Illustration: Lisa Cinar
I achieved a parenting milestone last summer: Both of my kids attended their first overnight camp at the same time.
While my son, Bennett, who has autism, was busy swimming and roasting marshmallows at a camp in B.C.’s Lake Country, his big sister, Avery, was building backcountry shelters and navigating a ropes course at a camp high in the mountains near Peachland.
Meanwhile, their dad and I celebrated this kid-free overlap with some much-needed couple time. We shipped them off selfishly—for a break that involved wine tastings, meals out and hikes together—and we were doubly thrilled when they returned home better versions of their original selves. We learned that our notoriously shy son had serenaded his counsellors daily with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and had slept in a tent for the first time. Avery came back cheerful and helpful, sharing stories about new friends, adventures and foods she’d tried.
I was a camp kid, so I remember the magic of sleep-away camp—the pranks and campfires and songs—but I’d forgotten about all of the benefits of camp that can be harder to measure: the growth in confidence, responsibility and resilience born of mastering new skills, tidying cabins and, occasionally, failing at an activity but learning to try again.
These outcomes are backed up by research. The Canadian Summer Camp Research Project, a 2010 study out of the University of Waterloo, found that kids who attend overnight camp experience positive development in self-confidence, social integration, nature appreciation and emotional intelligence skills such as empathy. What’s more, they develop healthier attitudes toward physical activity—evidently, swimming and kayaking are more fun than running laps.
For many kids, overnight camp is their first time away from home. “It gives them an opportunity to flex and build that self-confidence they’re going to need in life,” says Russ Paton, program director and manager of Silver Lake Forest Education Society, which runs camps in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. Paton sees kids gain confidence after just one week of camp. He attributes it to “firsts.” A child’s first time paddling a canoe, swimming in a lake and, especially, being away from their parents for an extended period of time all qualify as big self-esteem boosters. “Those things push them out of their comfort zone, all while being supported by counsellors and staff in a safe environment,” says Paton.
At the same time, kids have opportunities to build resilience by occasionally struggling when they try new activities. “You get to take chances and risks,” says Marc Cooper, camp director of Camp Tamarack in Muskoka, Ont. “You might not be good at everything, but you can try everything. And you might fail—you might not get the part in the play or make the soccer team. That’s a different type of first and an important lesson.”
Learning to handle failure and try again might be a function of parental absence. Counsellors don’t have a vested interest in whether a kid is good at drama or scoring goals or shooting a bow and arrow—so with parents sidelined, so to speak, there’s no pressure to get a bull’s eye. And chances are a bunch of the other kids have never tried acting or archery before either.
In fact, it’s this idea of being in the same metaphorical (and sometimes, literal) boat with other kids that helps build camp friendships. My daughter says she bonded with the girls in her cabin almost immediately, and I am still friends with people I met at camp in the ’80s.
Calgary mom Heike Cantrup loves this aspect of camp—the fact that she can send her son and daughter away for a week and know they’ll find buddies. And because camp draws kids from all over, she likes that they get to meet children from diverse backgrounds and learn to navigate those new relationships on their own. “You get that exposure to different kids, and dealing with people you like and people you don’t like. Any opportunity to expose kids to those moments is a good thing,” says Cantrup. She says it sets them up for making their own decisions. “If Mom’s not here and Dad’s not a phone call away, how am I going to handle this situation?”
The social dynamics are also easier to manoeuvre without phones and screens, and most overnight camps ban the devices and promote a kind of organized “unplugging.” Cooper says having real face time and in-person group chats around a campfire are important for building social skills. It’s also inclusive—counsellors work hard to ensure all campers are part of the fun, so they get away from the anxiety of how many friends or likes they have on social media. “You’re disconnecting from that, and you’re also connecting with nature. You realize you don’t need 50 different apps—all you need is a group of friends and a path to walk,” says Cooper.
It’s the combination of unplugging the phone while plugging in to the natural world that Kim Carson loves most about sleep-away camp. Her 12-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter spend a week or two every summer hiking and horseback riding at a camp in the Canadian Rockies near Canmore, Alta. “For me, the number one benefit of camp is my kids being in the outdoors for two weeks,” explains Carson. “They’re completely immersed in nature, and they’re removed from screens, phones and televisions.”
Camp seems to be the right salve for Carson’s kids’ psyches—they return changed for the better. “When they come back, there’s just a level of enthusiasm about them. They’re happy; they laugh; they’re full of stories and songs,” she says. She notices they trade in their jaded end-of-school tone for a fresh, positive outlook that sets the stage for the rest of the summer.
None of this surprises Camp Tamarack’s Cooper. He says he gets those phone calls from parents every year: “What did you do with my kid? He eats pasta now! He cleans his room and clears his plate!”
Though some camps are subsidized and others offer financial assistance for families in need, sleep-away camp—especially when compared to day camp—can be prohibitively expensive.
And not every mom fist-bumps her spouse as they peel out of the camp parking lot. For some, letting go can be hard, says Cooper. Thanks to smartphones and tracking apps, parents are accustomed to knowing where their kids are and being able to reach them at all times. Letting go and handing over their children’s safety to strangers is a big step. Parents worry about their child getting lost. They have concerns over diet if there’s a food allergy, or about medication being administered properly. And they fret about their kid not fitting in or making friends. It can require a leap of faith. “Parents have to trust the camp, that the camp knows their stuff,” says Cooper.
Less common are what Paton calls “middle of nowhere” concerns. Parents sometimes worry about rustic cabins (will the kids be warm enough?), safety with activities such as lake swimming and boating, and even wild animals. “Some parents have never spent time outdoors and haven’t had those experiences, or they have had a bear encounter and want to make sure the camp is prepared,” says Paton. He adds that wildlife encounters are covered during orientation on day one. “We have high supervision levels for all of the activities.”
And anyway, part of what makes parents have misgivings is what makes overnight camp awesome. Kids give up a nice bed for a foam mattress with a vinyl covering. They trade air conditioning for a wood cabin, canvas teepee or tent. They forgo showers for a morning dip in a frigid lake. They disconnect from the familiar and embrace new friends, foods and activities. It builds character. And for the most part, they love it.
It’s normal for kids to miss their bed, parents, dog or favourite meal while at sleep-away camp. With the help of trained counsellors, new friends and fun activities, those feelings usually resolve, say camp directors. But there are a few things parents can do to keep homesickness at bay.
1. Visit the camp prior to the session starting. Most camps host open houses or will accommodate a family that wants to get a sneak peek.
2. Make a pact with your child that they’ll stick it out. “Don’t give them an out—make the commitment,” says Cooper. Knowing they’re in it for the session goes a long way toward them making the most of camp. (If they really hate it, they don’t have to return next summer.)
3. Send kids with pictures of home and family. They can look at them when they’re feeling lonely.
4. Sign up for the same session as a friend, sibling or cousin. Having a familiar face at camp can help the first time go more smoothly.
5. Send plenty of letters to your kid. But don’t include details that could trigger homesickness or anxiety. Refrain from talking about the amazing trip to Europe you took or about how the dog is fretting over missing them.
6. Have a chat. As a last resort, some camps will let a child call home if they are extremely homesick. In Paton’s experience, after the call, most children decide to stay.