what summer camp should be and why your kids should go

Ah summer camp. If I had my druthers then any mention of summer camp would bring forth memories of sunsets by the water, music around the campfire and amazing over-the-top experiences. When camp is doing the things it should be doing, it creates an environment where kids have opportunities to grow in all sorts of directions. When camp is doing it right campers grow in self-confidence, they grow in their relationships with others, and they grow in independence.

According to the Alberta Camping Association, camps are defined as short term events in which four of the five following criteria are met:

Physically active experience
Natural environment experience
Community experience
Educational experience
Peer leadership experience

IMG_2826Physically active experience
When summer camp is doing the things it should be doing, then it is a physically active experience. Note this doesn’t say a physically intimidating experience or a physically competitive experience, just physically active. My background is in physical education and if there is one thing I can get on a soapbox and rant about it is how we compartmentalise physical activity. We break physical activity into a single component of our day: I will be physically active between 4:30 and 5 pm and then feel pretty good about sitting on the couch for the rest of the evening. At camp, being physically active is part of the landscape. There are scheduled components no doubt, but the components of your day are made of activity: You swim in the river and climb on the wall and run in the field and you do it all as beats of the clock. But it doesn’t end there, the moments between are in a landscape of physicality and reality. You walk where you need to go and you carry what you need for activities. There are games to play and Frisbees to throw and real life fun to be had. All of this changes our perspective of being physically active from that of “working out” to incorporate it into our lives. When running around is fun you never need to “train” for anything.

dsc06018Natural Environment Experience
Camps give us the opportunity to connect with the natural world. In Richard Louve’s fabulous book Last Child in the Woods he coins the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to help understand a new breed of sickness: a lack of connection with the natural world. The natural spaces are disappearing from our children’s world at an alarming rate. When camp is doing the things it should be doing it gives campers an amazing opportunity to experience creation first hand! I have been able to share thunderstorms, rainbows, owls, elk, moose, countless bugs, deer, and many other amazing experiences in creation with campers in my care. Many times I have had these experiences recounted to me years later when I meet the camper again. The natural world impacts our kids in ways we don’t yet fully understand but the impact is deep and camp provides one way to experience that world firsthand.

Community Experience
Camp provides a unique community for the campers who come here. A camp community has almost an island feel to it, being a community that is both away from the everyday and also somewhat isolated from the outside world. When campers come to Valaqua, they have an opportunity to start fresh. The sense of away-ness that is created here allows kids to leave the labels they carry in their everyday lives behind and to be the person they truly want to be.
The short term nature of camp means community must form fast and the intensity of a week at camp can often temper relationships to a harder edge than those formed in less intense environments. The incredibly strong community formed at camp is a palpable thing and a major goal of what camps aim to do in the week or more that your child is part of the program.

Educational experience
When a camp is doing what it should be doing it creates an educational experience for the campers who attend. The topic of education can be a broad one; anything from how to paddle a canoe to how to be a better neighbor, but the goal is the same: for the camper to leave the program with more resources and knowledge than they came with.
We also know that skills are not gained in a vacuum. The ability to do a J stroke in a canoe may not help in future career endeavors, but the confidence and belief in oneself gained from acquiring the skill most certainly will. When I see the “Aha!” moment on a camper’s face as they realize the acquisition of a new skill or new piece of knowledge, I recognize that I am seeing a step in the construction of a whole person.

Peer leadership experience
A peer leadership experience is an aspect of a successful summer camp program that is often viewed as a happy coincidence rather than a core piece of camp work. When camp is doing what it should be doing it gives young people the opportunity to be leaders.
Camp is one of the few places in this world where we put young people in charge. We train them up, give them the resources they need, and then hand over the keys. This is huge in the development of young leaders. Very few places in the world do we truly trust our young people to take on the challenge of leading and organizing anything. What I have learned in my years as a camp Director is that these young staff will surprise you! They have tools and depths of energy and resilience that we hadn’t even guessed at. Sure they make mistakes. Sure the judgement isn’t always 100%, but that is why mentors stand close at hand, ready to intervene in the big moments if necessary. The camp formula provides our young people opportunities to lead and there is no better training to do something then the act of doing it.

A physically active experience, a natural environment experience, a community experience, an educational experience, and a peer leadership experience. These are the cornerstones of Summer Camp. The order and priority may shift, but these 5 components are the keystones to a great camp experience!

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