by Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer, a guest blog for ACA. 

As we celebrate the end of the school year and sweaty legs come un-stuck from plastic chairs in classrooms across America, kids are scheming about summer vacation. Some plan endless trips to the pool, biking with no helmets, and chasing ice cream trucks. For others, minds turn to the land of sleeping bags, s’mores, and capture the flag: summer camp.

If you’ve ever seen any camp (or campy) films like rebellious “Camp Nowhere” (1994), a strong sense of morality may not come to mind. In fact, we lament a supposed loss of virtue in our kids and worry about the choices they will make.

Camp is more than a venue for summer crushes and adolescent rebellion-- it can actually be a training ground for morality. If I knew a campfire song about this, we’d sing together and make friendship bracelets, but dipping our toes in the proverbial lake of morality is serious business and we need a proper counselor: Aristotle.

1. Camp jolts toward happiness

Famous for his many works including the seminal Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (c 385-322 BC) held that what makes us truly human is our universal quest for happiness. All choices we make (from where we live to how we eat to who we text to what we spend) are attempts at getting to happiness and ultimately goodness-- realizing our best and fullest selves. Our moral counselor argues, many of us make choices and act in ways that are actually counter to our own happiness and wellbeing, without realizing. We trudge along in a prosaic sleep-walk that fosters discontent, even if materially it seems we have it all. Loaded schedules, commercials offering us the promise of better/bigger/more, and diversion at the touch of a tiny screen make a pretty smooth road past self-examination. Aristotle recommends a jolt to break old patterns that divert us from true happiness.

Camps offer this break from the ordinary. Ask the camp-bound tween required to hand in their phone for the week, the only child bunking with 7 other kids, or the adolescent who has never left the city. Ask the kid chanting cheers with cabin mates, the introvert volunteering for talent show, or the teen singing under the moon. Heading to camp-whether for a day or a month- marks a point in time distinctly different from the rest of life. Apart from parents, physically away from normal life, this distance allows kids (and their parents) to step back and consider how they might be/feel different at camp, and how (or if) they want to take that home.

2. Camp is a practice field for virtues

Whether rock climbing, fire making, team building, or crafting, camps offer opportunities for experiential education, drawing on the lived experiences of campers to create meaning, learn skills, and develop character.  Many camp alums are familiar with the adage “challenge by choice,” a favorite go-to phrase used to prompt kids to be brave and magnanimous, to overcome fear and take bold, calculated risks in the safety of a talent show, song circle, bike ride, or swim test. They learn patience in the foursquare queue, compassion accompanying a pal to the nurse, and temperance in deciding how many sloppy joes is too many.  Failure is okay at camp, because camp simulates real life but allows kids to flop and recover and try again. Aristotle taught that happiness, through goodness, can be reached in a life of virtue.

3. Camp is built on community and friendship- and we need that to be moral

Bunk mate, team cheer, buddy system, spotter. At their core, camps depend on norming and group models that create coalitions and allegiance. Aristotle maintained that in order to move towards happiness and goodness, we must be in relationship with others. There’s no way we can achieve goodness without having partners in our quest. Kids relinquish screens, eat together, play together, endeavor at virtue together at camp.

We are tempted to conclude that camp is not special, that just about anywhere can be a site of moral development: we can engage in self examination, virtue-making, and community building in the classroom, boardroom, or bus stop. And that’s true. But camp offers a special bug-juice concoction of the conditions needed for moral development to take root and begin to flourish, often in a place geographically and purposefully detoured, remote from life’s endless trudge.

To be sure, many families view camp as an unrealistic frivolity with riding lessons and gourmet hot dogs that don’t fit the budget. There are many camp options for kids that won’t break the canteen, err, bank. Local parks and rec programs host day camps that cost little and get kids on the move. Nonprofit camps with sliding scale fees such as Milwaukee’s Children’s Outing Association offer nearly-free options for families. Many local churches host summer day camps for the arts at low cost and do not require church membership.

Adults are catching on, seeing rising popularity in real-life grownup “sleepaway camps” and retreat centers with names like “Camp Grounded,” “Holden Village,” and “Waypost Family Camp,” promising opportunities to “disconnect from the ordinary and connect to the extraordinary” and “welcome all people into the wilderness to be called, equipped, and sent.” If we need kids on the path to moral development, we need adults to set the example.

So go on, sign ‘em up. And add your name too. Aristotle would approve.

About Anna:

An experiential educator and camp director’s daughter, Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer has spent over 25 years living, working, facilitating, and playing capture the flag at summer camps and retreat centers across the country, from Washington State to New York. Anna runs a gender & diversity center at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, and she can light a one-match campfire in the rain.