A day camp director tells us: “Day camp can be a child’s first independent experience away from mom and dad. A child can strengthen emerging skills of making new friends, taking care of their own belongings, trying new activities, and taking risks.” This first experience away from home, in a new setting with unfamiliar peers, can create the foundation needed for successful longer-term experiences away from home. Supportive camp staff help build bonds within the camp community and gently push even the youngest campers outside of their comfort zones, challenging them to take positive risks and engage in independent decision making.
The importance of friendship in childhood.
A Powerful Alternative
Some families never make it over the hurdle to full-fledged resident camp, and day camp can still be a powerful alternative. “Since my kids are not sleep-away campers,” one long-time day camp parent states, “I was interested in finding a day camp that truly felt like ‘camp.’ I wanted my kids in a natural setting with camp-specific activities — archery, horses, arts, and crafts — that they would not experience during the school year.”
This family consists of three boys, the oldest of which has been attending the same day camp for ten years. All three have outgoing, positive personalities, yet they nevertheless have continually struggled each summer with being away from home (they rely a great deal both on the support of their parents and the familiarity of their own bedrooms), making it difficult for them to attend resident camp.
Over the years, their day camp experiences have given them a chance to build independence and autonomy away from their parents while still returning to the comforts of home each evening. “I strongly feel that children need a break from organized learning and the pressures of school,” the mother says, “which is why I have always gravitated toward traditional summer camp. Camp gives kids a chance to turn their minds off and just be kids. Every day that my kids come home from camp dirty and sweaty with a lanyard in their hand, I feel that I have given them a priceless gift. By the time school rolls around, they are refreshed and ready to go because they were given the opportunity to have fun all summer long.”
Her description of her boys’ experience at day camp strikes one as nearly indistinguishable from our cultural image of the traditional summer camp experience. The oldest is now an assistant counselor at his camp and recently completed a month-long resident program at a college across the country, something his mother says he never would have accomplished without the opportunities for autonomous living granted by his day camp experience.
A Greater Partnership
Additionally, the daily return home allows for a greater partnership between the camp and the camper’s parents surrounding the growth and skill building that takes place at summer camp. At day camp, another director tells us, “The parent still plays a large role in the child’s daily life. In the evenings, parents can work through obstacles that their child faces and help shape their solutions. This gives the child practice for when they have to work through issues on their own.”
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Campers can recount the day’s activities, and their parents can congratulate them on challenging themselves to make it to the top of the climbing tower or on reaching out beyond their group of school buddies to build new friendships. Intentional camp staff can use the vocabulary of character growth to encourage things like respect and responsibility in their campers, and these campers can share what they have learned at camp, using that same vocabulary, with their families just a few hours later. This creates a cycle of positive reinforcement from both the child’s counselor and his or her parents, further strengthening the skills learned at camp.
When inevitable issues do arise, the proximity to home can often be beneficial to a camp director looking for resources and support. For a camper with behavioral issues, the camp director can discuss the camp’s behavior management plan with the parents, and the parents can reinforce certain consequences at home before the child returns to camp the next day. When a child struggles with homesickness or sepa¬ration anxiety, too, the camp director can access parents as a resource. In a positive partnership, the director can ask the parent to continue encouraging independence during the at-home hours, building more support for the child’s potentially successful camp experience.
Admittedly, the daily return home presents its own challenges. At camp, many problems, especially those in which a camper feels excluded from the group or anxious about being away from home, take a few days to solve. At resident camp, these are nearly always resolved and almost forgotten by the end of the session and the child’s return to their family. At day camp, however, an overly anxious parent will sometimes choose the path of least resistance, simply taking the child out of camp rather than challenging her to work through the issue. Overall, however, the close proximity and partnership with parents is beneficial not just to the camper, but to the parents as well. “Parents likewise can learn more about their child’s personality and resiliency as they recount their camp experience,” says another day camp director.
Camp parents are often pleasantly surprised with their child’s growth during an experience at camp, and a nightly look at the positive changes camp has given one’s child is rewarding for any parent. One camp mother says she was impressed by how camp “motivated [her children] to be empathetic and helpful toward others,” and another shared that her child’s experience as a counselor-in-training “encourages selflessness and patience.” These changes came slowly, over many days at camp over the course of several summers, and they revealed themselves gradually each night when their children returned home.
Day Camp: Benefits at a Glance
Among the many benefits of the camp experience, day camp uniquely:
- Provides the camp experience for campers that are too young, anxious about being away from home, or just not ready for residential camp.
- Can create the foundation needed for successful longer-term experiences away from home.
- Allows for a greater partnership between the camp and the camper’s parents surrounding the growth and skill building that takes place at summer camp.
Andy Kimmelman is the camp director at Tumbleweed Day Camp in Los Angeles, California. He also serves on the Editorial Advisory Committee for Camping Magazine and in numerous other volunteer positions for the American Camp Association.