My husband and I have had the privilege of owning and operating summer camps for almost 30 years. When people find out what we do, they often excitedly reminisce about their own summer camp experiences. Whether it’s my grandfather sharing memories about learning to sail with friends at camp in the 1940s, the camper who was so proud of mastering waterskiing for the first time last summer, or the many adults I’ve met who talk about the lifelong friendships they made at camp, I’ve heard first hand how the camp experience has a lasting positive impact.
In addition to hearing over and over that camp is first and foremost joyful and fun, we know that camp is also a vital learning environment where kids have lots of opportunity to practice a wide range of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills like problem solving, relationship building, perspective taking, and the initiative to try new things.
At our camps, we see kids building these SEL skills all day, every day.
During just one day, campers might learn collaboration skills by working as a group to create a skit for campfire, build teamwork skills as they figure out what they need to do to win the cleanest cabin award, gain courage and learn perseverance by working through their fear of heights at the ropes course, or practice resilience by falling off and getting back up while learning to paddle board.
The research is clear that developing SEL skills is essential to healthy child development and supports academic achievement.
In fact, a Challenge Success camp research project showed that not only did over 95% of kids describe their time at camp as fun, but campers experienced high levels of engagement in learning transferrable SEL skills while they were there. The beauty of developing these critical skills at camp is that all of this is happening away from parents (and school) in a safe and encouraging environment, growing campers’ sense of self and independence.
With the rollercoaster ride our kids have been on since the beginning of the pandemic, it is no surprise that anxiety, depression, and isolation have increased in our youth. As a camp professional and parent of two teenage boys, I have seen the negative impacts of COVID on children’s social and emotional development first hand and believe that having an opportunity to experience summer camp is more important for our kids now than ever.
In our own experience, we observed that many youth who attended our camp in 2021 were better prepared heading back into the school year last fall.
These campers were able to practice being in community, re-engaging with peers face-to-face, and having fun. In fact, Challenge Success co-founder Dr. Denise Pope said in a recent interview with the American Camp Association that camp is a “powerful place for kids to have transformative experiences and for them to learn many of the skills that we know are going to be useful to them and helpful in promoting their mental health and well-being throughout the year.”
Camps are noticing a new trend this year with sessions filling faster than ever before. Parents are recognizing the value of the camp experience after two years of COVID, and they want their kids outside, unplugged from screens, developing SEL skills, creating friendships in person, and belonging in a community. And perhaps, most importantly, simply having fun.
Sally Whipple has been involved in youth development through the summer camp experience for over 25 years. She and her husband own and direct three traditional camp programs in Northern California that intentionally integrate social-emotional learning into their programs. Sally believes in the power of community and volunteering. She has served as president of the Moraga Education Foundation (MEF) and PTA, and has been on the board of directors at Challenge Success since the fall of 2020.