Believers in organized youth camping regularly flirt with ways to repackage the experience. Although many feel this market-driven approach is necessary to boost registration, it causes mission drift. Each time we recast camp’s beneficial outcomes — as something that helps with college admissions or career achievement — we avoid the gritty, unvarnished truth about camp’s power to accelerate development.
The central truth that camp’s founders understood is this: Camp works best when it’s difficult, not when it’s Club Med in the woods (Dimock & Hendry, 1929). If building character were easy, organized camp would have no foundation and no justification. And if building character were simple, the world would be devoid of criminals, prejudice, and greed.
The truth about building character is this: Maturation of social skills requires rejection; nurturing self-reliance requires loneliness; acquiring a sense of adventure requires fear; boosting self-esteem requires failure; learning emotion regulation requires loss; promoting unselfishness requires hardship; increasing kindness requires crowding; and establishing secure attachment requires homesickness (Peplau, 1985; Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994; Thurber & Walton, 2007).
The ideal summer camp is therefore isolated from home and its comforts; nestled in a tight community setting; populated by children different enough from one another to blend just the right amount of curiosity with trepidation; replete with mental, social, and physical challenges; and supervised by young adults who are — because they are expressly not anyone’s parent — willing to take healthy risks with other people’s children. That’s the 153-year-old truth we should be pitching.
Harvard or Bust
External market pressures have buried camp’s simple truths. A recent camp ad campaign aimed at Asian parents in North American metropolises with large immigrant populations teased “Get a Harvard Diploma.” The text under that alluring headline explained that college admissions officers increasingly sought evidence of character development on applications.
Camp, as it turns out, is not a frivolous waste of time. Yet many parents still need to be convinced of this fact. Which is why I appreciated the spirit of this advertisement. Of course, we’re all still waiting for the director of admissions at an Ivy League school to champion camps in particular, not character development in general. In 1922, Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot declared, “The organized summer camp is the most important step in education that America has given the world.” The hope that Eliot’s famous endorsement would be echoed by a contemporary director of admissions is, for now, a pipe dream.
William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions, came close to endorsing summer camp when he offered this advice to prospective applicants: “Bring summer back . . . Students need ample free time to reflect, to recreate (i.e. to ‘re-create’ themselves without the driving pressure to achieve as an influence), and to gather strength for the school year ahead” (2011). Fitzsimmons and his co-authors, Marlyn McGrath, director of admissions, and Charles Ducey, adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, also wrote that summer and other “time out” should be “time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations.”
That’s camp. But let’s hear them say that explicitly. What a bold and important step that would be, nearly 100 years after Eliot’s proclamation!
Linking pines and maples to ivy is disingenuous, but there is a grain of truth in every hyperbole. As Fitzsimmons explains, admissions officers at competitive schools do search for personal strength behind the numbers in every application. Sadly, their ability to fathom camp depends largely on an individual applicant’s ability to translate camp’s nourishing qualities. That complication means that many young people whose character has been forged at camp fail to convey their strengths on paper. A few succeed; precious few are admitted. Thus, the promise of a university diploma is only a shadow of reality.
To complicate this prestigious sales pitch further, many young people who never went to camp are admitted to selective colleges and universities every year. So while pitching Harvard (or any other school) to status-focused families may pique their curiosity, there is no reliable link between camp attendance and college admission. By the same token, pitching the articulate but familiar message about 21st-Century Skills to achievement-conscious Yuppies and trendy Grups (grown-ups who don’t want to grow up) may indeed whet their appetites. However, there are not yet hard data to correlate career success with camp-based character development. (We will all be elated when such data do finally exist.) For now, it’s another shaky promise that has drifted away from camp’s rugged reality.
The benefit of recasting camp registration as a diploma ticket or career foundation is that it brings new families through the gates; families who might not otherwise have considered camp as a summer option; families who would have enrolled their children only in test-prep or gifted-and-talented academic programs. And while such programs have merit, they lack the character-building challenges and spirit of an authentic camp experience. Such qualities are hard to design, harder to endure, and the hardest of all to sell. But if we want strong kids, we can’t weaken camp’s mission.
Fidelity and Infidelity
Honing our fidelity to camp’s original mission also requires molting some skin that is so comfortable we’ve come to believe it’s our own. If we really want a seat at the youth development table and a place in parents’ hearts, we need to shed our self-imposed misconceptions. So just what is camp not about?
- Camp is not about slick advertising. A camp’s popularity rises and falls on the tongues (and thumbs) of youngsters. Positive memories are shared by word-of-mouth or online messages from child to child, and sometimes through parents. For kids, it’s simple: They want to be treated well by both peers and caregivers, and they want to experience an adventurous brand of fun and discovery. Camps that can’t offer that will never be buoyed by glossy self-promotion.
- Camp is not about copying the guys down the street. It’s about developing and celebrating your unique traditions and rituals. Most camps, for example, offer swimming as an activity. Have you ever thought about how you offer swimming? Think about what makes swimming at your camp special. Idiosyncrasies winnow the magnificent from the mundane.
- Camp is not about one week vs. seven. The real growth comes over multiple seasons. Constructs like loyalty, emotion-regulation, and conflict resolution take years to develop. Stop seeing camp in terms of weeks and start seeing (and marketing) it in terms of a multi-year investment.
- Camp is not about the food. There’s a reason why you keep changing the menu and kids keep complaining: Menu details are trivial. Complaints are driven by young people’s sense of entitlement and lack of appreciation for what they have. Stop catering to their every whim and start engendering some gratitude. Focus on nutrition and wholesome treats, not scrunched noses.
- Camp is not about trying something new. It’s about trying something really hard. Self-esteem comes from skills and work, not instant gratification. Stop giving kids premade birdhouses to paint and ribbons simply for participating. Consider the merit of hard-earned accomplishments and the value of heartfelt public commendations.
- Camp is not only adult-driven. To succeed, it must be largely child-driven. Even when staff are well-trained, they must recognize that one of the most important things they can do is take a step back and let kids interact with one another. Charismatic staff are a blessing, but only a peer can prove to a young person what a young person is truly capable of. The research on unstructured free play is abundantly clear: It increases creativity, intelligence, and social skills (Ginsburg, 2007). Staff must provide supervision, of course, but they also need to get out of the way and let campers be partners in the program (O’Donoghue, Kirshner, & McLaughlin, 2006).
- Camp is not about the activities. Those are epiphenomena at camp. It’s about what happens between the activities. The homesickness, the camp duties (Yes, chores!), the activity set-up and clean-up, the good night’s sleep, the absence of electronics, the getting dirty, the getting clean, the giving a cheer after losing, the giving a cheer after winning, the physical exercise (walking to the next event rather than changing the channel to get there), the waiting (rather than instant gratification), the reflection (rather than the logorrhea of snap-chatting your first, uncensored thought about everything), and the hand-written letters all matter. Stop buying new toys for a while and start training your staff to simply be with children.
- Camp is not about the equipment. At some level, all equipment is a crutch for staff. The more equipment there is, the less interpersonal interaction and creativity there is. If it were up to children, they might choose a camp solely based on whether it has model rockets, sailing, or water slides. It’s all fun, of course, and that’s wonderful. But parents choose camps based on what their children will come away with, not what they’ll have while they’re there.
The Gratification of Grit
Overcoming adversity creates strength, so it’s time to start selling camp not as scripted entertainment but as a legitimate challenge. Let’s be honest about transporting children from the comfortable predictability of their homes and schools to the capricious natural world, thunderstorms, bugs, and all. We can avoid intense homesickness, harsh bullying, and other unnecessary hardships and still introduce well-supervised personal and interpersonal trials.
What kind of person do we really think gets admitted to a top school or hired by a top corporation? That resilience can be earned at camp. And what kind of person do we really want to be a parent, spouse, or leader someday? That kindness can be learned at camp. What kind of person do we really want to create great works of art and literature? That appreciation of beauty and culture can be absorbed at camp. And what kind of person do we really want to save our planet from self-destruction? That love of nature and understanding of ecology can be instilled at camp.
If we want kindness, humility, gratitude, and appreciation of beauty — the character strengths that positive psychology research has suggested lead to authentic happiness — then we need to recognize what engenders those qualities. It’s not a vacation. It’s camp. Camp with just the right amount of rain, sun, competition, cooperation, novelty, traditions, creativity, ritual, success, and disappointment to spice things up.
As a boy, my most powerful camp experience aligned neatly with the mission fidelity principles outlined above. Twelve of us had been lucky enough to win the raffle for riflery that day, but thirteen showed up. In a graceful display of leadership, one of the activity leaders said, “We have enough room and time to let twelve campers shoot, which is why I raffled twelve spots. One of you is not being honest, but I can assure you that you’ll get a chance to shoot later this week. Who didn’t make the raffle?”
The group was silent.
Then Dan Shertzer stood up and spoke. “I can go to a different activity.” I protested on my friend’s behalf: “But Dan, you made the raffle! You’re supposed to be here! Somebody else is lying. They should go, not you. Stay.”
“It’s OK,” Dan said. “Whoever it is can have my spot today.” Our leader couldn’t have engineered a more potent instance of unselfishness had he tried. The thing is, when a camp is true to camping’s mission, those mighty little lessons happen all the time, every day. Now that the secret is out, let’s spread the word.
Baumeister, R.F., Heatherton, T.F., & Tice, D.M. (1994). How and why people fail at self-regulation. San Diego: Academic Press.
Dimock, H.S. & Hendry, C.E. (1929). Camping and character. Association Press.
Fitzsimmons, W., McGrath, M.E., & Ducey, C. (2011). Taking time off. Harvard College Office of Admissions. Retrieved from www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/apply/time_off/index.html 
Ginsburg, K.R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics (199), 182-191.
O’Donoghue, J., Kirshner, B., & McLaughlin, M. (2006). Youth participation: From myths to effective practice. The Prevention Researcher, 13, pp. 3-6.
Peplau, L.A. (1985). Loneliness research: Basic concepts and findings. In Sarason, I.G. and Sarason, B.R. (Eds.), Social support: Theory, research and applications. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Thurber, C.A. & Walton, E.A. (2007). Preventing and treating homesickness. In A.H. McAuliffe-Fogarty, K.P. Carlson, & A. Martin (Eds.), Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America (pp. 843-858). Philadelphia: Elsevier.
Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the cofounder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com , which hosts educational content for youth development professionals. He designed The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, ACA’s homesickness prevention DVD. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org  or visit CampSpirit.com .
Photo courtesy of Camp Courageous, Monticello, Iowa.
Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine