Exploring the psychological benefits of summer camp.
Updated June 24th 2020.
After the school year ends, the warm, lazy days of summer arrive with a plethora of kid-friendly fun activities taking place in June, July and August throughout the metropolitan, D.C. area. One of those activities is summer camp. Many online sources do a fine job at curating the best summer camps, offering detailed descriptions of a typical camp day. Parents who read these descriptions know that summer camps come with concrete, measurable benefits, including an exposure to visual and performing arts, opportunities to work independently and in teams through science experiments and sports and safe environments to explore nature and high adventures.
What parents may not necessarily realize, however, are the lesser-known benefits of summer camp as explained by psychologists who work with children. Summer camps offer more than just the development of new skills; they are prime building blocks for immeasurable, intangible benefits that will set the course for positive social interactions.
Independence and Resilience
According to Dr. Eve F. Whitmore, a clinical psychologist from Western Reserve Psychological Associates in Stow, Ohio, one beneficial aspect of summer camp is the opportunity to learn to “be more independent, [and] practice making decisions for oneself.”
As a provider of consultation and therapy to children and families, Dr. Whitmore has a goal to help children decrease their problems and increase their resilience in physical, mental and behavioral health. She firmly believes that “even young children would benefit from a few hours at summer camp to practice being away from home,” thereby giving children ample opportunities to be independent (away from their families) and build up their inner-strength (resiliency).
Schools in our area are varied and unique. The DMV offers parents choices in charter schools and faith-based schools. Public school systems in all three areas offer amazing educational opportunities and areas of study, but the level of diversity isn’t always very high. Fortunately, the summer camp experience breaks all boundaries and attracts a diverse group of children who come from different economic, social and cultural backgrounds – and children with special needs are starting to be recognized as valuable members of camps.
According to the American Camp Association, based in Martinsville, Indiana, children benefit from attending summer camp because they learn to “make social adjustments to new and different people.” Whitmore agrees that camps are culturally competent by being “prepared for diversity among campers, helping campers learn how to accept all children regardless of race, creed, disability or sexual preference,” ultimately benefiting children.
One interesting analogy to understanding how problem solving differs between schools and summer camps is by comparing baseball pitchers to camp counselors. Baseball pitchers throw the ball; the object is to hit the ball and score as many bases as possible, with the end goal to get a homerun. Schools act like baseball pitchers; the goal is to prepare students academically and ensure satisfactory completion of schoolwork. Summer camps perform the same pitching, but with vastly different end goals.
The counselors repetitively pitch softballs to children, giving them ample opportunities to hit the balls at their own pace, learning to problem-solve each time. If they don’t run to first base, it’s not a problem because more opportunities will come. In this regard, summer camps do not exist for children to attain mastery over skills in order to satisfy state educational requirements. Instead, they provide a more informal environment and strive to provide opportunities for children to practice, fail, have fun and learn how to problem-solve along the way.
In his blog for PsychologyToday.com, Canadian-based psychologist Dr. Michael Ungar relates the ability to problem-solve to self-efficacy, which is defined as the belief in one’s ability to complete tasks and reach goals. It all begins with being placed in an environment (summer camp) where children are asked to do tasks in a community setting. “Children who experience themselves as competent will be better problem-solvers in new situations.”
Best-selling author and noted psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson, based in Boston, Massachusetts, is also a staunch supporter of the summer camp experience and dedicated an entire book singing its praises, listing many psychological benefits for children attending summer camp. In “Homesick & Happy – How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow,” Dr. Thompson asserts that “When you face challenges away from your parents, you know the victory belongs to you alone.” Those challenges provide enormous benefits as children practice and learn problem-solving without constant aid from their parents.
Belonging to a Community
Yet another distinct comparison between schools and summer camps is the brief, yet exhilarating moment in a day, week or extended summer camp where all participants belong to a community. While schools focus on individual academics, test scores and successful completion of curricula, summer camps excel at providing rich, fun, intriguing activities that stimulate social scenarios.
New York-based licensed clinical social worker Morris Cohen touts the benefits of summer camp experiences for children by noting how camps provide many opportunities for children to develop a social intelligence. Cohen references New Jersey-based psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman in explaining how social intelligence is composed of social awareness and social facility.
“Social awareness refers to qualities including empathy and attunement to others,” says Cohen. Social awareness touches upon elements of diversity and the differences in the way children look, act and behave toward others. “Social facility refers to how children use their internal social awareness to interact with individuals and groups successfully.”
By participating in a camp environment where children come from diverse places and backgrounds, children begin to form their own social awareness, learn to empathize better and can contribute positively to achieve a community feel through successful social interactions with children and adults who are different from them.
From a psychological perspective, summer camps offer children many opportunities and experiences to enrich their lives by learning positive mental health behaviors that will help them deal with their own problems better (resilience) and allow them to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of other children who are different (empathy) in a safe, cooperative environment. Parents who may be unsure of whether to send their children to summer camp can be comforted in knowing that summer camps will bring about positive changes in the character and well-being of their children!
For more summer camp resources visit our CAMP CONNECTION page!