Did It Really Need to Turn Out This Way?


With rolling spring breaks coming to a rest and kids rounding the turn into the final stretch of another (somewhat irregular) school year, summer planning is increasingly on their, and their parents’, minds.

For a lucky bunch, a return to the well-known routines and relationships of summer camp will retake their position at the top of lists of opportunities. For others, camp may return but in a significantly truncated fashion. And, finally, for the most unfortunate, the place they called “home” for many a summer season has come to an abrupt, and unwelcome, end.

While it’s far too early to calculate how many camps fall into each of those categories, we do know that approximately 62% did not open in 2020 (Leonhardt, 2020). The American Camp Association (ACA) reports that there are about 7,000 overnight camps and about 5,000 day camps in the U.S., for a total of more than 12,000 camps. These camps are attended each year by more than 11 million children and adults.

What does that mean? That many thousands of kids and staff missed out on a summer camp experience in 2020.

Of course, if 62% of camps did not open, that means that 38% did! How did they fare? That is a question I addressed in my August Psychology Today article “Horseshoes.” I pointed out some of the measures that camps operating last summer put in place to address the coronavirus while still providing quality, meaningful programs. They included such concepts as “camper circles,” social distancing, and a ban on outside visitors. For others it meant going virtual, offering online content for children (and their parents) and some semblance of normalcy.

For kids whose camps remained shuttered, the enormity of loss was accentuated by David Himmel in his article for The Atlantic, “What camp people are losing this summer” (Himmel, 2020).

I fought my parents with everything I had when I was 11 years old but they insisted on sending me to overnight camp for eight weeks. It was 1990, and the 17-year cicadas were out in full force. My suburban Chicago neighborhood was a screaming bug cloud, and I hated the idea of being sent into the Michigan woods, where there’d likely be even more insects. I had tried a different overnight camp the previous summer and had loathed almost every minute of it. To top it off, Mom and Dad were sending me to a place I’d seen only in photos on a slide projector; I’d know no one. The weeks leading up to opening day filled me with dread.

Turns out, shipping me off to summer camp against my will was the best thing my parents ever did for me. I loved it. I returned every summer as a camper, then as a counselor. Now, in my 40s, I still go back. I’m one of those camp people. The fact that so many kids and staff are missing out on camp right now because of the coronavirus pandemic is devastating.

In those Michigan woods on the lake, I learned to sail, shoot a rifle, and build a fire. I also realized that I could take care of myself without my parents. I learned social accountability by sharing chores with my cabinmates during cleanup duty in the mess hall. I figured out how to talk with girls by befriending the female counselors. I found out that switching from tighty-whities to boxer shorts improved a boy’s social standing. (Thanks, Mom, for sending that care package.)

I nearly mastered the art of finding mischief and avoiding punishment. I gained the ability to hide in the shadows and walk silently over gravel when sneaking into the girls’ cabins; I threw myself into the transcendent art of writing my name in bug spray on the cabin floor and setting it on fire; I discovered that the best way to ruin breakfast for the entire camp is to sneak into the mess hall and discharge the fire extinguisher, blasting chemicals on every surface. I also discovered that no one else thought that was funny. Oh, but we can all laugh about it now. I learned how to make friends when I knew no one. As a whole, I learned how to be myself, on my own terms.

Yay for parents who recognize the true value of experiential education. What do they say? According to ACA, camp parents report the following (ACA, 2020).

  • My child gained self-confidence at camp. (70%)
  • My child continues to participate in some of the new activities he or she learned at camp. (63%)
  • My child remains in contact with friends made at camp. (69%)

What will 2021 bring? Camps that opened in 2020 largely did well and experienced success. Melissa Erickson, in a widely circulated Gannett article “Will Summer Camps Survive?” reports on a point I made in my LinkedIn piece “Where There’s a Will.”

In the spring of 2020, summer camps across America faced a gut-wrenching decision about reopening amidst a global pandemic vs. remaining shuttered for the season.

Of course, it really was never a binary choice. Some, if not most, camps chose a middle path, offering for its campers and their families a modified program or perhaps a virtual one. 

The success of those approaches is reflected in the experiences of camps operating in 2020 and the precautionary practices they put in place, as well as the commentary of directors committed to promoting their camp’s value proposition – or purpose.

Take Camp Sewataro in Sudbury, Massachusetts, which hosts day programs for boys and girls in preschool to eighth grade. It reports a successful 40 days of camp, serving 350 kids for two-week sessions for eight weeks with zero cases of COVID-19. Sewataro’s secret sauce? The usual: Daily mask-wearing, cleaning and disinfecting, and daily symptom and temperature checks, according to a report from Boston’s WCVB-TV.

Well, 2021 is here and camp is just around the corner … and that’s a good thing!

In her article “The Case for Camp – Why Kids Need It Now More Than Ever” in Camping Magazine, Peg Smith states, “Change is a part of life. It is often directly related to survival and can enrich one’s life in ways unexpected. Childhood is in essence a time of profound change and development. It is exciting and disquieting at the same time. When it comes to our children, we need to be sure that change is made for the better … So, how do we prepare our children with the skills and more importantly, the competencies they will need to tackle changes in our world? We could start with a positive camp experience. A quality camp experience provides our children with the opportunity to learn powerful lessons in community, character-building, skill development, and healthy living — a meaningful, engaged, and participatory environment.

“Camp promotes community. It creates this great space that shows kids how to live together and care for one another. There are norms and negotiation of boundaries; there are rules. Camp is a place where kids can ‘practice’ growing up stretching their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive muscles outside the context of their immediate family. This is what childhood is supposed to provide” (Smith, 2018).

That’s why kids need camp, more than ever.

Still, COVID-19 remains a significant threat across the country, particularly as new variants present as vital problems to address. How can camps safely reopen and restore the magic that was largely lost in 2020?

Those camps that opened and ran successfully last summer are ahead of the game, having already figured out modifications to their traditional programming and instituting new health and safety practices at camp. Others, such as Brewster Day Camp (BDC) in Massachusetts, which did not open in 2020, spent most of this “off-season” reaching out to camp families to inquire as to which experiences seemed most valuable and seeking recommendations on opening in 2021. I recently listened in on a Zoom call in which BDC director Dan Mishel extrapolated on the programming modifications they intend to make to ensure that kids and staff remain safe while still allowing for the favorable outcomes they seek. In essence, with the help of senior staff and camp families, BDC has almost completely re-engineered what they do and how they do it, all the while remaining focused on the program elements that have fueled BDC’s success in the past.

In other words, they are learning how to live and thrive during a global pandemic!

In his January 2021 piece “Summer Camp: Our Kids’ Antidote to Pandemic Living,” Andy Pritikin, director of Liberty Lake Day Camp, in Mansfield Township, NJ, founding partner of Everwood Day Camp, in Sharon, Massachusetts, past president of the American Camp Association NY/NJ, and host of the Day Camp podcast, reports, “For two decades, I’ve been heralding the importance of summer camp to families who have never attended. Years before COVID-19, there existed a world-wide outbreak amongst our youth in technology addiction, social skill deficiency, indoors isolation, and over-parenting. And now, since March 2020, our kids have been living an increasingly bizarre, unnatural life of screens and quarantines, hybrid schooling (if they’re lucky), and enough fear and disappointment to last them into adulthood. However, in the midst of the insanity, we learned that summer camp can become a beacon of hope, a lifeline towing them back to their normal selves.

“More than 1,000 lucky children and 250 staff attended Liberty Lake Day Camp in summer 2020. While strict safety guidelines and a modified program where necessary, the fundamental essence of camp remained intact: Kids, playing together, mentored by caring staff, and in most cases — outdoors. According to the campers, parents, and staff at camps that ran last summer, it was by far their most meaningful camp experience ever, as well as an impactful life event. And think about it — that was after only four months of screens and quarantines. Imagine what it’s going to be like in 2021? Wowza!”

Wowza is right, but Andy’s camp offers more compelling evidence that camps can still deliver magic even in dire times.

The camps that did open showed great resiliency and creativity in adapting and flourishing within their new parameters, doing it better than most schools. While some families and staff chose to postpone their camp attendance until 2021 — most didn’t want to miss out, even in the midst of a pandemic, despite apprehensions. What were these people, crazy? Absolutely not. They strongly believed that the benefits outweighed the perceived risk. This June, after two compromised school years and everything that’s gone along with it, our children’s need for the benefits of summer camp will be crucially important. What are they?

  1. REAL HUMAN CONNECTION  Zoom and remote learning have saved us in so many ways. But there’s no substitute for real human connection. Making and strengthening relationships while being guided by loving people is what camp is all about. The essence of camp is in the friendships we forge, something we are all lacking and craving these days.
  2. REACQUAINTING OURSELVES WITH NATURE  While society has been trapped indoors for the past year, most of the world is outdoors, and it is amazingly beautiful, and fills our soul with joy. From picture-perfect days, to “liquid sunshine” washouts — it’s real living — the way our ancestors lived for thousands of years, until the advent of central air, video screens, and the internet. Our bodies yearn for the outdoors, and that’s where most summer camps happen.
  3. RESILIENCY — Our kids are certainly developing it; experiencing disappointments that will make them stronger. Learning to be brave and confronting challenges and fears are also important facets of resiliency. It’s easier to stay at home and stare at screens — but we want our kids to grow up with the kind of courage and “can-do” attitude that our health care, essential workers, and superhero school teachers have learned and cultivated.
  4. *MENTAL HEALTH* — While summer camp is widely known for its physical health benefits, according to the CDC, “Children’s mental health during public health emergencies can have both short and long term consequences to their overall health and well-being,” so it’s no surprise that hospital visits related to mental health have risen dramatically for school-age children and adolescents. Kids are resilient and can bounce back quickly. But a year and a half of stress and anxiety is bound to leave a mark. Extroverted kids are suffering, missing the energy of their peers. Introverted kids may seem to enjoy sitting in their homes, away from life’s normal pressures — but they need social interaction just as much. 

Andy concludes by asking the question on the minds of his fellow directors, campers, and camper parents: “Why can summer camps be successful during a pandemic?” His answer? It follows.

Good camps breed creative adaptability, and get things done — We always have. How do you get a group of third-grade boys to listen? What do we do about the incoming storm? The bus is running late, animals got into the supplies, no electricity in the kitchen, kid pooped in the pool . . . Camp people don’t complain — we figure it out and make it happen

Last summer, we were able to facilitate 99 percent of what we normally do at camp — including lunches, bussing, instructional swimming, and assemblies. Were they a little different than usual? Sure — but all were accomplished, with smiles and appreciation.

Camp offers kids the unique opportunity to step back into a simpler time, with no internet connection or mute button needed. A place where a small community can have faith in the human spirit and support from one another without judgment, simply because it’s the right thing to do. Our kids need to be out of our homes, playing with other kids, and camps have proven that it can be done safely, even under the most challenging circumstances.

In her Parentology article “SUMMER CAMPS 2021 – WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW,” Julie Tolar explains, “This school year has been anything but normal for many kids and families around the country. As the summer approaches, many are left wondering if children will be able to attend summer camps in 2021 and see friends safely.

“According to the American Camp Association, this is not only a possibility but a must for so many children who have spent the past year isolating themselves from others.

“The summer camp experience can mean many things — a day camp focused on a special interest, an outdoor camp for exploring nature, or a sleep-away that challenges kids to grow outside of their family circle. According to Psychology Today, all of these experiences are beneficial to kids and help them develop socially and emotionally. ‘Whether it is a subsidized day camp in a city or a luxurious residential facility up in the mountains, camps can give our kids a spicy combination of experiences that prepare them well for life’ …” (Tolar, 2021).

The good news is that there will be many meaningful camp opportunities this summer, thanks to those who worked diligently to meet the urgent needs presented by the pandemic. The sad news is that, for some campers, their camps have closed for good, with land and assets being sold off. This may be particularly difficult for older campers and teens who tend to be more social than younger children and are typically more reliant on camp-bred relationships.

Regardless of the status of any particular camp, for 2021 campers, uncertainty reigns (like they need more of that). Too bad, because it really didn’t need to turn out this way.

Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed., is a doctoral candidate in educational innovation and leadership at St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. He is also an associate research professor and president and director at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE). Stephen has broad experience as a school psychologist, adolescent/family counselor and summer camp director. He is a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com, NBC News Learn, and WebMD. He is also an expert partner at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange) and was national chairman and chief executive officer at SADD for more than 15 years. Stephen is an award-winning writer and author of the books Reality Gap and IMPACT. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.

ACA. (2020). The value of camp. Benefits of Camp. American Camp Association. https://www.acacamps.org/campers-families/because-camp/benefits-camp/value-camp (28 Mar. 2021).

Himmel, D. (2020). What camp people are losing this summer. The Atlantic. July 5, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/what-camp-people-are-losing-summer/613807/ (28 Mar. 2021).

Leonhardt, M. (2020). Coronavirus forced 62% of summer camps to close this year and early estimates predict the industry will take a $16 billion revenue hit. July 3, 2020. CNBC Make It. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/03/coronavirus-forced-62-percent-of-summer-camps-to-close-this-year.html (28 Mar. 2021).

Pritikin, A. (2021). Summer camp: our kids’ antidote to pandemic living. American Camp Association. https://www.acacamps.org/campers-families/parent-blog/summer-camp-our-kids-antidote-pandemic-living (28 Mar. 2021).

Smith, P. (2018). The case for camp – why kids need it now more than ever. American Camp Association. January 26, 2018. https://www.acacamps.org/resource-library/parents/case-camp-why-kids-need-it-now-more-ever (28 Mar. 2021).

Tolar, J. (2021). Summer camps 2021 – What parents need to know. Parentology. March 22, 2021. https://parentology.com/summer-camps-2021-what-parents-need-to-know/ (28 Mar. 2021).

Wallace, S. (2020a). Horseshoes. Psychology Today. August 4, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-teens-make/202008/horseshoes (28 Mar. 2021).

Wallace, S. (2020b). Where there’s a will. LinkedIn. October 1, 2020. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/where-theres-stephen-gray-wallace?trk=read_related_article-card_title (28 Mar. 2021).

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