At first, the “bubble-wrapped” campers were only familiar with the digital realm of text messages, Facebook and video games. But by the end of camp, a new study found they experienced significant growth, connecting with the world beyond electronic screens and smartphones.
“The major changes on their growth speaks tremendously of the summer camp experience,” says Troy Glover, the director of the University of Waterloo’s Healthy Communities Research Network, who spearheaded the Canadian Summer Camp Research Project.
Camp counsellors had observed the positive change in children by the end of their sessions, according to researchers from the project.
“Sending kids to camp allows children to grow and learn good citizenship, social integration, personal development and social development, exploring his or her capabilities and being in a safe environment where they can grow, gain independence and take risks,” Glover says.
The Canadian Summer Camp Research Project was launched to help new immigrants, ethnic communities and parents who had never attended camp as children, understand the value of the camp experience. Funded by the Canadian Camping Association, it is the first-ever nationwide and international research and evaluation project of its kind.
The study was done in the summer of 2010 and involved 1,295 campers, about half girls and half boys aged four to 18. Of the campers in the project, 61 per cent were returning campers and the rest were new campers. The research involved camps of all types, from day to overnight camps in the Atlantic Provinces, Quebec, Ontario and Western Canada.
Sheltered Kids Learn to Go Outside Their Comfort Zones
In the age of 24-hour news highlighting crimes in our communities, overprotective parents want to “bubble-wrap” or shelter their children from all risks, Glover says.
“My parents were much more open to allowing me to play wherever I want and there was less surveillance, whereas today, despite our communities being statistically safer, somehow we have developed a culture of protection,” says the father of two children aged three and seven. “Because we want to protect kids from harm, they are less likely to be outside, they are less likely to ride their bikes around the block, and we are less likely to give kids their freedom.”
By allowing children to take risks, face challenges and learn from failures and mistakes, the study found that camp helps children develop important skills and build their independence, resiliency and self-esteem in a safe, supervised and supportive environment.
“Camp does a really good job of teaching kids it’s okay to fail and helps them recognize their limitations and see these are things that are not fixed and can be improved upon,” Glover says.
At camp, children are encouraged to go outside their comfort zone through activities such as high ropes courses, performing in front of big groups, or camping in the wilderness.
Developing EQ and Self-Esteem
Shifting the focus away from the individual, camp teaches children to be more selfless and be better team players. An essential skill campers develop is emotional intelligence, commonly referred to as EQ (emotional quotient), Glover says.
With EQ, which involves recognizing, understanding and managing emotions and feelings, children learn how to work, play, relate, get along, empathize and connect with others.
“It’s not just about IQ in children,” he says. “Research supports how EQ is more important in terms of future success. Camp is a good environment to develop that.”
Children boost their self-esteem and develop risk-taking and conflict-resolution skills at camp, as they learn to make their own decisions without their parents’ help.
“One of the major benefits of camp is the social skills that develop, especially around interacting with other people in a positive way,” Glover says.
Lisa Loeb’s favourite memory from camp included skit nights, singing songs, playing the guitar and trying new activities. “I also loved the feeling of just having done something challenging, like trying water skiing for the first time,” she says in an interview with Our Kids Go To Camp magazine. “I was so scared — it didn’t feel great to fall down, but I loved having accomplished something I wasn’t sure I could do. ”
The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter — who founded the Camp Lisa Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps send underprivileged kids to summer camp — discovered how fun it is to meet new people and relate to them at camp.
“Camp made me feel more confident in just being myself—even if I wasn’t like everyone else all the time,” she says.
Encouraging the Value of Play
Canadian children are reportedly spending an average of four to six hours a day with TVs, computers and cell phones. With the popularity of organized activities and electronic media, experts say children are lacking time to play in natural settings. This problem has been linked to obesity, anxiety and a decreased sense of stewardship.
Through spending time in natural settings and teaching environmental awareness, the study found camp can help children develop a personal connection and feel a greater sense of responsibility for the environment.
“What’s really unique about the camp environment—whether it’s a day camp or an overnight camp—is the opportunity for kids to explore being active in creative ways that aren’t as adult-driven,” says Michelle Brownrigg, former chief executive of Active Healthy Kids Canada.
Before making it big, Josh Bailey, the 21-year-old New York Islanders player from Bowmanville, Ont., was just a kid playing the sport he loved. At hockey camp in Aurora, Ont., his parents and grandparents would cheer from the stands as Bailey, his cousin and brother teamed up and usually won the championship trophy at the end. While seven summers at hockey camp helped him develop the technical skills he needs today, for Bailey, camp was about the fun of the game.
“I was learning a lot, but I was a lot more focused on having fun,” he says in an interview with Our Kids Go To Camp magazine. “We just went to have a good time, and it makes you love the game even more.”
A Remedy for Nature-Deficit Disorder
In the age of childhood obesity, the study suggested children were motivated to be physically active as their perceptions of physical activity became more positive over the time they spent at camp.
A bond with nature is sorely missing in the lives of many children today unlike a generation ago, Richard Louv writes in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. “Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and therefore, for learning and creativity,” Louv says.
Steve Paikin, Canadian journalist, author and host of TVO’s The Agenda, fondly remembers jumping off a 12-foot mini-cliff, learning to build a fire, and falling in love with one of the kitchen girls.
“Getting outdoors, in the bush, particularly if you live in an inner city, is essential to becoming a better person,” he says in an interview with Our Kids Go To Camp magazine. “It’s an essential building block in allowing children to become more independent. And let’s not forget the obvious: it’s good for parents as well to have some time on their own, knowing their kids are thriving in a spectacular environment.”
Gaining a Summer Education
Camp is the kind of place where children can learn canoeing, archery and life skills, as well as apply the lessons they learned during the school year in a fun, challenging, supportive and safe environment.
“It’s not only cognitive learning, it’s emotional learning,” says Tom Potter, associate professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., who has been involved in outdoor adventure education for more than 30 years. “(Kids) are connecting to (camp) at the emotional level, so it can go pretty deep and they can learn more.”
When you get to the edge of what you know and have to cross a threshold, real learning happens, says James Raffan, executive director of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., in an interview with Our Kids Go To Camp magazine. “Camp is full of edges–whether it’s darkness, being away from home, strange food, living in a cabin with people you don’t know, climbing rocks, paddling down rivers, doing tough portages. . . . I think every camp can probably point to people who have become the best that they can be.”
Where Leaders Are Born
Camp is often where leaders are born and helps youth gradually build leadership skills.
“You’re often having to rely on your teammates or cabin mates to complete an activity,” says Moira MacDougall, who heads teen and young adult strategies for the YMCA of Greater Toronto, a charity providing community support programs.
Many camp alumni say camp was their greatest teacher.
“Camp does two things at once. It lets kids be kids, and it encourages them to solve interesting problems,” says Seth Godin, entrepreneur, best-selling author of 12 books and called “America’s Greatest Marketer” by American Way Magazine. “The rest of life tends to be about becoming a compliant cog in the endless machine of industry. To do what you’re told. What a waste.”
Unwrapping the ‘Bubble-Wrapped’ Reality
For Trefor Munn-Venn’s family, camp is the most important event after Christmas and Easter. Since his first child was born seven years ago, the consultant has been taking his entire family each year to Cairn, a traditional overnight camp in Baysville, Ont.
The 42-year-old father says camp has helped his two boys, aged 7 and 5 , become more confident and proud of themselves for doing things they didn’t think they could do such as wall-climbing, canoeing and living outdoors for a week.
As tough as it is for parents, unwrapping the “bubble-wrapped” reality brought about “extraordinary” change in Munn-Venn’s sons when they came home from camp.
“They’re encouraged to be themselves and the staff help them discover who they are,” he says. “We see them come back always more relaxed, confident and independent.”
– With files from Lisa Van de Ven and Caroline Maga
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How has camp benefited you or your child? Be featured in the magazine and OurKids.net by sharing your insights, advice and camp letters in Our Kids Go To Camp magazine’s Camp Memories Project. Find more information on camps at camps.ca/2011.