In a May/June 2018 Camping Magazine article, “Happy Campers – A Counterintuitive Conversation About Youth Mental Health,” I sought to reconcile the way most kids at summer camp say they feel with a pile of data suggesting that we are facing rising rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among teens and young adults.
I began with the obvious question: “Why are kids at camp so darn happy?”
Probably for a lot of reasons, including the four cornerstones of experiential learning: kindness, gratitude, empathy and emotional support. Each was celebrated on July 24 during the first-ever National Camp Kindness Day, sponsored by the American Camp Association (ACA), which accredits more than 14,000 camps serving close to 15 million children.
ACA explains, “Camp has become a part of the fabric of America – conjuring special memories of hiking, swimming, friendships, and adventure for generations. When children go to camp, they’ll likely come home gushing about the lifelong friends they’ve made, and the exciting adventures they had. What they probably won’t tell you about are the life lessons camp has given them – those skills that, if nurtured at home after camp, translate into a lasting self-confidence, an awareness of the importance of kindness, and a greater comfort in voicing their opinions.”
But what do the kids say? In short, that they are their “best selves” at camp.
Some seventeen-year-old teen leaders at the Cape Cod Sea Camps (CCSC) weighed in on their summer experiences.
Marisa: “Camp has always brought out the best in me. Some say it could have been the beautiful weather or location, but I truly believe it was the people. Camp always had such positive energy and vibes that I wanted to do my best in activities and other events. I grew as a person as I got to meet so many different people. Becoming a role model made me want to be better for the kids I was taking care of and teaching. It was different from school, because I was with people who had the same interests as me, not just grouped with people who live in the same location.”
Julian: “I had always been a quiet and introverted individual, but around four years ago that changed. During my first year in CCSC’s Leadership Program (the Corps), I formed bonds with friends that stand strong even today. Throughout my second to third year in the Corps I not only saw myself improving as a leader, but also as a person. By the time my fourth and final year in the Corps rolled around, I had some pretty big shoes to fill. With the support of my friends and with the camp environment that has become like a home to me, I was ready to really step up as a leader. My camp experience has forever changed me and made me a more confident person.”
Sophie: “As a teen leader, I was exhausted every evening after a full day of taking care of the campers and fully engaging in the camp community. However, I knew that my girls were counting on me to be present and engaged in their lives as well. I also wanted to set a good example for them, because I thought back to all of my old counselors, my role models, and I wanted to be the same sort of idol that they were to me. Even as a younger leader, I knew that campers looked up to me and expected me to lead them. This confidence to lead, especially in times of uncertainty, in activities I was unfamiliar with, or when asked a question that I did not know the answer to, would never have come as easily if I had not devoted so much of my time and energy to learning how to be not only a good camp counselor but also a good leader.”
Tyler: “When I think about what kind of person I am at camp and compare it to who I am in everyday life, I see two different people. During the school year, I make education my priority, living each day with an almost monotonous rhythm. On the contrary, living at camp every day is filled with excitement and everyone is in a positive mood. This leads me to question why these two environments, while similar in the aspect of community, have different effects on me. I think at school the boring, robotic mindset ‘infects’ a lot of people and spreads. At CCSC that mindset is replaced with a friendly, exciting and happy mindset that perpetually exists through everyone at camp.”
Other reasons behind such happiness likely include outcomes related to college and workforce preparation.
On the first front, Grace, also 17, told me, “I believe camp has prepared me immensely for college. I have learned how to be more independent and to interact with adults better, and I have become increasingly more confident and able to lead. I am used to living with at least 12 others in a small cabin, so I know that sharing a dorm will be no problem. I have learned to work my hardest and communicate with those evaluating me, which has enabled me to interact with my teachers better and I know will help me with my professors in the future. I truly believe that my experiences in the Corps have taught me almost everything I need to know about life right now.”
As for workforce development, while spending time at summer camp may seem a temporary dodge from the path careers are built on, it’s not. In fact, research suggests just the opposite. “The Impact of Camp Employment on the Workforce Development of Emerging Adults,” published in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, highlights positive workforce development opportunities for camp staff and cites outcomes related to interpersonal interactions, communication, problem solving and leadership.
Building toward futures of service and success, while finding their better selves – all the more reason for summer camp.
ACA. (2018). The long-lasting benefits of camp. American Camp Association. https://www.acacamps.org/resource-library/parents/long-lasting-benefits-camp (15 Sept. 2018).
Cape Cod Sea Camps. (2018). Teen leadership program. https://www.capecodseacamps.com/resident-camp/teen-leadership/ (15 Sept. 2018).
Duerden, M., Witt, P., Garst, B., Biaeschki, D., Schwarzlose, T. and K. Norton. The impact of camp employment on the workforce development of emerging adults. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration. Spring 2014. Volume 32, Number 1, pp. 26-44. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266385703_The_impact_of_camp_employment_on_the_workforce_development_of_emerging_adults (15 Sept. 2018).
Wallace, S. (2018). Happy campers: a counterintuitive conversation about youth mental health. Camping Magazine. May 2018. https://www.acacamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/happy-campers-counterintuitive-conversation-about-youth-mental-health (15 Sept. 2018).
Wallace, S. (2015). End game: a different path to workforce development. Psychology Today. April 10, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-teens-make/201504/end-game (15 Sept. 2018).