Recreational activities, sports, creative arts, and science and engineering experiments are some of the many choices kids have at summer camps and programs. Kids often come home with new friendships and hobbies or skills, but they also learn a lot about themselves—developmentally. Research at University of Utah Health reveals summer camps can help facilitate social-emotional learning, perspective-taking, and healthy family separation.
Changing Perspective for Kids and Parents
That time spent away from home at a summer camp can do a lot for kids. It involves stepping away from everyday life and support structures. "There's a lot of power in that separation," says Jim Sibthorp, PhD, a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at University of Utah Health. "It often provides a perspective that lets them see the world in a different way." That means learning they can survive without their parents.
Campers also learn about small-group dynamics, such as seeing the effects of their behavior on other people in the group. Kids can't avoid each other like they might at school. If there's conflict, it must be confronted. If someone is in a bad mood, they see how it puts others in a bad mood. Or, if someone is in a good mood, they see how it energizes the group.
Kids at specialty camps—for a medical condition or for LGBTQ+ identifying youth—enter a space where they can experience belonging, normalcy, and camaraderie. The camp environment reduces the emphasis on what might make kids feel different. "It provides a sense of solidarity," Sibthorp says. "Campers get to experiment with who they are in other dimensions of their lives."
Not All Camps Are Created Equal
More established programs generally have greater safety and supervision. Smaller programs may still be high quality, but very few checks and balances exist in the industry. Accreditation is voluntary and can vary by program. If unsure, parents can talk to the camp directors or other camp parents.
There's a camp for almost everything, from general to highly specialized. Parents often find out about them through their networks or communities tied to their children.
Camp cost can be a major factor for many families. Prices run from more than $2,000 a week to sliding-scale camps that might cost $30 a week. It's hard to judge quality by price because you don't know what's driving the price. For example, programs offered by public parks and recreation departments get government support. Nonprofits compete for grants, as these programs provide childcare and youth education in local communities. If a camp is expensive, look at the experiences they're delivering.
When possible, it's best to find and book camps early. Though not comprehensive, the American Camp Association (ACA) website has a Find-A-Camp feature where parents can search geographically and by interest.
Encourage New Experiences
A summer camp may not be for everyone. "When asked what kids should be doing during the summer, my short answer is to encourage experiences," Sibthorp says. "It's worthwhile for kids to try new things or do activities that push them." This might be getting out of the house for a job or meeting friends for an activity.
When planning summer vacations, Sibthorp suggests doing things that make it harder for kids to be on their devices, like river rafting or camping. This creates a sense of a break, includes some learning, and fosters a sense of community.
Parents are the stewards of their children's summer. In many ways, summer is a gift because it provides this volitional control in allowing kids to be creative.