What can make a hippopotamus smile? What can make him walk more than a mile? It's not a party with paper hats or a case of candy that makes him fat, THAT’S NOT WHAT HIPPOS DO! Nooooo. They, ooze through the gooze without any shoes, they wade through the water till' their lips turn blue, that’s what hippos do!
Just in case you were wondering what makes a hippo smile, right?
Before you jump to the conclusion that I have lost my mind, let me explain. For some, the introductory lines of this blog will ring familiar. They are the lyrics to one of many songs that will echo through acres of forests, hillsides, and riverbanks during the months of June, July and August. These songs will be sung by a passionate army of young children who, along with their mentors and idols, will be participating in a ritual cherished by the inner child in so many of us--SLEEPAWAY CAMP!
It’s February, which means families across the country are securing their spots at one of over 8,400 U.S. sleepaway camps and over 5,600 certified day camps. Have you reserved your spot yet? If not, let me explain why I think you should.
As a parent of three and a former camper, camp counselor, and camp director, I cannot impress upon parents enough the meaningful impact summer camp can have on children. In my parent education classes, I often refer to sleepaway camp as the single most important and impactful experience a parent can provide their child. For most children, sleepaway camp develops the skills and mindsets parents so earnestly want to impart upon their children and does so in ways that we parents are sometimes unable to do. So why am I such a passionate advocate for sleepaway camp?
Support Healthy Individuation
It’s easy for a parent to forget that our number one responsibility is to prepare our children to LEAVE US. It’s counterintuitive, really. We spend so much of our lives connecting with these little beings that grow up so quickly. We offer them all we have. In them, we place our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Only to have them roll their eyes when we perse our lips for a kiss as they leave the car and say, “Gross, mom. My friends will see. Ugh!” As our kids grow older they need us less. And they should. If you want to measure your success as a parent (and I don’t necessarily recommend that you do), consider how well you are preparing your children to leave you.
Sleepaway camp is the single most important resource that I have found that helps prepare our children for healthy individuation. Individuation is a psychological term (coined by Carl Jung) that describes the process of self-actualization. In basic terms, a child’s individuation begins when he/she starts to see him/herself as separate from the parent. As much as we might not feel comfortable with the idea of our child separating more from us, it is an essential part of the process of a child becoming a healthy adult. At sleepaway camp, our children are given the opportunity to see themselves through a lens separate from their parents. The very nature of spending several days and nights without parents in a safe and controlled environment allows children to expand their view of themselves in relationship to the world around them. Their identities away from us are allowed space to grow.
Develop Responsibility and Independence
Of all of the gifts sleepaway camp provides us parents, it’s personal responsibility and independence that are often the most gratifying. After years as a camp counselor and director, the response I most often heard from parents after their children returned from camp was appreciation that their child was helping out more around the house. Parents would comment that they didn’t have to ask their child to take their dishes to the sink, rinse them off, and put them in the dishwasher...it just happened! Parents were shocked to find their child had actually made their bed in the morning.
At most sleepaway camps (and if this is NOT the case for your child’s camp, I would encourage you to find another one), personal responsibility is the cornerstone of daily life. Daily chore charts that require every camper to participate include jobs like: wait the tables in the dining hall, wash dishes, deliver mail, vacuum, collect and empty garbage, etc. At many camps, the kids are responsible for cleaning their own bathrooms. YES, even toilets. My favorite job to be assigned was “super spatula.” This job entails scraping all of the food off of the plates at mealtime onto one main plate and then transferring the “ORT” (or leftover food morsels) to the “ort bucket,” the contents of which would be fed to the pigs at the camp’s farm.
Having a hard time motivating your child to pull his or her weight at home? Maybe try a session of sleepaway camp. You may have the delightful experience one parent had when she said to her son after he returned home from camp making his bed and helping out around the house, “Who are you and what have you done with my child?”
Our children can be forgiven for thinking that the world they live in is universal. After all, many of our children haven’t had the opportunity to see much of the world during their young years. Sleepaway camp, particularly those that attempt to attract children and staff from different cities, regions, and backgrounds, provide our children with new and unique experiences and the opportunity to navigate and negotiate social situations that involve people who are different from them and the friends they interact with every day. Often, many sleepaway camps will hire staff from one of several international staffing agencies, thus diversifying the experience even more. Camp program staff design clinics, courses, and experiences that are likely to be novel for the campers, thus expanding a camper’s view on what he/she might enjoy or be good at. I have had the good fortune of observing scores of campers find new hobbies, interest, and passions from just one experience at camp. I know campers who have become chefs from having participated in outdoor cooking classes or children who have become veterinarians as a result of attending horse/ranch camp.
With peers: Ask any adult who has spent time as a camper or staff at a summer camp and they will most likely have close friends today that they met at camp, as well as an army of others that may not be as close, but whose sleepaway camp bond keeps them connected for a lifetime. Children learn not only how to build and maintain relationships with peers, but they also learn the VALUE of deep, supportive friendships. Especially as kids get older, I find that they appreciate having a world outside of school where friends “accept them for who they are.” At camp, children are able to let go of so much more of the pressures of “fitting in” and “measuring up” because they are in a new space. Not to mention, most sleepaway camps provide a technology-free environment for children to cultivate friendship the old-fashioned way--through conversation and shared experience--NOT through social media.
With non-parent adults: In an age when the pressures and distractions our children face are only increasing, one of the best defenses against childhood and teen depression, anxiety, and self-harm is a supportive adult outside the family that your child knows they can turn to. In school settings we ensure that each child has at least one adult on campus they know they can talk to, and a camp experience widens the net of available confidantes for our children. As our kids individuate, their bonds with other adults become more important. They will value and look up to role models they trust, and those trusted adults become part of the village that helps raise our children. As a “retired” counselor, I can’t tell you how many now-grown campers still reach out to me for support, advice, or just a friendly and non-judgmental ear. It is a privilege for me to me held in that esteem, but also a helpful relationship for them as they navigate their way through young adulthood. I know the counselors whom I most respected held that role for me and my life is better for it.
With YOU: Before you worry that sending your child off to meet and bond with other adults will diminish your own relationship, fear not. Consider that a child whose parents trust them enough to 1) send them to camp and 2) encourage them to seek mentorship outside the parental relationship feels valued and supported, and will actually respect you more for that freedom. I find that as children grow up, the parents with whom they feel closest are the ones who have learned to loosen the strings appropriately. We want the best for our kids, and helping them grow a network of close adults who can provide advice and support is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Believe me, they will not forget about you – they will love you for the experience!
Connect to the Outdoors
When I was a child, my friends and I were free to ride our bikes to the far ends of the earth (or at least that what it felt like) to discover our own adventures. We explored the outdoors with a lightness and whimsy that is often frowned upon today. Even though our neighborhoods are much safer than they have ever been, providing the freedom for children to explore the great outdoors feels too risky a venture for most parents. And even if we did provide that freedom, the draw of technology or the scheduling of numerous sports and activities has our children indoors and/or booked most of the time.
Sleepaway camp is a ticket outdoors without the worry of putting children’s safety at risk.
You don’t need me to remind you of the myriad of benefits being outdoors has on our health and wellbeing. There’s plenty of great research out there to tell you that being outdoors can do wonders to your body, mind, and spirit. However, maybe we all need to be reminded that our children need it, too. Desperately. And if you are like me and live in the middle of massive suburbia with all of its pressure, stress, noise, and competing interests, then we share an even greater need to get out in the great outdoors. Sleepaway camp provides this necessary connection to the natural world for our children.
Below is a graphic published by the American Camp Association that highlights some of the benefits campers, parents, and staff experience from camp.
I imagine that all this sleepaway camp talk has got you wondering a few things. Let me take a stab at answering the most likely questions you may have.
What about day camps?
I am also a big supporter of day camps. In fact my own children attend several day camps in our area and love them. There are so many great options with specific sports, music, art or hobby foci. There are also more globally focused camps that try to address the teaching of innovation, adventure, or making skills. Day camps are a gradual entre to sleepaway camp, too. All that said, there is some developmental growth and experience that only sleepaway camp can provide. In my book, including at least one week of sleepaway camp in the summer plans, along with a smattering of day camps and family time is a great recipe for summer growth and respite.
How do I know my child is ready for sleepaway camp?
The youngest age I know of camps accepting children for overnights is six and I would say most six year olds are not yet ready for a sleepaway camp experience. In my experience, a great age to begin is eight. All children are different and your child will be the best indicator of their readiness. Some suggestions for starting sleepaway camp off right include:
What are indicators of quality?
I’m going likely disappoint a lot of people by not recommending any specific camp. It’s not my job to presuppose a family’s needs and values; I also don’t want to leave any quality program out of my recommendations. That said, there are some great resources out there to help you identify a great camp for your child.
First get recommendations from people you trust. There is no better indicator of quality than the recommendation of friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Second, you want to make sure that the camp you choose is accredited. Accreditation ensures that camps have the proper facility maintenance, staff training and support, safety plans and measures, and philosophical approach. The American Camp Association is the largest accreditation organizations in the U.S., but there are others. To ensure that the camp is a right fit, you can also read online reviews and take a visit. Camps welcome parent visitors to their facilities to discover more; take them up on that welcome.
Should I send my child to camp with a friend?
Sending your child to camp, especially the first time, with a friend is a great way to ease the anxiety that they--or more likely, you--have about being away from home for an extended period. Homesickness is real for many kids, even the most well adjusted and outgoing. Attending with a friend can help create just enough comfort, allowing kids, especially the younger ones, to adjust quickly to being away from home. Often, after the first experience with a friend, the childhood fears dissipate greatly. While attending with a friend is a great strategy, I do recommend providing at least occasional camp options that don’t always include the same group of kids your children hang out with at school or in sports/scouts/church, etc. Having an experience that challenges children to get out of their comfort zones is valuable; attending sleepaway camp with a team and coach they are always with is great, but there is growth in providing experiences with children and staff with whom a camper is unfamiliar.
What if I can’t afford camp?
Many camps offer financial aid and scholarships, as well as discounts. If you are interested in sending your child to sleepaway camp, but worry about the cost, contact the camp you’re interested in attending and ask about financial assistance. Another strategy for managing costs is to get your child excited about sleepaway camp and use earning money toward camp as an incentive or a substitute for expensive gifts at birthday and holiday times. Having a birthday party? Instead of receiving a dozen toys as gifts that will get broken and lost within two weeks, ask folks to donate to your child’s sleepaway camp fund. Many faith-based organizations and local community groups also sponsor summer camp experiences that are low or no cost. If you have the will to send your child to sleepaway camp, there are ways to make it happen.
All this talk about camp makes me nostalgic for my camp days. Nature hikes, horseback rides, all-camp capture the flag, campouts under the stars, the sounds of a dozen hammers pounding leather, S’mores and camp songs by the campfire as fireflies light up the night sky. I’m not sure what can make a hippopotamus smile, but I am sure there’s nothing like belting the song out at the top of my lungs with new and lifelong friends.
If my words have piqued your interest, you might want to sign your child up soon. Spots often fill up in January and February for the summer at most of the best sleepaway camps. Give your camp a call today and feel free to let me know how it goes once the summer wraps up.
What can make a hippopotamus smile? What can make him walk more than a mile? It’s not a tune on the old violin, or listenin’ to the whistlin’ wind. THAT’S NOT WHAT HIPPO'S DO! Noooo. They, ooze through the gooze with batting shoes, they wade through the water till' their lips turn blue, that's what hippos do! Yes, THAT’S what hippos do!
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.