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How Overnight Camp Changes Kids

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Read Time: 4 minutes

While not all kids go to overnight camp, those who do get something increasingly rare: A swath of time away from familiar food, friends, phones — and us! Of course that means they’re going to change.

The disconnect may sound tough, but many grownups say camp is where they had their best experiences and discovered who they are. Camp is like a chrysalis.

Since Let Grow is so interested in what happens when kids get out of their comfort zones, we leapt at the opportunity to interview Tom Rosenberg, President of the American Camp Association, which represents day camps as well as sleepaways. Before this, Tom was a camp director for 27 years. This is our Q&A, edited for clarity and length.

LG: What do you think kids get from camp – especially overnight camp?

TR: We think it is about independence. Especially since the pandemic, they haven’t had the opportunity to spend a lot of time away from home and away from their parents. So it is a growing experience for them.

For the parents too?

Let’s face it, we are all over our kids from the bus stop till bedtime.

Yes, a lot of childhood is adult-directed these days.

But a lot of the time at camp is self-directed. Even when I was a kid, “Twilight Time” at camp was choice time. I loved to play in the creek. There were all kinds of tadpoles and crawfish and things like that.

Being allowed to follow your curiosity made a big impression. What do kids get from simply living away from home?

At camp they have responsibility for their bed, their gear. They’re responsible for being on time. Everybody does chores, so you learn to do that.

Sounds like our Let Grow slogan: “When adults step back, kids step up.” What else happens when us parents aren’t around?

Let me give you an example. Camps don’t allow food care packages anymore. So some parents send a box full of games or whatever. And one boy, Daniel, got a MadLibs from his parents. And his cabin mate, Brad, used it.

Uh oh.

Kids’ emotional regulation is a little underdeveloped, so when someone takes something, they can be really angry. They can freeze up, or have a meltdown, or run away. Oftentimes, they’re not as [emotionally] prepared as they might have been 10 years ago.

So what happened with Daniel and Brad?

It was a little explosive. There was an intervening. Basically we ended up talking to each camper and then talking to them together. “What could have gone better? Daniel, would you be willing to share this at some point with Brad?” It really comes down to learning how to live together when they may not have lived with other youth in their entire life – or even had many sleepovers. So kids have had less experience, hands-on, in the way they respond to frustrating moments.

That’s true! We’ve been depriving them of practice at getting along. How about the no-phones policy it seems most overnight camps have. How do kids deal?

At the end they say, “I’m glad I didn’t have my phone at camp.” I’ve heard that countless, countless times.

I’m guessing that’s not what they say at the beginning. Fair enough. But basically the whole camp experience sounds like it takes kids back in time, not just to before phones, but before the modern-day, over-scheduled, adult-run childhood.

At camp it’s about “we.” You develop rules for how you’re going to treat each other, how you’re going to live together and help each other. How to be part of the community of the cabin, and the whole camp. What does it mean to have integrity?

I bet those bigger expectations have something to do with the fierce attachment kids have to camp. It’s an honor to be expected to man-up – and woman-up, of course.

One thing seems to be the impact of having an immersive, multi-day, sometimes multi-week experience with the same group of youth every day. You live with them, eat with them, laugh and even cry with them.

Like college – another very formative time. Maybe young people of any age just need time away from us parents to discover who they really are. My husband says that at overnight camp he had a girlfriend starting at age 10 or 11. But back in the “real world” he didn’t have one till 13. Camp is like an alternate reality where you can mature.

You’re encouraged to try things you’ve never done before.

So for those of us NOT sending our kids to overnight camp, what are the “growth enhancers” we can try to re-create at home?

As a parent, sometimes it’s hard to encourage your kid to try hard things. And oftentimes when you do, they push back and you give in. At camp, everyone’s doing hard things all day.

Away from us, kids try more new things? I have to say, that’s actually what The Let Grow Experience – our free program for schools – is all about. It’s homework that tells kids to go home and do something new, without their parents. It’s like a mini camp experience!

At camp, your fellow campers and counselors are always encouraging you to try something new.  And we’re celebrating the hard things we accomplished and we’re talking about the hard things we didn’t finish or maybe we made some mistakes. That’s the magic of camp.

Tom Rosenberg Headshot
Tom Rosenberg, President, American Camp Association

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