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Why the structure of a camp setting helps children with crucial development

By Ethan Schafer, Ph.D.

When I was fifteen, I was in my sixth summer at a traditional camp for boys in New Hampshire. One night after dinner, my counselor from the year before (a six-foot, five-inch English rugby player) asked me if I wanted to throw a baseball around. We spent an hour or two playing catch and talking about whatever came up. I don't remember the specifics of our conversation. What I do remember, and still enjoy thinking about, are the positive feelings that resulted from having the undivided attention of someone I essentially worshipped. This particular event stands out in my mind, though there were hundreds more like it over the course of my camp career. As a former counselor, and now as a mental health professional specializing in working with children, I am convinced that the cumulative power of small moments like these illustrate the unique manner in which camp helps children reach their full potential.

Why is Camp So Good for Children?

Many camp professionals will describe their camp community as a family. I can't think of a more accurate description. One of the reasons that well-run camps are so good for children is that they emulate the processes found in what psychologists call authoritative families. Parents who are authoritative provide their children with a great deal of structure and have high expectations of their children, while simultaneously providing a high degree of emotional warmth and encouragement. They can be distinguished from parents who are permissive (high emotional availability, but little structure and low expectations), or authoritarian (high expectations and structure, but low on emotional warmth and encouragement). When I work with parents, I often describe permissive parents as the "spoilers," and authoritarian parents as the "dictators." There are literally decades of psychological research supporting the conclusion that authoritative parenting is most likely to result in children who are happy, independent, and secure in themselves. Good camps are like good families: clear expectations are given, rules are enforced in a fair and sensitive manner, and campers are given warmth, respect, and encouragement. Substitute "camp counselor" for "parent," and we get the "big picture" reason for why camp is so good for children.

Children - Seven to Nine Years

Elementary school-age children are an entertaining group. Their interests change frequently as they are exposed to new ideas and opportunities. Think of this developmental period as one enormous "trial-and-error" episode, where children will "try on" all sorts of different likes and dislikes. Camp is a particularly good match for this age group, given the chances to participate in activities that are unlikely to be available elsewhere: archery, horseback riding, hiking, sailing, or nature exploration, as well as more typical activities such as team sports. The variety of activities offered at camp fits nicely with this group of children, who are often especially open-minded about trying new things. Social development is also critical in this period, as early friendships are formed and the child's individual personality begins to express itself.

There's an old saying in psychology that all parents believe the environment is everything, the "nurture over nature" school . . . . until they have their second child. Some children are simply born more introverted, preferring to be in small groups or alone; others are born more extraverted, enjoying large groups and being the center of attention. Either way is fine. What summer camp provides, because of the sheer amount of time young children spend playing with each other, is the chance to experience the structured and unstructured social interactions of childhood that allow them to determine what kind of person they are going to be.

Children - Ten to Twelve Years

Children of these ages are beginning to define their individuality. Particularly in girls, this period of time is characterized by great variation in physical and emotional development. As those of you who have what the media calls "tweens" in your house can attest, one eleven-year-old can still be engrossed in cartoons and action figures or dolls, while another spends an hour getting ready for school, seems obsessed with the opposite sex or who did or did not say "hi" to them in the hallway, and so on. I have worked with several children who voiced the frustration of feeling forced to "be too grown up" on one hand, as well those who are tired of "being treated like a little kid" on the other.

The variety of social, athletic, and outdoor activities offered through camp addresses these issues very well. If your child is still "young for his or her age," camp will allow them to spend time with other children doing "kid stuff' until they are ready to move on. The more "mature" child will have similar opportunities with older children, without fear of being ostracized. Whatever your "tween" child is ready for, camp provides a safe, supervised set of opportunities to explore and define individual interests and motivations - a wonderful gift for children as they enter adolescence.

Originally printed in CAMP Magazine, reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association.

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