By Randy Faris,
What makes five million kids leave home every summer? And why are their parents glad to see them go? While every parent and child relationship has their moments when both parties would love to call it quits, these smiling kids are running off to summer camp, where they’ll spend from just a few days to all summer long trying their hands at everything from pottery making to driving a Hummer across 4-wheel drive trails in central Utah.
The summer camp phenomenon can trace its roots to early 1900’s American culture, and according to Jeffrey Solomon, Executive Director of the National Camp Association, “Camps of all types continue to flourish. We’re finding a growing interest in adventure camps, specialty camps, and those that cater to both older campers and a more international crowd. We first reported on this trend several years ago, and we’re delighted to see the role that summer camps are now playing in the new global economy. Children from all over the world are coming together to enjoy activities, gain an appreciation for the diversity of the world’s many cultures, and to learn and improve communication while developing new friendships.”
Parents, too, are excited about the fresh opportunities found in modern day camps. “We could never find anything to get our kids off the couch”, say Pat and Leland Kidd, parents with three camp-aged kids from 11 to 16 years old. “We’d never been to camp ourselves, so the idea of sending them off for two weeks of high adventure never dawned on us. . . . We’d resigned ourselves to their chorus of woe and boredom every summer, and frankly, we were beginning to hope for year ’round schools so we wouldn’t have to deal with keeping them occupied and out of trouble.”
Pat and Leland eventually selected two different camps for their children, with the youngest opting for a nearby non-profit facility with traditional summer camp fare. “Our 11 year old is tough to keep focused, and he enjoyed the variety this camp had to offer. The older kids, on the other hand, are at that age where unless they can engage in something that has wheels and a motor, they’re simply not interested. We found a camp that specialized in off-road driving skills, and they not only came back as better drivers, they also gained a sense of responsibility behind the wheel. That’s something we’ve struggled to teach them, yet we all know it’s vital for their safety and the safety of others while they’re out on the road.”
“This is precisely what parents are looking for,” points out Mr. Solomon. “You’ve heard the phrase ‘It takes a community to raise a child’. It’s a very true statement, and the summer camp community can play a starring role in our young people’s lives. Our kids today are the first generation to grow up with the Internet, a virtual cyber-community where they can explore for hours on end. That’s all well and good, but they need to learn from a multitude of venues, and summer camp lets them trade their big blue computer screen for some good old fashioned big blue sky. Camp is a living, breathing, hands-on experience,” continues Solomon. “Some of what they need to learn just can’t come off a computer – they need to be there, live and in person.”
Delayne Lolohea, a single parent with three teenage kids, sighs relief when camp time rolls around. “It’s a break for me, too. I like letting someone else take charge and dream up the activities that will keep them busy, and where they can try so many things under just one roof.” When her house goes empty and there’s time to reflect, Delayne notes, “Trading in the chaos for two full weeks of living in a library takes some getting used to. But it gives me a chance to regroup, and when they return, we can talk about camp for weeks on end. They’ll gush on and on about the many different things they tried, and they’ll keep me, grandma, grandpa and all their friends laughing with stories of camp. It’s hard for me to generate this kind of enthusiasm, and with teenagers, I’m often grateful for any kind of positive conversation starter.”
The kids seem just as grateful, too. Casey, a veteran summer camp attendee, states, “I can’t do this kind of stuff around home. I kind of like getting out on my own, and I think this will help me when I get older. You get to meet lots of different people, and you see they’re not always that much different than you. For instance, other kids’ parents have funny rules, too. Sometimes I’ve learned that maybe I’m better off with the parents (and rules) that I already have.”
Jesse, who’d never been to summer camp before, agrees. “I had no idea what to expect; I just knew I was a little nervous, plus I’m shy anyway. After about three days, though, you realize you’re all in this together and that everyone else is a little nervous, too. Then you just start having fun, and looking forward to a bunch of neat things to do and places to see that you’ve probably only read about. I think camp helped me grow up a lot, and my friends there helped me learn about myself and gave me confidence that I could do things I hadn’t tried before.”
Jesse’s parents cite an overall improvement in his self esteem, noting, “Jess just keeps talking about his experience, from some of the daily activities to camping out with his new friends. He felt like ‘one of the guys’, and this probably meant more to him than anything else. Summer camp was the best way, as parents, we could do that for him.”
Camp enrollments continue to grow, and as long as there are parents with busy schedules and kids with widely diverse interests, these icons of American culture should host many new generations to come. Summer camps are fast becoming fundamental fare for today’s active youth sporting appetites for more experienced-based learning. Parents seeking creative and stimulating opportunities for their children are adding camps to their cache of tools for developing confidence, building values, and improving self-esteem.
The National Camp Association provides a free camp advisory service to the public (800-966-CAMP). Other local advisory services can be found in Washington FAMILIES Magazine.