Camp Programs that Dare to be Different!

When TIME magazine ran its cover feature on "Being 13 in America" in the summer of 2005, they wrote about the complex pressures and surprisingly advanced behaviors showing up in many thirteen-year-olds as new phenomena. The good news is that camps serving teenagers have been adapting to these changes and offering increasingly sophisticated program choices to address the challenges teens experience growing up in the shifting world of American culture.

Because of the broad and rather unique educational role camps have in youth development, in particular supervising and interacting close-up with groups of young people away from home often for weeks at a time, camp staff has an immediate perspective on the trends and issues in kids' lives that are only beginning to surface in the larger, cultural parade.

One of the most challenging aspects in helping to raise young adults is how to best guide and support them as they go through the turbulent adolescent years. Recent events have exposed to the public the extent to which modern teens can go if they are left too much to their own devices, and on the positive side, the often boundless energy and idealism which need appropriate nurturing and role modeling to really take hold. Perhaps this has always been true, but good camps know that the consequences of inaction in either direction can make all the difference.

Kids often report that their lives are stressful, socially complex, and they feel pressured to be involved in activities that are for all intents and purposes, beyond the range of where they are developmentally comfortable. The TIME survey found for the first time in our history, the majority of young people interviewed thought the world would be a worse place when they grow up than it is now. Having incidents like September 11 serve as the defining moment in the history of their lives will do things like that. Camp, with its supervised, developmentally appropriate activities may just be one of the antidotes to changing those individual perceptions. The universal struggles of adolescence—well chronicled in the lives of all of us who survived the struggle of separating from being dependent on our parents to being able to stand on our own in the world—can be hard enough. Adding these other complex and, at times, highly volatile factors to the equation have made the struggle of going through the teen years significantly more challenging, not just for the teens themselves, but for those of us who work with them as well! Looking for That Something Extra There is no homework at camp and no grades and thus no need for camp staff to be offering an evaluation that compares one camper against another. This also means staff is free to focus attention consistently on kids' strengths and how to nurture these strengths in ways which build confidence. This is about helping all kids become great, regardless of how far along that path they already are. Not all camps approach their roles in the lives of young people identically, although on the surface they may sound as if they do. Some camps view their primary role as providing a place for kids to "get away from it all," and these camps focus their programs around fun and recreation. There are many other camps—and more moving in this direction each year—that view summer camp as a place that fulfills the much needed role of teaching kids the kinds of "growing up" skills and vital life lessons which are not taught in schools, yet which are essential for being able to grow up and thrive in the world as adults. These camps organize around the idea that they have the opportunity to be a substantial presence on a young person's journey through childhood into young adulthood, and thus a substantial influence on shaping who they become as adults. These camps generally have a well-defined mission, and their programs reinforce specific values such as personal accountability, responsible decision making, making commitments and following through on them, being a positive team member, and being respectful of others. These camps will offer different programs with different expectations for young people as they proceed through each age range at camp—ones which introduce varying levels of responsibility, including expectations for teens to take on leadership roles and special programs designed to discuss and guide teens as they handle difficult life situations such as peer pressure or resolving conflicts. While the experience of being at camp will still be fun (how could it be otherwise with such a range of positive activities), there will be something extra being addressed. Many teens are hungry for the opportunity to talk about and learn more about themselves and the world they are entering, and when presented thoughtfully and with purpose, many teens report these aspects of camp as being the best part of their summer experience. Determining the Right Camp for Your Teen First of all, decide what it is that you want your teens to learn and develop—skills they may not be offered the opportunity to learn and develop during the school year. If it is self-confidence and leadership, the ability to stand up for themselves and be more assertive, there are camps that offer extraordinary learning opportunities for this in fun, safe, and effective ways. Camps that do this most effectively tend to put countless hours of thought and preparation into designing and implementing their teen program. It is useful to know the kinds of questions to ask and the kinds of answers to look for when finding the right camp for your teen. In your research process, look first and foremost for camps that emphasize a special program for teens that is about personal growth or leadership development. Although it is common to find CIT or "Counselor in Training" programs in camps, some are much more invested in the training aspect than others, and it is useful to research further. Finding out if there is a full-time staff member in charge of supervising the CIT program is a good starting point. Ask Camp Leaders the Right Questions How extensive is the training/education component of the teen program? A camp which offers weekly forums where camp leaders meet with their teens to discuss life's growing-up issues is offering significantly more than a camp that meets with campers twice a summer. A camp offering creative programs where kids get to role play different scenarios and practice skills is doing much more than one that has just a discussion. A camp that provides a "special trip" to the wilderness is offering much more than a special trip to an amusement park. How is the staff who run these programs selected? A camp that tells you "we look for counselors who are good with teens" is one thing. A camp that can define for you what the qualities are that make somebody effective with teens, including things like "they are young adults who truly model the behaviors we want to be teaching," tells you much more about how comprehensive the camp is being. Ask them to give you referrals of several parents who have had success sending their teens to their camp. In particular, ask to speak to the parent of a child who went in to the program with a skeptical and even reticent attitude. These families are often the ones who tell you the most about why a program works. How do they train their staff to work with teens? Look for camps that offer a separate training for the counselors who work with this age group. It takes extra effort on the part of the camp and speaks volumes about their commitment to the program. Again, you are looking for more than just training counselors on how to respond to certain behaviors, you are looking for training on the issues today's teens face and how their counselors can facilitate growth in their teen campers. Any camp can use inspiring clichés to describe their work with campers and, in fact, many mission statements sound very much the same. It is the "digging deeper" as a parent that will help you determine which camps approach working with teens in a truly professional way versus those that ultimately are offering fun and recreation. While there is without a doubt a value in offering fun and recreation amidst the stressful lives of teens, there is potentially a tremendous value in having experiences as well that are intentionally designed to address the issues they face and to empower them to be more successful when they return home. Camps are uniquely positioned to be able to do this, and with the growing number of them who are committing themselves to this task, the right match for your teen is out there, and maybe closer than you think! Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a professional counselor who travels internationally training organizations working in youth development. For more information, visit, or contact him at 415-441-8218 or by e-mail at