When looking for summer camps for their children, parents are faced with a wealth of options. There are sports camps, arts camps, school camps and camps dedicated to many other activities and interests. Each of these offers benefits, but certain programs stand apart.
According to several parents and camp directors, “traditional” day camps that have programs mirroring classic resident camp programs, present unique advantages for campers and families. Traditional day camps matter in a way that differs from the host of other summer activities.
Why Is Traditional Day Camp Important?
We know why summer camp in general is important. Ninety-six percent of campers say, “Camp helped me make new friends,” and 92 percent say, “Camp helped me feel good about myself.” Seventy percent of camp parents say, “My child gained self-confidence at camp,” according to the American Camp Association.
Though not everyone actually goes to camp (yet!), the idea of summer camp is a big part of American culture. However, because resident camps make up a majority of ACA camps, and resident camp is the touchstone when most Americans think of “summer camp,” the prevailing image of camp is of a traditional, rustic, resident camp deep in the woods.
Imagine, then, a beautiful natural site where caring counselors help children create new connections and reach outside of their comfort zones to try new things. Laughter bubbles as jokes are shared and new friendships are built. Campers unplug from technology to commune with nature, realizing their roles in stewardship of the land. Skills develop throughout camp, both in physical things such as swimming, horseback riding and art and social/emotional things including teamwork, creativity and self-confidence. Then, at the end of each day, a fleet of buses rolls out of camp, returning campers to their families.
This is the unique experience that a traditional day camp can offer children, offering a similar structure and experience to sleep-away camps, but the relatively small difference of the daily return to home that is uniquely important.
Everyone Should Go to Camp
We know that everyone should go to camp. However, the separation and independence required of a camper for even a one- or two-week sleep-away program may be too high of a hurdle for some children or their parents. For these families, traditional day camps are designed to provide the necessary scaffolding of a camp experience that is nearly identical to resident camp without the anxiety-producing long-term separation.
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 advantage to day camp,” the camp director says, “is that it can be a building block to the resident experience of complete independence.”
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 says, “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 includes three boys, the oldest of whom has been attending the same day camp for 10 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 oldest son 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.”
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. 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 benefit 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 separation anxiety, 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.
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.
Andy Kimmelman is CEO of Tumbleweed Day Camp in Los Angeles and Camp Ursa Major in Napa. Andy is a lifelong camper, having grown up at YMCA Camp Grady Spruce in Texas before joining Tumbleweed as the North Site Director. Outside of Tumbleweed, he volunteers avidly in professional development for the camp industry. ACA has honored Andy with Section Service and Outstanding Service Awards and with the Jack Weiner Leadership Award.