outside of school, kids often engage in after-school activities, play groups, and family nights during the year. but sometimes, camp is the one place where kids can truly come into their own. so, what are the magic ingredients that make the camp experience such a breakthrough one? perhaps the most important element is that camp-whether it's day camp or sleepaway-offers children a sense of freedom. with schools focusing on grades and testing, and schedules filling up after school, camp can be a place where kids can let go.
"fifty years ago, you used to call your friends, go in the street and play stick ball-that's what camp is now," explains sam borek, owner and director of woodmont day camp. the activities at camp are usually not as structured and competitive as, say, a school sports team. in addition, camps often provide a wide range of activities, so not only is the pressure reduced, but the chance of a child finding something he or she enjoys and is good at increases. camp also provides opportunities for building
independence. without routine pressures, a child can focus on task mastery.
"whatever it is that we master, we feel good about ourselves," explains alan saltz, director of camp programs at the 92nd street y. he explains that activities like finishing a ropes course or learning to swim allow a child to face his or her fears and feel good about overcoming something. peter corbin, director of corbin's crusaders, advises that even small opportunities can be rewarding.
"whether it's leading a hike or being in charge of cleaning up lunch?[that] is going to allow someone to grow," he points out.
and, as karen krieger, director of camp walden, puts it, it's also important that a child succeed without his or her mom and dad there. camp is a chance for children to "stand on their own two feet," she says.
katrin hall, executive director of dayjams, a rock music day camp, says that parents are amazed when they see how much their children have accomplished after just one week of camp. "there will be kids who never touched a guitar onstage after five days, playing with a band," she says. "they are finding something within them that they didn't know they had."
josh male, a director at gate hill day camp, credits camp with teaching him leadership skills. "i was kind of one of those 'always have a good time' type of kids-i didn't necessarily see the importance of responsibility," he explains of his days as a camper. but during an expedition trip in summer camp he found himself taking the lead and helping those who were falling behind. the next summer, male was voted captain for the camp's version of color wars and saw himself in a whole new way. "for the first time there were people recognizing me for these qualities that i didn't necessarily see in myself."
at a good camp, the counselors are deeply attuned to the children and dedicated to nurturing their social and emotional intelligence. they are the voices saying, "it's okay to try, and it's okay to fail." the staff also works to create a network of supportive peers by communicating a universal camp ethos of respect and support. ultimately, confidence and courage will grow, and every camp director has seen the payoff. "the child you send out [to camp] on day one will be a different child come week eight," sums up borek. "they'll grow; they'll be independent, stronger, more confident. that's what camp does-it transforms lives."