6 Mental Health Benefits of Summer Camp
Camp Walt Whitman at the height of summer is a boisterous, busy place. On any given day at camp, water skiers zoom across the lake, volleys echo off the clay tennis courts, and guitar-strumming counselors lead campers in rounds of songs. It’s a stark change from everyone’s more sedentary habits at home, but the benefits of our sleepaway camp’s full slate of activities are not limited to exercise or sing-alongs. There’s also a profound transformation that takes place every summer among campers, many of whom experience a big, psychological boost.
As children’s mental health conditions continue to rise, summer camp is one place that can help remove the sources of youth anxiety and depression that can be ever-present at home. Here, Camp Walt Whitman’s camp psychologist Debbie Neft weighs in on six ways that summer camp can benefit your child’s mental health.
Summer Camp Mental Health Benefit #1: Connectedness
“Camp is the most intensely social environment out there,” says Neft, especially compared to the many virtual experiences our kids are having at home.
“Being able to be out of the house living with other people all the time, and feeling so much more connected to not just people your age, but also to the counselors and to the family of camp — the moms and dads of camp — having that in person, intense social environment is huge.”
On one level, it’s a master class in how to get along with people you’re naturally drawn to, “but also people that you wouldn’t necessarily pick as your best buddies,” says Neft. “Learning how to eat together, sleep together, play together and negotiate all those different relationships — I think that’s a really important skill to have.”
It’s also an opportunity for real interactions, not ones that happen over text, where kids, intentionally or not, can be more hurtful or cold. “I think kids don’t necessarily know how to talk to each other face to face.” At camp, social cues like body language and eye contact clue them into what real connection feels like and encourage more empathetic communication.
Summer Camp Mental Health Benefit #2: Freedom from Social Media
Being at camp means taking a break from social media, and the fear of missing out (FOMO) it can cause. On platforms like Life360, a child can be “much more aware of being left out of things, which is very depressing,” says Neft. Apps like Instagram, meanwhile, put undue pressure on appearance and looks.
“These kids are constantly photographed,” says Neft. While it’s true that camp photographers document their time at camp, those images are only for parents back home. “There’s no posing for selfies, there’s not constantly that stress of, ‘How do I look at this party? How do I look here? How do I look at soccer practice?’ Anyone at any moment could snap a picture and put it on social media. So they get a huge break from all that.”
Summer Camp Mental Health Benefit #3: Freedom from Phones
It isn’t just social media that kids get a break from — they also get to escape the constant demands of responding to friends on their phones. “There’s so much pressure, especially on the teenagers. I see it a lot in senior camp and upper camp, there can be so much pressure at home to constantly keep up with their phones, to not ignore Snap[chat], to not ignore liking somebody’s Instagram picture, to not ignore text messages.”
Says Neft, “For some kids, especially some very social kids, there’s a ton of time and effort and pressure that goes into keeping that up,” as any parent whose teen has ever been on a Snapchat streak can recognize.
The absence of phones also has an added benefit for kids who aren’t particularly social online.
“At camp, you don’t have to text someone and meet up, you don’t have to initiate anything. You’re living with them, you’re breathing with them, you’re playing with them, you’re eating with them, you’re doing all these amazing adventures and activities together so that all that stress and pressure of having to do it yourself is taken away and so even shier or anxious kids can really thrive socially in that environment.”
Summer Camp Mental Health Benefit #4: Being in Nature
Sleepaway camp injects much-needed time in the great outdoors, too. Time in nature has been linked to lower stress levels and improving one’s mood. (No wonder we took so many walks during the pandemic!)
“I mean it sounds so corny but it’s there is something about putting your feet in the dirt and swimming in the lake, and being surrounded by these beautiful mountains. You’re so much more aware of all the nature around you,” says Neft. And campers truly take the time to appreciate it.
One camper this summer coined a term at Walt Whitman that became very popular: “She called it a L.A.M.”— short for Lake Appreciation Moment.
Neft first heard of it when girls from a cabin would walk by the lakefront and say “Come on, guys, we gotta take a L.A.M. And they would just stand on the front lawn and hold hands and look out on the lake and have a moment of silence and it was adorable.”
Their communing with nature caught on. “You would see counselors doing it, younger kids — it was really cute. I think the nature part of camp is so good for mental health.”
Summer Camp Mental Health Benefit #5: Being Physical
Even kids who are resistant to exercise and shy away from sports are incredibly active at camp — and as studies often remind us, exercise helps combat depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
“Camp is constant moving, even if you’re just walking to activities. You’re not hailing a cab, you’re not getting into a car, you are getting yourself places and you’re really active all the time. Kids are swimming all the time, they’re playing tennis, or playing sports.” And of course, they’re doing a lot of hiking too. “It’s this huge mental and physical challenge, and it doesn’t matter how much a kid is resistant or hates it. When they do it and they get to the top, it’s magic, it’s unbelievable for them.”
Summer Camp Mental Health Benefit #6: Being away from parents
This may not be welcome news, but kids benefit from being apart from you, too.
“We’re all aware of it, our generation of parents, right? We have the tendency to try to micromanage kids’ relationships and friendships and interests, and how they do at school.” Our kids deserve a break from the pressure of helicopter parenting — and more importantly, they benefit from it.
“For kids to not feel like we’re watching them and we’re protecting them — we’re helping to empower them and give them the skills to manage all these things.” This in turn promotes independence and more mature thinking — and allows kids to discover that there are other role models in the world beyond mom and dad.
“The more adults in your kids’ lives that they can count on and feel comfortable with and feel loved by and feel protected by, the better,” says Neft.