate were even more astounding. This is evidence of the unique power of even just a few days at camp.
These quick stories that share and identify valuable positive experiences from short-term camp experiences should stand out for camp professionals and parents alike. For parents considering whether to enroll their child in camp, there should be strong confirmation that even a three- to seven-day camp week or mini-session can provide a child with a life-changing experience. For camp leaders, it certainly reminds us of the power of camp to change lives while also adding the priority of attention that must be given to the programs and staffing at our camp. We must assure that all staff, from cabin counselors to activity instructors to cooks and office staff, are relating to every camper, every day in a way that will make that camper’s experience memorable and meaningful. If we only have a few days to make outstand-ing impressions with campers, it makes every hour all the more critical.
Every Minute Counts
Camp leaders must also be aware that in shorter camp sessions, there may be limits to what all campers are able to participate in when the camp has a wide variety of programs. Usually, most camps will have a fairly filled arrival day and often a closing day that may include a variety of special ceremonies, campfires, or other memorable events. Of course, that often leaves the remaining days during the session with very busy schedules. At a traditional camp with a variety of sports, swimming, boating, crafts, archery, horses, cookouts, overnights, and even more, it often means a very quick taste of some activities, careful selection of activities of the highest interest to the campers, or often a good exposure to a few of the camp’s primary activities. This should be another reminder to all camp leaders that the relationships and experiences with the staff will be more important than every camper attending every activity. The stories and memories that the campers will never forget — and the ones that they will be retelling over and over at home — are the ones where their camp friends and camp staff impressed them in some important manner. Those important participatory moments are what we need to strive to create with every group every day.
While every minute always counts in any camp session of any length, during short-term sessions, it must be an ex-ceptional attention matter for every staff member. If a camper is late to a program activity, a cabin group misses a game, or the waterfront period gets delayed, etc., there is often no chance to make it up. One-week and short-term sessions must be well organized and run on a well-practiced schedule. Caution should be used in not shortening program periods or transition times in order to fit more things into the daily schedule. There should always be options for spontaneous activities or room for changes, but the camp needs to be forthright about how to accommodate these into an already packed day. Most importantly, staff should be well prepared to bring their group together smoothly and swiftly at the start of the session and to build camper relationships in a very deliberate, constant manner.
The camp needs to have an effective system to support the counselor in fitting the highest interest activities for each camper into the group’s activity plan and into each camper’s own independent program plan. Most camps are able to formulate a schedule where all campers are able to participate in a good number of their top choice activities. It becomes each camper’s counselor and other staff that make sure that all activities are well presented so that campers of all interest levels find the program time fun and meaningful. While the essence of camp is the success that children have in building various skills in a variety of areas, it is even more the essence of camp to build memorable and caring relationships with counselors and other staff. A camper could be in any activity in any part of camp and experience an excellent time if every staff member that related to them was at¬tentive to each child and worked to engage them in a meaningful fashion.
It’s All About Relationships
Reflect again on the memorable stories that are most often told about camp. Like the stories described, they are the moments when someone in the group does something remarkable, when a counselor helps a camper with a personal accomplishment, or when the group connects around a campfire or with a group hug. It is rarely the make or type of sailboat, whether the basketball backboards are wood or glass, or even if the group is living in a cabin or a tent. It is the experience and relationship between campers and staff. It is not winning a soccer match as much as being a part of the crazy team playing together. When we hire and train staff who will devote themselves to the spirit of the group, continue to reach out to the hardest-to-reach child day after day, and somehow find the resources to be energetic all day long, our campers will have a magical week or few days. They will be enriched with stories and experiences of their group and leaders that will be retold to friends and parents for years to come.
Making a Difference
Making a difference in the lives of our campers is what camp is all about. While it may sound daunting to some, it should not sway strong camp leaders from implementing the steps to make it happen. It is also what we promise to all of our camp parents. To expect our camps to provide less is out of the question. And to a great extent, providing these high-value experiences in shorter-length sessions is exactly what parents and camps have mutually created over the years.
I will never forget the remarks of a high school senior who had arrived at camp for a one-day ropes course experience as part of an ongoing school and camp partnership for at-risk students: “This is the main reason I am back in school this year, to come to these camp days.” The quarterly adventure experiences that this challenged student had participated in for a couple of years had kept him attending school through his senior year. Mission accomplished.
The magical effect of camp can happen with seven-year-olds to seventeen-year-olds and beyond.
One-week and short-length camp sessions are very capable of creating very memorable experiences. Often they are welcomed to meet the family needs of many of our campers or the only opportunity that some youth have of attending a camp at all. At our camps, we must dedicate ourselves to making the time spent at camp exceptional in every way.
Short-Term Residential Camp: Benefits at a Glance
Among the many benefits of the camp experience, short-term residential camp uniquely:
John Duntley is senior camping specialist for the YMCA of the USA, serving day and resident camp programs for Ys nationwide. He is a thirty-year camping professional and ACA volunteer. Contact the author at email@example.com.
Originally published in the 2011 November/December Camping Magazine.