One Sunday night this past July, I was with my wife eating dinner when the all-boys sleepaway camp my eight-year-old son Myles was attending for the very first time in his life emailed a few photos. Like the stereotypical parents in the “Refresh, Refresh” viral YouTube video making the rounds, my wife and I had to immediately click and see how he was doing.
At first, all we could see of the grainy photo was him sitting on a long bench with a few other boys. Then we realized the other kids were all much larger and could not possibly be in his bunk. We expanded the photo and could tell they were all holding little stuffed dolls and certificates. Finally, we expanded to see the certificate read “Mensch on a Bench Award” for displaying thoughtful, kind behavior toward others. His camp had a weekly tradition we didn’t know about of recognizing one kid from each age group at a camp-wide ceremony. Perhaps not a big deal for our son, but a lump-in-our-throats moment for his parents.
There are so many reasons parents send their kids to a camp: to mature, meet new friends, have fun, try new activities, be in nature, and even just to get some time out of the house. While some families spend considerable time packing and preparing to send their kids off to camp, it would also be wise for them to spend a bit more time learning about and building upon their experiences as they transition back into school.
We know camp time is their own time and school can be a very different setting with distinct priorities, social circles, challenges, and experiences. However, universal camp lessons and intentional emphasis placed on group kindness, independent responsibility, and community spirit should not go to waste.
In an age of increased cyber bullying, depression, and social disconnection among young people, the work camps do to promote and foster friendships, kindness, and respect among young people cannot be under appreciated. In fact, camps have taken to making their non-screen time and real-world relationship building huge selling points. This year, many camps celebrated “Camp Kindness Day” across the US through activities and a partnership between ACA and a group called Kindness Evolution.
Another strength of camp is the sense of independence and personal responsibility they build up within their campers. Daily chores are assigned and not to be debated, protested, or neglected. Cleaning of bunks, bathrooms, the grounds, and making beds “military style” are judged and receive daily scores. Just knowing there are no siblings or parents to lean on, complain to, or pick up the slack requires increased self-awareness and ownership over their own experiences. Perhaps clean-up scores should continue at home, but finding ways not to limit these responsibilities and lessons to summer seems critical and helpful to success at school and home.
Finally, the hard work many camps put in to intentionally create a spirit of inclusive community and close camaraderie though all their cheers, rituals and traditions, counselor mentoring, team-building activities and competition, should not be ignored. In a time when it is always easier and safer to be “too cool for school” and play everything down, camps remind young people that it is indeed OK, safe, and fun to express themselves and be proud, loud, and even embarrassing in ways that show spirit and encourage others.
These are just some of the lessons children are coming home with from camp this summer that can be transferred into their schools. In most schools, no kid ever wants to be the on a team where they sit on the bench. But at least for the camp my son attended, the goals and values of his camp made “riding the pine” something to achieve.
Photo courtesy of Camp Laurelwood in Madison, Connecticut
Aaron Philip Dworkin is president of the After-School All-Stars National Network (www.as-as.org), an organization providing free afterschool and summer programs to 75,000 low-income, urban students in 400 Title I schools in 20 major cities across the US.