Camp and the Loneliness Crisis

Scott Arizala
January 2021
campers

Let me start by sounding uncharacteristically negative. Loneliness was a crisis before the pandemic. And by now, just about everyone in our community is suffering from it.

In a 2019 study by YouGov, 29 percent of millennials said they always or often felt lonely, and 27 percent said they had no close friends (Ballard, 2019). The numbers change a bit when you move into older groups (surprisingly, they get better) or younger groups (you guessed it, they get worse). But for practical purposes this means that more than one of every four of your campers, staff, and their family members are indeed lonely.

We can hardly claim we were doing great at combating this loneliness before we were quarantined. Kids were already having a hard time connecting and making friends. Then we picked them up from school one day in March 2020, and they didn’t see most of their friends and trusted adults again — at least not in person. Since then they have, hopefully, experienced a socially distant and masked world — one in which every conceivable thing we could do to connect with those who don’t  live with us has been canceled, tragically forced to go virtual, or is now considered “a risk we’re willing to take.” So, even without looking at statistics or a research study, I am comfortable saying that loneliness is getting worse.

As youth-development professionals, though, we can’t just let something be bad. We have dedicated our lives to working with and for kids, so we understand the messy, complicated, and often conflicted nature of everything they deal with. Just as some of us have been able to find positive moments, experiences, and new ideas because of the massive challenges of 2020, so must we, as camp professionals, see the potential in the magnitude and challenge of the loneliness epidemic that we, our campers, families, and staff currently face.

Fortunately, some things haven’t changed. Connection is still the best defense against loneliness. Kids still connect and create friendships around shared interests, common activity, and facilitated experiences. And for all the drama and challenges of 2020, it’s clear that kids are more resilient than the rest of us. What’s happening with school is a case in point. For all the tortured Zoom experiences, confusing work platforms, and the new lexicon of asynchronous versus synchronous activities, the kids are just dealing with it and moving on. We adults are more often a mess.

Given that, it’s time to go back to what has worked for us at camp for the last hundred years or so. We still need to help kids make quality connections and friendships. What might be changing is how we help and guide them toward that objective. We can’t just provide activities and supervision and hope connections happen. It’s about being active and working toward that goal with every interaction.

No one is sure how kids will react to the ongoing challenge of the pandemic in general, or specifically, how they will cope with loneliness. To be sure, they are coming to us with a lot of extra baggage this year. In fact, that may be the best way to frame new and potentially challenging behavior for your staff — the kids will be extra this year. Sorry I can’t be more specific. I think that kids will fall back on their tried-and-true behavior strategies, whatever has worked for them in the past. But with more energy, anxiety, and issues contributing to their behavior, the expression of those strategies may well be exaggerated. Enter camp. While it will be a needed respite and dose of normality for all kids, I think it’s safe to say that being around other people, in relatively close quarters, doing things like singing, eating, and playing games, will feel, in a word, weird.

To teach staff how to facilitate connections in this new landscape, and with potentially more challenging behavior, we can start with what we know. In a New York Times article titled “We’re All Socially Awkward Now,” Kate Murphy (2020) makes the case that being social is like a muscle; when you stop exercising it, it atrophies. This may not be as big a deal to your staff, because they’ll tell you that most kids are socially awkward anyway. But now they also will be socially out of practice, so your staff will have to intentionally exercise that muscle. We know how they connect; they might just be extra awkward at doing it.

  • Shared interests — How exactly do you figure out if you share a similar intertest with someone else? The simplistic answer is by talking or, more importantly, listening. The deeper answer is to try to discover what those interests are through conversation, activity, and unstructured free play. You might be able to find out that my son loves Minecraft just by talking to him. But if you spent more time with him and paid attention while he is playing, you’d see he loves to build, to invent, to be super competitive, and to complete things. Those are the kinds of interests you can discover when you take listening to the level of curiosity and exploration.
  • Common activities — Teach staff how to engage campers and get them working together through an activity. Then debriefing or even just reviewing an activity becomes intertwined with what the campers did together. Having common activities gives kids a chance to weave others into their story. Those are the connections they remember and that can serve as a strength when they slip toward loneliness.
  • Facilitated experiences — We always set out to do something specific with kids that will have an intended outcome. Low ropes experiences and cabin chats at the end of the night are examples of specific activities that we hope will elicit a certain response, growth, and learning. Use these experiences to connect kids to each other, to learn from each other, and to experience a sense of growth that seems intertwined with others. Ask more questions about how individuals rely on one another, create more safe space for kids to share their experiences, and maintain your interest and curiosity about who they are. 

Distraction and Activity

I recently built a treehouse. Well, I finished a treehouse that’s been a few summers in the making. When the lockdowns started in March, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands, and — probably like many of you — I quickly realized the doom-scrolling, binge-watching, snow-day approach to this whole thing wasn’t sustainable. So, with a lot of time and not much paid work, I finished my kids’ treehouse. Lucky and privileged enough that I didn’t have to turn to a side hustle to keep food on the table, I had the luxury of a recreational distraction. For many people, it hasn’t been like that. Still, almost everyone has experienced the actual act of turning into something, of directing our energy, of focusing on something that has helped us survive. It’s the same thing interpersonally with “alone” skills. When we pay real attention to the task at hand, we’re practicing how to aim our energy and attention toward greater productivity — a huge asset to have when we are lonely and bored.

Who better than us to provide structured distraction and activity! Meeting this challenge is camp’s superpower. We are good — maybe the best — at keeping kids busy and engaged doing enriching activities. We just have to be more thoughtful now. Here are three ways to do that:

  • Higher ratios — It is time (actually, it’s long overdue) to reevaluate our minimum adult-to-camper ratios. They are too high. Take a generic 1 to 8 ratio, for example. Have you ever been in charge of eight kids? If so, you know it’s hard to do anything more than head counting and policing in that situation. We really want our campers to experience a meaningful and positive connection with the staff and other kids, so it’s critical for your staff to pay attention. Help them by giving them fewer campers.
  • More choice — Having choices builds a sense of responsibility and control. Being out of control or having no control is a pandemic-related trauma we all now share to varying degrees. Even if your camp is not a choice-based program, there are many ways to help campers make good decisions. Here are some ideas to consider:
    • Add a variety of smaller activity choices or projects within a program area. This is especially important for activities like archery, where the main activity is limited, and there is a lot of waiting.
    • Make sure that secondary choices include both higher and lower levels of activity. Just because we are at sports and recreation doesn’t mean everyone wants to or should be running around. Having the choice of a quieter sitting game going on at the same time as a very active game will give kids a chance to self-regulate and feel more in control.
    • Redefine “participation” with your staff. Do the campers have to participate? From sitting out to parallel play to being fully engaged, help your staff see what successful participation can look like for all the different kids who may attend camp.
    • Be sensitive about alone time and downtime. We have all spent more time alone than ever before. Your campers may have developed a need for it.
  • Make COVID-19 fun! Seriously. Can you think of anyone better than a bunch of camp counselors to make whatever CDC/ACA/Health Department guidelines and procedures fun and interesting? Have to wear masks? Great! Have your counselors come up with several designs and styles and sell them in your store or online. Order a bunch of white cotton masks with your logo printed in white paint on them and then tie-dye them as an activity at camp. Have a sewing program? Sweet! Make masks for local homeless shelters or for signature events at your camp. Does the idea of “social distancing” still seem like the antithesis of camp? Give your staff some hula-hoops and bandanas, tell them to make a game of it, and stand back. What about all the cleaning and sanitizing procedures? Don’t even get me started on all the variations of TikTok videos or dance battles your staff could come up with while wiping things down or sanitizing surfaces. If this is the new normal, trust that your staff can make it as cool and fun as fanny packs.

Interests and Passions

Proactively seek the silver lining that this ongoing pandemic experience can provide. Many of us have had more alone time than ever before. And while we may be operating at a deficit when it comes to being social and connecting with others, we might also have a dawning and potentially deeper understanding of ourselves. I’m not asking for you or your staff to become therapists; I’m suggesting that if we orient our interactions with kids toward helping them give voice to who they are, who they are becoming, what they are interested in, and what passions they are developing, there is a potential to cash in on their extra time. We can help them turn their interests and passions into a defense against loneliness.

A lot of this will be second nature to your staff, but it’s hard to be thoughtful all the time. So your job is to support them and help focus them along the way.

  • Questions and time — The best way to help kids (or anyone) find their voice is to be an exemplary listener. Teach your staff how to ask good questions and then to carefully listen to the answers to encourage personal sharing. Over time, staff will begin to incorporate what a camper says into their understanding of who that camper is. This summer the very top thing on our camp staff’s list should be to spend time with campers, listening. That will set the stage for kids to safely find their own voice.
  • “Weird but not wrong.” In the past, we often used that phrase at camp to describe behavior that we wanted to correct even though it wasn’t actually wrong. The word “weird” was never meant to be derogatory; it just felt like an apt description of behavior that didn’t fit a norm; behavior that often pushed staff out of their comfort zone. In our current circumstances, though, let’s just make all the weird-but-not-wrong stuff OK. The last thing the kids — and frankly the staff — need right now is pressure to be “some elusive other thing.” A huge part of kids’ developing interests and passions is for those around them to, at the minimum, tolerate and ideally, celebrate, their developing obsessions. Something as simple as a sneer or eye roll could turn a kid off an idea. Teach your staff how to be curious, to engage rather than turn away, to be fascinated by this other person being themself. There is awe and wonder in curiosity. That’s how we should feel about kids.

Camp might be the perfect place to bring us back from the brink of a loneliness epidemic. And while no one would wish for the challenge of an ongoing pandemic, it’s up to us to see the opportunity in all of this. In so many ways we have never been so off schedule, but we can still ensure that time is on our side.

References


Scott Arizala is a leading expert, trainer, and consultant in summer camp. He is the CEO of The Camp Counselor, a consulting and training company, and the executive director of Chasing Summer, an organization dedicated to creating access for people with autism in recreation and education. He is a pioneering contributor to and project manager of Expert Online Training, a world leader in online training for camp staff. Scott is the author of the best-selling book, S’more Than Camp and contributing editor of Happiness, Diversity & Autism: Practical Strategies for Inclusion. For more information, visit TheCampCounselor.com.

Photo courtesy of Camp Arrowwood, Sevierville, Tennessee


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