The Impact of Summer Camp on a Child’s Development
January 9, 2018 by Mary Del Ciancio

“Camp was a huge part of my childhood,” she says. “Thanks to camp, I learned skills that I probably would not have had otherwise.”

At camp, Caneco learned how to steer a canoe, shoot a bow and arrow, start a fire and make friendship bracelets. But her learning went far beyond that, she says. While she was doing these activities, she was also learning independence, organization, leadership, team building, trust and social skills.

Today, Caneco has a career in sales, where she must work with and talk to clients with confidence on a daily basis, and manage a team. She believes her experiences at camp helped prepare her for this, and has played a role in her professional success.

Many experts echo this sentiment. They suggest (and studies have shown) that camp can have a positive impact on a child’s development, particularly in their self-esteem, independence, health, social skills, leadership skills, and much more, thanks to the experiential learning that takes place.

The Camp Effect: Personal Development

Stephen Fine is the founder and director of The Hollows Camp in Bradford, Ont., the chair of the research committee for the Canadian Camping Association, and a committee member for the advancement of research and evaluation for the American Camp Association. He has been involved in camp research since the early 1990s, and has found that a child’s development at camp happens in three areas — personal, social and physical development.

On the personal side, he says, the development of a young person is usually enhanced through the autonomy that they experience at camp.

“They discover new interests and talents, and this often leads to a greater sense of self-concept, self- efficacy and self-regulation,” he says.

Michael Brandwein, an educator, best-selling author, and internationally recognized camp expert who trains camp directors and staff around the world, says that it’s the many choices that children are presented with at camp that teaches them greater independence.

“If we want strong, capable kids, camp is one of the best places this happens,” he says. “Without well-intentioned parents hovering over them…young people are given more tasks to do themselves, which helps them practice greater responsibility.”

At camp, kids are encouraged to try new things and make their own choices without the pressures of school and grades, and in a very positive, accepting environment, he adds.

Eric Shendelman, president of the Ontario Camps Association and owner of Shendy’s Swim School in Toronto, Ont., agrees.

“There’s a lot of leading by parents and teachers during the year,” he says. “I find that camp gives [kids] the opportunity to branch out.”

Shendelman, a teacher by trade, says that there is a lot more “high-fiving” in the camp setting; a lot of encouragement that goes a long way towards building up a child’s confidence and self-esteem.

“There’s more of a focus on skill development, on positive self-esteem development. Those are the true benefits of camp,” he adds.

The Camp Effect: Social Development

Camp is one of the most powerful tools to help »young people build the important social skills — communication, co-operation, respect, empathy, etc. — that they need for success and happiness, says Brandwein. “These are not learned from a book or from mostly passive interaction with a screen. But they can be learned at camp, which uses the very best teaching tools, including learning from role models and experiential learning.”

Camp, he adds, provides opportunities to learn how to make and keep friends, and make meaningful connections with others. Campers are urged to include, not exclude, others, and to respect the differences between people.

“Campers learn how to have real conversations of much greater depth. They learn how to ask questions to show interest in others. They get more experience understanding people’s body language face-to-face, and how to express thoughts in a group of people who will not always have the same ideas they do.”

In addition, believes Fine, camp offers an opportunity for young people to learn to negotiate with their peers and experience successful compromise, while learning the benefits of co-operation and teamwork, whether they’re canoeing or cleaning the cabin.

The Camp Effect: Physical Development

Research shows that learning in natural outdoor settings enhances cognitive function and attentional capacity through the reduction of personal stress, Fine explains, adding that “there’s a lot of therapeutic aspects to being in a natural environment.”

The physical benefits also include improvements in physical fitness. For example, campers are often exposed to outdoor activities — canoeing, kayaking, sailing, water skiing, hiking — that they normally wouldn’t be doing during the year, says Shendelman. This encourages physical fitness and a connection with the outdoors, while also offering the opportunity to unplug from technology.
“If a young person is at camp for two to three weeks, you can actually see the physical changes that take place in their body and in their attitudes just by having the freedom of space and the opportunity to move,” explains Fine. “This type of activity transfers over into later adult life and can assist in improving general health.”

The Learning Transfer

The personal, social and physical growth that takes place at camp contributes to the development of a well-rounded child, which transfers into adulthood.

“There’s a lot of learning transfer that takes place later in life that can be traced back to those learning experiences at camp,” says Fine. “I found out from my studies that alumni felt that their experiences at camp as a staff person, for example, really assisted them in their parenting skills. It also helped them in team building and co-operation, [and] helped them to mediate successfully in their families.”

Caneco has experienced this herself, suggesting that the skills she learned at camp has helped her in her career, as a parent and, she admits, probably in ways that she doesn’t even realize. Camp had such a positive impact on her, that she enrolled her son, Ethan, in overnight camp for the first time last summer.

“I just wanted to give him the opportunity to try it and see if it was something that he could benefit from, too,” she explains.
The verdict, she says: “He loved it.”

Mary Del Ciancio is a freelance writer in Stouffville, Ont.

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