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Picking the Best Specialty Camp for Your Child – 2006

Finding the best specialty camp is all about finding the best match for your child's interests and abilities. Consider first the pros and cons of the type (single sex vs. coed) and setting (day vs. resident). These categorical decisions will help narrow the field and here's what will help you target a high quality camping experience.
  • Collaborate with your child. In addition to providing you with surprising insights about interests and abilities, involving your children in the camp selection process gives them the self-determination that will reduce homesickness later on. Children who feel forced to go to camp are more likely to experience severe homesickness.
  • Request local references. Beyond the promotional materials camps produce lie the veteran camper families who can share actual experiences that give you an accurate sense of what the camp is like. Camp directors can give you the names and numbers of returning camper families who live near you. Get together-with the kids-to talk candidly about their camping experiences.
  • Research retention rates. The highest quality camps have staff and camper retention rates that top 50% or more. Some camps even have internal leadership development programs that enable them to hire all their full-fledged leaders and staff from among their own leaders-in-training. Generally, the higher the retention rates, the stronger the camp.
  • Beware the shooting star. Many specialty camps sell themselves by touting the name of a star athlete. In reality, this celebrity may only show up for a few hours on one day of the session. Put your faith in a specialty camp whose instructional talent runs deep and wide.
  • Spice it up. The highest quality specialty camps offer a variety of other activities from which campers can choose. Not only does participation in other non-specialty activities provide mental and physical cross-training, it helps ensure that campers don't get burned out doing the same thing all day, every day.
Finally, remember that the choice to attend a specialty camp must be put in the larger context of your child's activity schedule. Some child development experts believe that children are specializing too intensely at too young an age, in all domains: athletic, academic, and artistic. While there is great merit in discipline and the devotion to a single pursuit, such as playing piano or soccer, there is also value in sampling a range of activities. If your child is already a specialist of some sort, perhaps a traditional, non-specialty camp is the perfect complement.

Summer Camp Arts and Crafts – 2006

Finding Beauty in an Ashtray

"What is it?" asked my cabin leader, gently. We both eyed my clay creation as it emerged from the camp kiln, glazed and cooled. I was 12, so I hadn't made a something; I'd made an anything. It had just been fun to pinch and push the clay for our hour-long arts and crafts period. Now came the hard part: I needed to identify my project. "Hmm..." I thought out loud. Finally, my cabin leader said confidently, "Oh, I see. It's an ashtray." And there it was. The year was 1980, so it was still permissible to make an ashtray. Today, the same object would clearly be a politically correct candy dish or a heart-healthy, hypoallergenic soy nut dish. In any case, it was what it was and there it was. Like most arts-and-crafts projects at camp, it was, more than anything else, an expressive snapshot of my thoughts, feelings, and actions at the time of creation. It was simple and personal. Which is probably why it still sits (sans ashes) on my mother's writing desk. Volumes are written about what makes art art and what differentiates art from craft, so instead of writing an essay on aesthetics, I just want to share why I think arts and crafts at camp are so meaningful. In my mind, anything creative and pleasing to the senses can be art. Crafts, on the other hand, are construction skills, often learned through apprenticeship. Naturally, arts and crafts go hand-in-hand. Michelangelo used the craft of stone carving to create pieces of art like David. At camp, children learn crafts such as weaving and woodworking to create pieces of art such as baskets and birdhouses. To what end? Contemporary conceptualizations of the human mind include the idea of multiple intelligences. (Interested readers can find books by Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg.) Simply put, we have different domains of cognitive strength-such as mathematical, social, verbal, artistic-and those domains compliment each other. So combining some athletic and social activities at camp with some arts-and-crafts actually feeds kids' brains. It's kind of like intellectual cross-training. The trouble with some camp arts-and-crafts programs is they are either marginalized or mechanized. Marginalization occurs when the leadership at camp fails to create an atmosphere where art is valued. Arts-and-crafts become an "uncool" program activity and few campers attend the lame periods that are offered. The campers who do participate are labeled in ways that suggest they must not be athletic, adventuresome, or heterosexual. Mechanization occurs when the leadership at camp relies on kits rather than creativity. Arts-and-crafts devolves into campers purchasing nearly-assembled moccasins, birdhouses, wallets, etc. The activity periods-if you want to call them that-involve very little activity besides counselors explaining to kids how to interpret the kit's assembly directions. Creative juices dry up along with the seed for self-esteem: a genuine sense of accomplishment. At the best camps, arts-and-crafts programs flourish because the leadership recognizes the value of a balanced program of activities-something that includes athletics, adventure, and art. Equally important, these programs flourish because campers are challenged to refine their crafty skills, solve problems, and create new works. The brains and souls of these children are nourished and the camp staff becomes actively involved in their mission: to nurture positive youth development. And as an added bonus, some lucky parents and grandparents may get an ashtray-I mean paperweight-on closing day.

Open Your Mouth and Say “Ahhh”

Physical Preparation for Summer Camp Once you and your children have chosen a camp that matches their interests and abilities, a crucial next step is getting ready physically. Following the guidelines below will help ensure a healthy, happy experience. 1. Camps are physically active places, even for differently-abled campers. Engaging in some pre-camp fun and physical activities will help your children get the most out of the summer ahead. If your children do not participate in organized sports, then go on some hikes together, join a pick-up game of basketball, play catch in the back yard, or frequent the municipal swimming pool. Anything you can do to help your children gear up to the physicality of the camp experience will be of great benefit once camp starts. 2. If you have explored a preparatory resource such as The Summer Camp Handbook, then you have familiarized yourself with the camp's activities. Either way, you should gain a good sense of the physical demands of your chosen camp. Now is the perfect time to take your children for a physical exam or other health evaluations. Speak to your health care provider about the camp's various activities and verify that they are fit and ready to take part in activities. You might ask questions such as:
  • Does he need new glasses or sports glasses?
  • Is the leg she injured this winter ready for mountain hikes?
  • What can we do to prevent another bout of swimmer's ear?
If your child has a chronic medical condition, such as asthma or an allergy, your conversation with a health care provider takes on added importance. Discuss with your child:
  • restrictions or modifications to activities
  • ongoing treatments or preventive measures, such as carrying a rescue inhaler or avoiding certain foods
Your goal is to make your children as self-reliant as possible, so that they can participate in the fullest range of activities. 3. It is essential that you complete and return the camp's health form, and write a supplement that describes all of your child's emotional or physical needs. At times, parents are reluctant to be candid on the camp's health form because they are concerned about:
  • the information not being kept confidential
  • the camp staff unfairly discriminating against their child
Some parents are unaware of the importance of detailed health forms to camp staff who act as summer surrogate parents. High quality camps will treat any personal information about your children with great discretion, informing only those persons who need to know (e.g., the camp nurse and your child's counselors); no high quality camp will label your children or discriminate against them. So please inform the camp if one or more of your children take medication, have a history of emotional or behavioral problems, was recently hospitalized, or responds best to a certain kind of treatment. Simply put: Don't make the camp staff try to figure out what may have taken you years to understand about your children. Instead, give the staff the advantage of your parental insights and experience. This puts them in the best possible position to offer support. Although a cornerstone of the camping experience-day or resident-is the absence of parents, in no way does it involve the absence of camp caregivers. Quite the contrary: High quality camping experiences require a trusting partnership between parents and the camp staff. For more information about physical and medical preparation for camp, pick up a copy of The Summer Camp Handbook.

Spirituality and Camp – 2006

Beyond the Symbols and Behind the Secrets The first camp directors were iconoclasts, a description that seems rather un-spiritual. But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of shying away from the spiritual aspects of the camp experience, they embraced the beauty of rustic settings, the simplicity of living in nature with minimal technology, and the fellowship that inevitably developed. No surprise then that the first camp directors also inserted daily Bible study in their programs. Religious practices fit the mood. The first camp directors-like many of their contemporaries-were iconoclasts not because they were breaking religious tradition, but because they were progressive educators who saw camp as a vibrant complement to the classroom. Today, spiritual and religious aspects of the camp experience are as important and alive as they ever were. For many campers and staff, spiritual growth is the true heart of camping. Recent research by the American Camp Association (ACA Education pdf - ACA Education Page - View the Final Results) suggests that children who attend religious camps evidence more spiritual growth than the average camper at a nonreligious camp. That makes sense. Well designed, intentional camp programming often produces the desired outcomes. Families looking for spiritual growth of a particular sort (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) should carefully select a camp whose mission and programming match their goals and values. Indeed, there are many wonderful religious camps from which to choose. But here I'd like to focus on the kind of spiritual growth that transcends a particular religion or denomination. What is it about camp that promotes spirituality? How can families look beyond the Crosses, or Stars of David, or Crescents and learn the secret to what makes a camp spiritual? I believe that at least four factors contribute to a deeply spiritual experience at camp: sharing, reflection, natural beauty, and a connection with the past. After I describe my understanding of each of these elements, I'll offer tips on what to look for as you refine your camp search. Sharing: Your children learned how to do this in preschool, but how well do they share now? When is the last time they invited an unpopular kid to their birthday party or gave some really good toys and clothes to charity? At deeply spiritual camps, sharing goes beyond letting someone else use your stuff. It includes reaching out to share yourself-your time, your skills, your smile-with others. It involves cultivating the ability to detect who is most in need. It also involves disclosure. Sharing some of your thoughts and feelings with others is the fastest, surest way to form close relationships. And relationships, with other people, with nature, and even with a higher power, fuel our spiritual life. Evidence of sharing at camp may include:
  • Daily, secular vespers services, where staff share enlightening life experiences with campers and fellow staff
  • Programmed time (i.e., time deliberately set aside) for campers to discuss the day's events and exchange feedback about their interactions
  • Staff whose priority is spending time with children-time that includes listening to children's own experiences and learning what's most important to them
  • Frequent encouragement to include all campers in activities, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds
Reflection: The pace of life sometimes eclipses opportunities to reflect. Like their parents, children have become accustomed to being overscheduled; to rushing from one activity to another. They watch films, television, and play video games at a frenetic pace. And many live in noisy urban settings that don't lend themselves to quiet contemplation. Recent research highlights the detrimental physical and mental health effects of stress and emphasizes the importance of simply knowing how to relax, reflect, and make sense of our lives. At spiritual camps, there is not only ample opportunity for reflection; there is also staff that set a good example of living a balanced life with a healthy pace. Evidence of opportunities for reflection at camp may include:
  • Programs in meditation, yoga, or what is generally referred to as "wellness"
  • Nature paths that are accessible to campers during free time
  • Activity offerings such as hiking and nature education that help children feel connected to beautiful natural surroundings
  • A scheduled, daily rest hour that staff and campers use for resting, writing letters, or journaling
Natural Beauty: Many of the most transcendent spiritual experiences people have are a direct function of their environment. For some children and adults, this can only mean the interior of a religious building. But for many others, it's as simple as living among trees, flowers, birds, and other wildlife; as bracing as living with dramatic changes in the weather; and as liberating as taking a break from most electronic technology. Evidence of an emphasis on natural beauty at camp may include:
  • A well-maintained but rustic property, with minimal paving and maximum foliage
  • The absence of distracting electronic technologies, such as cell phones, video games, and computers
  • An emphasis on people power to maintain and navigate the natural world, including campers' participation in daily chores to help maintain property, and a prohibition against cars and golf carts on camp grounds
  • Environmentally friendly practices, such as recycling and wildlife preservation
Connection with the Past: Any organization labels current practices "traditional," even if they started last year. But at camps, the enduring traditions are those that meaningfully connect current practices to past experiences. Those are the true spiritual traditions. Some camps in the United States and Canada have been in continuous operation for more than 100 years; others have been around for only a few decades. At spiritual camps, both young and old, the emphasis on founding principles or customs adds meaning and value to an otherwise prosaic routine. Evidence of connections with the past at camp may include:
  • Celebration of native peoples and ancient practices. These are not religious events; rather, they are ceremonies such as Woodcraft, the creation of Canadian-American naturalist Earnest Thompson Seton. Woodcraft is an example of one way to educate children about American Indian philosophy and history
  • Camp histories, both oral and written. Documenting history is an important way for a camp to learn and grow. It also makes campers and staff appreciate that they are part of something larger than themselves; a deeply spiritual realization
  • Decorating camp buildings with archival material, such as old camp photos and memorabilia. When campers can see boys and girls who came before them, their sense of responsibility and belonging to camp greatly increases
What are the benefits of these and other spiritual components at camp? There are many, of course, including a stronger sense of community, healthier campers and staff, and more meaningful relationships. Spiritual growth at camp also forges loyalty, which keeps campers and staff returning year after year. And perhaps nothing bolsters a camp's power to achieve its stated mission more than a lasting devotion. The secret, then, about spirituality and camp is that, for millions of people, spirituality is camp.

Healthy Competition – It’s Not an Oxymoron! – 2005

As a psychologist who works with summer camps across the country, I am often asked whether competition is good or bad. Proponents of competition speak fondly of their athletic victories and about wanting the same thing for their campers. Competition, they say, builds character. It's a competitive world out there, so we had better prepare our children. Critics of competition want every child to feel like a winner always. They don't want to pit one child or one group against another, nor do they want external rewards, such as grades or trophies, to motivate participation. No camp director, teacher, coach, or parent I know wants the kind of competition that makes children unduly anxious, that interferes with their performance and creativity, or that makes them uninterested. However, to eliminate competition simultaneously eliminates opportunities to learn humility and grace. Research on the negative aspects of unhealthy competition is mostly solid, but using it as a rationale for eliminating competition altogether may throw the baby out with the bathwater. Although some believe that "healthy competition" is actually a contradiction in terms, I have a different perspective. The unhealthy competition I've witnessed is: ubiquitous, focused exclusively on rewards or punishments, belligerent, rude, critical, and unfair. A classic example is the child who, after a day at school where grades are the only object, is forced to play in a youth soccer league where parents emphasize trophies, coaches berate kids, spectators scold every mistake, one team has vastly greater talent than the others, and not every child gets to play. Life doesn't have to be that way. What I've seen that is healthy is what I'd call "cooperative competition." This may also seem like a contradiction in terms, but when competition creates just a little anxiety, demands fair play, and emphasizes fun, children's performance can be enhanced and they learn to make moral decisions independent of adult caregivers. Cooperative competition emphasizes the following:
  • Praising effort, not outcomes. Although vapid praise is useless, pointing out incremental accomplishments builds self-esteem. The baseball coach that tells her player, "You swung hard and made contact" is doing a better job than the coach who simply says, "Nice swing," and a far better job than the coach who screams, "Come on! Park that thing! You swing like a baby!"
  • Focusing on strengths. Instead of comparing a player to his teammates, such as "Why can't you kick the ball like Robbie?" focus on strengths. The coach who tells his player, "You're passing well. Let's try that corner kick again." is capitalizing on what's intrinsically rewarding to a child by focusing on her strengths.
  • Having fun, but not at the expense of others. The joy of any game should not be in the winning or losing, and certainly not in the harming of others, but in the playing of the game and the cultivation of relationships. To that end, cooperative competition emphasizes cheers, not jeers, and handshakes, not prizes.
  • Engaging children in discussions about their own behavior. Instead of criticizing or praising a particular action, teammates and adult supervisors can ask questions like, "Tell me about your decision to pass the ball to Jessie" or "What's the boo-ing about for you?"
  • Emphasizing teamwork. Every individual behavior affects others. Pointing that out to children as it's happening builds strong teams and communities.
The cornerstone of cooperative competition is how the adults in charge frame the game or activity. Just about any game can be set up in a friendly or unfriendly way, just as any activity can be explained in a way that promotes anxiety and hurts performance and self-esteem. Consider this example from an expert on games who suggested an interesting variation on musical chairs. Instead of having the last player standing sit out on each successive round, have the entire group try to sit on fewer and fewer chairs. That way, no one is ever out and, some would argue, there is no risk that anyone would feel like a loser. I've played this game at camp with kids and discovered several things. First of all, it results in more injuries than regular musical chairs. Trying to get eight or nine kids to sit or somehow balance on a single chair has the potential to be an excellent cooperative game. However, there tend to be lots of stubbed toes and pinched fingers. Second, there tends to be more peer criticism than regular musical chairs. I heard kids say, "You're too fat to hang on" and "My sister's more coordinated than you." What I learned was that no game or activity is inherently healthy. The wacky version of musical chairs cannot guarantee that some kids won't feel like losers when it's all over. It is entirely possible that the more coordinated children will feel good about how they were able to scramble together and balance on the chair, and the less coordinated will feel as if they've let the group down, or worse. Of course, it's also possible that if someone ran that activity better than I did on my first try, the entire group would have fun and leave feeling good about themselves. That is precisely my point. Skilled teachers, coaches, camp staff, and parents can supervise baseball, musical chairs, or painting and make it either a constructive or destructive experience for children. There are rules to follow, skills to learn, and strengths to capitalize on. There are friendships to be cultivated, ethical decisions to be made, and successes to be experienced. What builds character is not keeping a stiff upper lip when your team loses or when your painting of a horse looks like a cow. What builds character is having others like you for who you are, not how you perform. What builds character is having adults who provide success experiences and set good examples for children. What builds character is being supported in achieving a challenging goal. One of the best examples of this kind of leadership I ever witnessed was, coincidentally, in a game of musical chairs at camp. The first person out was actually one of the cabin leaders. He threw his arms up in the air and shouted, "Now here's how you leave the game!" He then boogied out of the circle by combining some break-dancing moves with a little song he made up on the spot. You can imagine what followed. Each successive child who got out make up his own hip-hop song-and-dance routine. There was no arguing, of course, because the campers saw that it was as much fun to stay in as it was to get out. No one felt like a loser. Everyone just laughed and asked to play again. It's not whether you win or lose, it's how adults frame the game. Reprinted from CAMP by permission of the American Camp Association; copyright 2005 American Camping Association, Inc.

The Great News About Homesickness – 2005

That’s right…there’s great news about homesickness! For starters, you should know that:
  • Homesickness (or “missing home”) is normal. In study after study, researchers found that 95% of boys and girls who were spending at least two weeks at overnight camp felt some degree of homesickness. Children at day camp may also feel pangs of homesickness, but less frequently.
  • Homesickness is typically mild. Nearly everyone misses something about home when they’re away. Some campers most miss their parents; others most miss home cooking, a sibling, or the family pet. Whatever they miss, the vast majority of children have a great time at camp and are not bothered by mild homesickness.
  • Homesickness is something everyone can learn to cope with. In fact, research has uncovered multiple strategies that work for kids. (More on that below.) Most kids use more than one strategy to help them deal with homesickness.
  • Homesickness builds confidence. Overcoming a bout of homesickness and enjoying time away from home nurtures children’s independence and prepares them for the future. The fact that second-year campers are usually less homesick than first-year campers is evidence of this powerful growth.
  • Homesickness has a silver lining. If there’s something about home children miss, that means there’s something about home they love, and that’s a wonderful thing. Sometimes just knowing that what they feel is a reflection of love makes campers feel better.
So if nearly everyone feels some homesickness, what can be done to prevent a really strong case of homesickness? Here’s a recipe for positive camp preparation:
  • Make camp decisions together. Where to go, what type of camp to attend, and how long to stay are all decisions your child can make with you. Also, shop and pack for camp together. Involving children gives them a sense of ownership.
  • Arrange lots of practice time away from home. Overnights at friends’ houses, weekends with grandparents, and other time away from home teach children to cope effectively with separation. It also gives them a chance to practice the primary way they’ll stay in touch with you at camp: letter writing.
  • Speaking of letter writing…If you want to get any mail yourself, be sure to pack pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes in your child’s trunk.
  • Share your optimism, not your anxiety. Talk about all the positive aspects of camp and share your concerns only with another adult, such as your spouse or the camp director. Avoid giving your son or daughter a mixed message by saying something like, “Have a great time at camp. I hope I remember to feed your dog.” Giving your child something to worry about while she’s away will only increase homesickness.
  • Never ever make a pick-up deal. Saying, “If you feel homesick, we’ll come to get you” undermines children’s confidence and ensures they’ll be preoccupied with home from the moment they arrive at camp. Instead of making a pick-up deal, say, “I’m sure that if you miss home, you and your cabin leader will be able to work together to help you feel better. Camp will be a blast!”
OK, then, what are the most effective ways of coping with homesickness at camp? What advice can you write in a letter or e-mail to your son or daughter if you get a homesick letter?
  • Stay busy. Doing a fun, physical activity nearly always reduces homesickness intensity.
  • Stay positive. Remembering all the cool stuff you can do at camp keeps the focus on fun, not on home.
  • Stay in touch. Writing letters, looking at a photo from home, or holding a memento from home can be very comforting.
  • Stay social. Making new friends is a perfect antidote to bothersome homesickness. Talking to the staff at camp is also reassuring.
  • Stay focused. Remember that you’re not at camp forever, just a few weeks. Bringing a calendar to camp helps you be clear about the length of your stay.
  • Stay confident. Anti-homesickness strategies take some time to work. Kids who stick with their strategies for five or six days almost always feel better.
Mom and Dad, your help preparing your child for this amazing growth experience will pay huge dividends. After a session of camp, you’ll see an increase in your child’s confidence, social skills, and leadership. And while your son or daughter is at camp, you can enjoy a well-deserved break from full-time parenthood. Remember: Homesickness is part of normal development. Our job should be to coach children through the experience, not to avoid the topic altogether. Reprinted from CAMP by permission of the American Camp Association; copyright 2005 American Camping Association, Inc.

Not My Kid: Understanding Camp’s Special Power to Transform Children – 2005

My parents love to recount the story of my first overnight camp experience. Well, at least they tell about the parts they witnessed: the drop-off, the pick-up, and the one letter I sent. Naturally, opening day was replete with the usual stressors: last-minute packing, fouled-up driving directions (these were the days before the Internet, Mapquest, and GPS), and a teary goodbye. Closing day was not quite what my parents anticipated. When they drove up to my cabin and leapt out of the car, I famously declared, "Next year, I want to stay all summer!" My mom and dad were expecting another tearful embrace-something out of Gone With the Wind probably-but all I could think of was returning to camp. (It's taken about 25 years to convince my mom that I was glad to see's just that I had fallen in love with camp.) My parents fell in love with camp, too, when their son started making his own bed, keeping his elbows off the table, exuding confidence on the sports field, and, yes, dare I say it...getting along with his little brother! Gulp. My parents were dumbfounded. Dad would chide, "This is not my kid!" and my mother would add, "Who are you and what have you done with Chris?" You can understand their surprise as well as their joy. What kind of experience had the power to trump more than a decade of exemplary parenting? (You know my parents had tried relentlessly to get me to make my bed and treat my brother with respect.) How did camp accomplish the impossible? Here's the deal: Camp (especially overnight camp) has a triad of factors that set it apart from any other experience. It is: (1) community living; (2) away from home; (3) without academic stress. No other experience comes close. Boarding school offers the first two factors, but is academically stressful. Family vacations offer the latter two factors, but lack the benefit of a large community of other children. The local neighborhood may offer a great sense of community and lots of opportunities for recreation, but it's not an experience away from home. Now that I've convinced you that overnight camp is unique, how exactly does it use its special triad of factors to effect such remarkable change in young people? Well, first of all, not all camps do affect remarkable change. Most often, positive growth occurs at the camps with high levels of intentionality. Intentionality is the deliberate process of putting the camp's mission into action. In other words, high quality camps not only say, "Our camp's mission is to help kids grow in this way or that way," they also say, "And here are the ways we do it." They have a goal and a method. Research supports the notion that intentionality is especially important when it comes to increasing children's self-esteem and spirituality, two particularly intentional parts of a high quality camp's mission. Intentionality and the uniqueness of camp come together in some extraordinary ways. Consider the child who gets up on waterskis for the first time, the child whose counselor coaches him through a particularly difficult bout of homesickness, the child who is given the responsibility of being a "big sister" or "big brother" to a younger camper, or the child who sneaks contraband into camp, admits to it within hours, and is praised for his honesty. These are but a few examples among thousands of the ways in which real accomplishments, real perseverance, real responsibility, and real integrity are cultivated. In the supportive context of community living away from home, without academic stress, such experiences are possible. At the highest quality camps, these experiences are a way of life.