November 27, 2013

What is camp about?

Junior boy with canoeDr. Chris Thurber captured camp in the recent issue of Camping Magazine:

Camp is not about slick advertising. A camp’s popularity rises and falls on the tongues (and thumbs) of youngsters. Positive memories are shared by word-of-mouth or online messages from child to child, and sometimes through parents. For kids, it’s simple: They want to be treated well by both peers and caregivers, and they want to experience an adventurous brand of fun and discovery. Camps that can’t offer that will never be buoyed by glossy self-promotion.

Camp is not about copying the guys down the street. It’s about developing and celebrating your unique traditions and rituals. Most camps, for example, offer swimming as an activity. Have you ever thought about how you offer swimming? Think about what makes swimming at your camp special. Idiosyncrasies winnow the magnificent from the mundane.
Camp is not about one week vs. seven. The real growth comes over multiple seasons. Constructs like loyalty, emotion-regulation, and conflict resolution take years to develop. Stop seeing camp in terms of weeks and start seeing (and marketing) it in terms of a multi-year investment.
Camp is not about the food. There’s a reason why you keep changing the menu and kids keep complaining: Menu details are trivial. Complaints are driven by young people’s sense of entitlement and lack of appreciation for what they have. Stop catering to their every whim and start engendering some gratitude. Focus on nutrition and wholesome treats, not scrunched noses.
Camp is not about trying something new. It’s about trying something really hard. Self-esteem comes from skills and work, not instant gratification. Stop giving kids pre made birdhouses to paint and ribbons simply for participating. Consider the merit of hard-earned accomplishments and the value of heartfelt public commendations.
Camp is not only adult-driven. To succeed, it must be largely child-driven. Even when staff are well-trained, they must recognize that one of the most important things they can do is take a step back and let kids interact with one another. Charismatic staff are a blessing, but only a peer can prove to a young person what a young person is truly capable of. The research on unstructured free play is abundantly clear: It increases creativity, intelligence, and social skills (Ginsburg, 2007). Staff must provide supervision, of course, but they also need to get out of the way and let campers be partners in the program (O’Donoghue, Kirshner, & McLaughlin, 2006).
Camp is not about the activities. Those are epiphenomena at camp. It’s about what happens between the activities. The homesickness, the camp duties (Yes, chores!), the activity set-up and clean-up, the good night’s sleep, the absence of electronics, the getting dirty, the getting clean, the giving a cheer after losing, the giving a cheer after winning, the physical exercise (walking to the next event rather than changing the channel to get there), the waiting (rather than instant gratification), the reflection (rather than the logorrhoea of snap-chatting your first, uncensored thought about everything), and the hand-written letters all matter. Stop buying new toys for a while and start training your staff to simply be with children.
Camp is not about the equipment. At some level, all equipment is a crutch for staff. The more equipment there is, the less interpersonal interaction and creativity there is. If it were up to children, they might choose a camp solely based on whether it has model rockets, sailing, or water slides. It’s all fun, of course, and that’s wonderful. But parents choose camps based on what their children will come away with, not what they’ll have while they’re there.
The Gratification of Grit
Overcoming adversity creates strength, so it’s time to start selling camp not as scripted entertainment but as a legitimate challenge. Let’s be honest about transporting children from the comfortable predictability of their homes and schools to the capricious natural world, thunderstorms, bugs, and all. We can avoid intense homesickness, harsh bullying, and other unnecessary hardships and still introduce well-supervised personal and interpersonal trials.
What kind of person do we really think gets admitted to a top school or hired by a top corporation? That resilience can be earned at camp. And what kind of person do we really want to be a parent, spouse, or leader someday? That kindness can be learned at camp. What kind of person do we really want to create great works of art and literature? That appreciation of beauty and culture can be absorbed at camp. And what kind of person do we really want to save our planet from self-destruction? That love of nature and understanding of ecology can be instilled at camp.
If we want kindness, humility, gratitude, and appreciation of beauty — the character strengths that positive psychology research has suggested lead to authentic happiness — then we need to recognize what engenders those qualities. It’s not a vacation. It’s camp. Camp with just the right amount of rain, sun, competition, cooperation, novelty, traditions, creativity, ritual, success, and disappointment to spice things up.
As a boy, my most powerful camp experience aligned neatly with the mission fidelity principles outlined above. Twelve of us had been lucky enough to win the raffle for riflery that day, but thirteen showed up. In a graceful display of leadership, one of the activity leaders said, “We have enough room and time to let twelve campers shoot, which is why I raffled twelve spots. One of you is not being honest, but I can assure you that you’ll get a chance to shoot later this week. Who didn’t make the raffle?”
The group was silent.
Then Dan Shertzer stood up and spoke. “I can go to a different activity.” I protested on my friend’s behalf: “But Dan, you made the raffle! You’re supposed to be here! Somebody else is lying. They should go, not you. Stay.”
“It’s OK,” Dan said. “Whoever it is can have my spot today.” Our leader couldn’t have engineered a more potent instance of unselfishness had he tried. The thing is, when a camp is true to camping’s mission, those mighty little lessons happen all the time, every day. Now that the secret is out, let’s spread the word.

Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the cofounder of, which hosts educational content for youth development professionals. He designed The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, ACA’s homesickness prevention DVD. Contact: or visit
Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine

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