Being at camp gives me this sense of belonging that I’ve never felt anywhere else. I know that I can be myself and that my cabin mates will love me for who I am, and I’ve brought that to my life outside of camp.-Hannah
Each summer, tens of thousands of teens leave their phones and car keys at home and head to summer camp as campers, counselors in training, or counselors. Many teens who have never been to camp cannot relate to how a teenager could make such crazy personal sacrifices. And yet, teens are the age group that fills most quickly at many camps because—perhaps more than at any other time during their youth—teens need the respite, recreation, and renewal that camp offers. Teens who have already been to camp know this and want to come back, year after year.
What are some of the reasons teens thrive at summer camp?
#1: Teens Improve Interpersonal Skills and Form Close Friendships
“In a … study of 515 senior executives, emotional intelligence was a better predictor of success than either relevant previous experience or high IQ.” –Forbes, “Look for Employees with High EQ over IQ”
Interacting effectively with other people is one of the most important skills teens learn at camp. In the unplugged, noncompetitive camp culture, teens build up their “emotional intelligence” (EQ), their face-to-face communication and relationship skills. Why are these interpersonal skills so important? Because 21st-century employers need people who can communicate, collaborate, and cooperate with others.
If you are debating whether your teen can miss a few weeks of SAT prep or a summer academic program, know that the 2200 SAT score will never outweigh the important communication and relationship skills he or she will develop at camp. Whether on a backpacking trip, cheering each other through a ropes course, or chatting around the campfire, the interpersonal skills teens build are the same ones they’ll need to be successful adults in families, communities, and companies.
#2: Teens Take Safe Risks and Challenge Themselves
Teens thrive on risk. Thanks to recent findings (described in Age of Opportunity and Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain) about the unique attributes of the teen brain, we now understand the reason for the “mortality bump” for 17-year-old boys. They do stupid, daring things not because they aren’t aware of the dangers, but because—to them—the reward of leaping from a rocky cliff or speeding along a curvy mountain road seems to far outweigh the risk.
A teen at camp has the opportunity to take many safe, controlled risks. Climbing to new heights on a rock wall or ropes course, jumping the wake of a boat on a wakeboard, or reaching the peak of a 10,000-foot summit are all healthy risks teens take at camp. Plus, being in a controlled camp environment frees teens from exposure to health risks like alcohol and drug use.
#3: Teens Experience Character Growth and Develop Life Skills
“A profound gap exists between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need for success in their communities and workplaces.” -Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Schools aren’t doing a very good job teaching kids grit, perseverance, and leadership. But that’s not their job. Rather, schools are VERY busy teaching the core curriculum and assessing how well our kids know it. No school has time to see how “gritty” a kid is, but at camp, the “grit-meter” is always running, and it’s personal character—not a report card or an athletic achievement—that rises to the top.
Teens also develop other important life skills at camp, including independence, responsibility, and decision-making. Teens grow considerably in an environment away from their parents where they are forced to live on their own and find their own resources.
#4: Teens Meet Positive Role Models
Watch or listen to a popular music video, reality TV show, or sports event, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find positive young adults teens can emulate. But walk into any well-run summer camp and you’ll be surrounded by wholesome, outdoorsy young people who like being around others and doing fun activities. Camp offers teens the opportunity to be among young adults who are positive role models and to form close relationships with them. Most camp counselors are hard-working college students who want to serve others. They are friendly, personable, and just the kind of young adults you want your teen to become.
#5: Teens Discover Their Best Selves
We live in a world where teens—often by their own parents—are steered towards success via the SAT, the college admissions grind, a “good” major, and a high-salary job. Look around at many adults, however, and see where that path got them. Yet, we still expose our kids to the same gauntlet.
A college education may be the best option for most young people, but I’ve met many who are halfway done (or all the way done) with college and still don’t know who they are or what they are passionate about. Camp experiences offer teens the chance to step back from the treadmill of academics, competitive sports, and their sleep-deprived, over-scheduled existence, and instead think about what’s important to them. Many campers become less self-absorbed after spending a few weeks at camp, learning to train their focus on others. They also discover new hobbies and avenues to pursue in education and their future careers.
There you have it: five reasons why teens need summer camp more than ever. For many teens, camp offers just what they need to thrive in our 21st-century world.
Photo courtesy of Gold Arrow Camp in Lakeshore, California
Audrey Monke, with her husband, Steve, has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp (Lakeshore, California) for 34 years. On her website, Sunshine-Parenting.com, Audrey shares resources for parents and youth development professionals about summer camp, parenting, and happiness. Her podcast features interviews with parenting authors and experts, including camp directors. Audrey’s book, Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults (Hachette-Center Street, 2019) shares strategies for bringing the “magic” of camp home.