I remember the idea of summer camp being presented to me when I was nine years old. I wasn’t really being asked if I wanted to go to this great camp in New England—it was more like I was being told I would go.
At my age, Vermont felt like a northern province in Canada, uninhabited other than grizzly bears and coyotes. It was a 12-hour drive to nowhere, a form of punishment for bad behavior.
“Seven weeks?” I remember asking from the backseat of my parents’ car. “Did I do something wrong?”
Internally, I was looking for the exits, screaming at the prospect of being “sent away.” If it were one or two weeks, I knew I could get through it. If it was a miserable experience, it was only a week. I could do the time if needed. If it was fun, I could always sign up for a longer session next year, with “next year” being the operative term.
During my attempts to wrap my head around the full summer experience, I didn’t stop to think about how difficult it was for my parents to let their youngest child go away for the entire summer. Only now that I have kids do I realize the painstaking decision process.
Sending your kids away to summer camp offers a variety of options and decisions. Two-week sleepaway? A local YMCA day camp? What about sports? What about the family vacation we’d been talking about? Will I look like I’m trying to get rid of him?
So, what is it about “Day 15” that makes a longer residential summer experience impactful for the growth and development of a young child? The answer is quite simple and can begin with the internal dialogue that many parents experience in the lead up to the first day of camp.
My child has never done anything for himself. I tie his shoes. I make sure he showers. I get him up every morning. I pack his lunch—make sure he brushes his teeth. Seven weeks is just too long for him.
These are real concerns and ones we value in our preparations for the summer each year. We also see them as opportunities. Summer camp gives children the space and time to learn about themselves in an independent and natural environment. Tasked with making choices about how they want to experience their day-to-day life, they are able to try out things that may have otherwise gone untapped.
Day 15 is where the realities of the summer experience really take off. Campers can wing it for two weeks, convincing themselves that it’ll be over before they know it. They can tell themselves that they aren’t having fun just long enough to complete the camp experiment. But it is the longer experience that allows the child to make a choice about how they want to spend their time at summer camp.
Each activity teaches technical skills, but within these hard skills are the soft intangibles that make us who we are as individuals. When a nail doesn’t line up the way we want in the Woodshop, we have a decision to make. Are we content with the imperfection? Do we get frustrated and give up? Do we ask an adult to do it for us? Do we practice on a spare piece of wood? Do we ask for help? These are the questions we want campers to ask. These are the questions that allow us to develop. These are the questions we begin to really ask ourselves on day 15.
Three and a half or seven weeks is a long time. I see the complexity and challenges, as well as the gift it provides in developing a child’s self-worth, confidence, and independence. Some things require a little more time; an extraordinary sleep-away camp experience is one of them.