When looking for summer activities for their children, parents today are faced with an incredible wealth of options. Many of these options describe themselves as “camp”: sports camps, arts camps, school camps (which always strikes one as somewhat oxymoronic), and, of course, the ubiquitous “day camps.” Each of these offers benefits to the family, but certain programs stand apart. According to several parents and camp directors, what we will term a traditional day camp, with a program mirroring the classic resi¬dent camp program, presents something uniquely advantageous to its campers and families. Traditional day camps matter in a way that differs from the host of other summer activities. Thus, questions arise: Why does day camp matter, and how do we position this kind of program among everything else?
Let’s begin with the latter question. A quick glance at the local listings for “camps” on Nickelodeon’s ParentsConnect (a well-trafficked source for children’s and family activities) shows a total of 482 results. Let’s parse these further to define the kind of day camps we hope to describe: To begin, 415 are listed as “summer day camps,” and more specifically, 212 are tagged as arts-, academics-, or sports-oriented. As parents and camp directors will tell us, these “single subject” summer programs do provide many benefits — such as a boost in achieve-ment at school or on the club soccer team — but their specificity sets them apart from the generalized summer camp experience that we are seeking. Indeed, even the New York Times is aware of the unique benefits of a generalized program, opining recently that “[f]or many, these camps sell future nostalgia, the prospect of happy memories, the promise of best friends maintained for decades to come. That, at any rate, is the value proposition that separates the endless summer of . . . camp from the skills and drills of their specialty counterparts” (Singer, 2011).
ParentsConnect lists seventy-one “traditional” summer day camps. However, as these categories are self-reported, many of the listings do not match up with our goal of searching for a holistic program. Several programs describe themselves as “summer classes and afterschool programs,” and thus are not a part of our search. Others take place at museums, zoos, or aquariums, and will obviously focus more on the subject matter at that locale. Still others are held at universities or places of worship. Though their programs may offer a wider array of activities, the indoor venue creates an obstacle to the connection with nature so integral for a traditional summer camp experience. In 2007, the American Camp Association (ACA) identified the three pillars of the camp experience as “our in¬timacy with nature, our authentic human connection, and our human-powered activities.” In our less-than-scientific over¬view of these camps’ listed descriptions, fewer than twenty appear to offer a variety of human-powered activities focused on creating connections in a natural setting. Thus, out of our original 482 search results, fewer than twenty programs offer a tradi¬tional day camp experience.
Why Is Traditional Day Camp Important?
Why is traditional day camp important? Of course, we know why summer camp, as a general category, is important. Ninety-six percent of campers say that “camp helped me make new friends,” and 92 percent say, “Camp helped me feel good about myself.” Seventy percent of camp parents say, “My child gained self-confidence at camp” (ACA, 2005). ACA has very clearly defined the role and benefits of the summer camp experience through a variety of meticulous research.
Though not everyone actually goes to camp (yet!), the idea of summer camp is fairly well described in American culture. However, because resident camps make up a majority of ACA (day camps were just 29 percent of the sample used in the research cited above), and resident camp is the touchstone when most Americans think of “summer camp,” the prevailing cultural and empirical image of camp is one of a tra¬ditional, rustic, resident camp deep in the woods. Imagine, then, this most archetypal image: a beautiful natural site where caring counselors help children create new con¬nections and reach outside of their comfort zones to try new things. Laughter bubbles as jokes are shared and new friendships are built. Campers unplug from technology to commune with nature, realizing their roles in stewardship of the land. Skills develop throughout camp, both in physical things like swimming, horseback riding, and art and social/emotional things like teamwork, creativity, and self-confidence. Then, at the end of each day, a fleet of buses rolls out of camp, returning campers to their families.
With so much similarity of structure and experience, traditional day camps share many of the benefits of the monolithic stereotype of “summer camp.” Yet, it is in that relatively small difference, the daily return to home, that the unique importance of day camp lies.
Everyone Should Go to Camp
We know that everyone should go to camp. However, if, as stated, the default idea of the camp experience is traditional resident camp, many families face an obstacle: the separation and independence required of a camper for even a one- or two-week resident program may be too high of a hurdle for the child or the parents. Many campers are (in their parents’ minds) too shy or ill-equipped for resident camp. Of course, oftentimes, parents themselves are not ready to let go of the child for the duration of a camp session. And some campers are simply “too young.” For these families, then, traditional day camp can provide scaffolding for a camp experience that is nearly identical to resident camp without the anxiety-producing long-term separation.
A day camp director tells us: “Day camp can be a child’s first independent experi¬ence away from mom and dad. A child can strengthen emerging skills of making new friends, taking care of their own be¬longings, trying new activities, and taking risks.” This first experience away from home, in a new setting with unfamiliar peers, can create the foundation needed for successful longer-term experiences away from home. Supportive camp staff help build bonds within the camp community and gently push even the youngest campers outside of their comfort zones, challenging them to take positive risks and engage in independent decision making. “The advantage to day camp,” the camp director says, “is that it can be a building block to the resident experience of complete independence.”
A Powerful Alternative
Some families never make it over the hurdle to full-fledged resident camp, and day camp can still be a powerful alternative. “Since my kids are not sleep-away campers,” one long-time day camp parent states, “I was interested in finding a day camp that truly felt like ‘camp.’ I wanted my kids in a natural setting with camp-specific activities — archery, horses, arts, and crafts — that they would not experience during the school year.” This family consists of three boys, the oldest of which has been attending the same day camp for ten years. All three have outgoing, positive personalities, yet they nevertheless have continually struggled each summer with being away from home (they rely a great deal both on the support of their parents and the familiarity of their own bedrooms), making it difficult for them to attend resident camp.
Over the years, their day camp experiences have given them a chance to build independence and autonomy away from their parents while still returning to the comforts of home each evening. “I strongly feel that children need a break from organized learning and the pressures of school,” the mother says, “which is why I have always gravitated toward traditional summer camp. Camp gives kids a chance to turn their minds off and just be kids. Every day that my kids come home from camp dirty and sweaty with a lanyard in their hand, I feel that I have given them a priceless gift. By the time school rolls around, they are refreshed and ready to go because they were given the opportunity to have fun all summer long.”
Her description of her boys’ experience at day camp strikes one as nearly indistinguishable from our cultural image of the traditional summer camp experience. The oldest is now an assistant counselor at his camp and recently completed a month-long resident program at a college across the country, something his mother says he never would have accomplished without the opportunities for autonomous living granted by his day camp experience.
A Greater Partnership
Additionally, the daily return home allows for a greater partnership between the camp and the camper’s parents surrounding the growth and skill building that takes place at summer camp. At day camp, another director tells us, “The parent still plays a large role in the child’s daily life. In the evenings, parents can work through obsta¬cles that their child faces and help shape their solutions. This gives the child practice for when they have to work through issues on their own.”
Campers can recount the day’s activities, and their parents can congratulate them on challenging themselves to make it to the top of the climbing tower or on reaching out beyond their group of school buddies to build new friendships. Intentional camp staff can use the vocabulary of character growth to encourage things like respect and responsibility in their campers, and these campers can share what they have learned at camp, using that same vocabulary, with their families just a few hours later. This creates a cycle of positive reinforcement from both the child’s counselor and his or her parents, further strengthening the skills learned at camp.
When inevitable issues do arise, the proximity to home can often be beneficial to a camp director looking for resources and support. For a camper with behavioral issues, the camp director can discuss the camp’s behavior management plan with the parents, and the parents can reinforce certain consequences at home before the child returns to camp the next day. When a child struggles with homesickness or sepa¬ration anxiety, too, the camp director can access parents as a resource. In a positive partnership, the director can ask the parent to continue encouraging independence during the at-home hours, building more support for the child’s potentially successful camp experience.
Admittedly, the daily return home presents its own challenges. At camp, many problems, especially those in which a camper feels excluded from the group or anxious about being away from home, take a few days to solve. At resident camp, these are nearly always resolved and almost forgotten by the end of the session and the child’s return to their family. At day camp, however, an overly anxious parent will sometimes choose the path of least resistance, simply taking the child out of camp rather than challenging her to work through the issue. Overall, however, the close proximity and partnership with parents is beneficial not just to the camper, but to the parents as well. “Parents likewise can learn more about their child’s personality and resiliency as they recount their camp experience,” says another day camp director.
Camp parents are often pleasantly surprised with their child’s growth during an experience at camp, and a nightly look at the positive changes camp has given one’s child is rewarding for any parent. One camp mother says she was impressed by how camp “motivated [her children] to be empathetic and helpful toward others,” and another shared that her child’s experience as a counselor-in-training “encourages selflessness and patience.” These changes came slowly, over many days at camp over the course of several summers, and they revealed themselves gradually each night when their children returned home.
Day Camp: Benefits at a Glance
Among the many benefits of the camp experience, day camp uniquely:
ACA. (2005). Directions. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/research/enhance/directions
ACA. (2007). Annual Report. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/sites/default/files/images/annualreport/2007annualreport.pdf
Singer, Natasha. (2011, July 10) When s’mores aren’t enough. New York Times, BU1.
Andy Kimmelman is the camp director at Tumbleweed Day Camp in Los Angeles, California. He also serves on the Editorial Advisory Committee for Camping Magazine and in numerous other volunteer positions for the American Camp Association.