Taking Stock of a Pandemic Summer at Camp Walt Whitman
It’s been two months since our campers left camp. The kids are back in school, and life has returned to the normal we’ve come to know, masked and filled with screens.
But for a brief period, our campers experienced something that few people, aside from NBA players, have lived: total freedom from Covid-19.
Surprisingly, this was not even the greatest gift of camp this summer. We ended on a high note we haven’t felt perhaps ever. There were plenty of challenges along the way, as one might expect when running camp in a pandemic, but they helped pave the way for tremendous growth and joy by summer’s end.
To help put our 2021 season in perspective, we spoke to a few parents and our camp psychologist to revisit the big takeaways of this summer. Here’s what we learned:
1. Covid Impacted How Kids First Experienced Camp
Many of our camp parents are still working remotely or only partly in the office, and have not yet experienced life as it was before the pandemic, with a daily commute and a myriad of social interactions outside the home.
In other words, most of us have not yet had the same experience as our campers, who arrived at Camp Walt Whitman after over a year of isolation and more time than normal sitting at home. The change was swift—and took some getting used to.
“It felt like everybody’s stamina was down when they arrived,” said Debbie Neft, who worked this summer as our first-ever camp psychologist. We anticipated the mental health impacts that a year of Covid would have on our campers, and hired Debbie, who is also a camp parent, a CWW alum, and former counselor, to be on staff.
Camp, she points out, is physically demanding. Campers are walking to all their activities, playing sports and swimming while also going on hikes regularly. “I think collectively we were all so much more sedentary for the last year and half … It took time for the kids to get their camp legs back.”
But kids didn’t just arrive at camp out of shape physically. “Their emotional stamina was down, their social stamina was down, their ‘dealing with challenges and adversity’ stamina was down,” she continued.
Kids spent far less time around their peers and friends during the pandemic, and camp was an abrupt shift.
“Camp is zero privacy. It is the most social you can get.” So to go from remote life “to communal living and being around other people all the time, everyone’s stamina was low for that.”
The start of camp was an adjustment for all our campers and counselors. “But it was fascinating to watch all of that very much shift over the first couple of weeks,” said Debbie. “Their stamina returned to normal, and then exceeded normal and went to ‘camp normal,’ which is being comfortable in this communal living and doing all these activities and having all the energy for it — and really just getting used to this home-away-from-home.”
2. After a Year and a Half of Pandemic Life, Camp Helped Kids Regain Their Happy Selves
As camp directors, Carolyn and I see a bit of an emotional and physical adjustment at the start of every summer. The shift this year was more pronounced, as Debbie said, but the struggles that campers had early in the summer were not just something to “get over.” As campers pushed themselves out of their comfort zones, it allowed them to experience tremendous growth. The second half of camp, in fact, was perhaps the most joyous we had ever seen our campers.
As uncomfortable as it might have felt to them at first, they were never unsafe, and overcoming this discomfort was essential to getting to the joy that they found later in the summer. To put it in perspective, it’s like campers arrived at a 5 out of 10 on a happiness scale, then dropped to a 3 or 4 during the first two weeks of camp, and by pushing through, they got up to a 9 or 10.
One camp mom, Lisa Schneider, relayed a story we heard innumerable times after the summer. Her daughter, she said, “needed camp desperately. She’s the kid that runs onto the bus and doesn’t look back, and the drive up to New Hampshire, she was asking ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’”
Lisa was worried that with her daughter’s expectations set so high for the summer, she was bound to be let down.
But camp delivered, she said, particularly in the things her daughter craved: “the community, the support, the love, the connection with her peers” — all off and far away from screens.
“Bare bones, down to basics, friendship, community, togetherness. I mean, that’s being in the woods, being dirty, being tired. That’s what camp’s about and that’s what they delivered.”
When she returned, Lisa wasn’t the only one who noticed the difference. “She came back, and my parents said the same thing, like we feel like we got our daughter back. She had kind of gone to a dark place during Covid, and it’s scary when you watch your child, you don’t know how to help them, and they’re a little bit more despondent, and little sadder, a little more withdrawn and you don’t know quite what’s going to happen when you send them away, and thank god, all that disappeared for her. When she came home, it was back to the happy-go-lucky, joyful kid that we knew.”
3. The Pandemic Also Confirmed That Your Kids Truly Love Your Companionship
One of the biggest surprises for Debbie was the number of campers who came to her to talk … about politics or the book they were reading.
“A bunch of kids really thirsted for adult attention,” she said. After repeat requests to talk about everyday things and not their emotions or mental state, “I started to realize that a lot of it was they were just so used to being home with their parents.”
So many of us were working from home, and our kids, she observed, had never gotten this much undivided attention by adults. “They went to the Health Center in droves this summer, and I think a lot of it was just to get hugs from a grown up. It just became another refuge. The kids weren’t suffering, but they craved a little bit more of that adult attention.”
Homesickness, something that we normally see in a small number of our campers, and often skewing toward the younger cohort, was shared across more age groups this summer. In response, our counselors and staff made sure that our campers felt loved, supported and at home at camp, too.
4. Rigorous Covid Testing Kept Our Campers Safe
In advance of camp, we focused on creating a Covid testing protocol modeled after the few camps that were in session in 2020 and informed by our camp doctors to successfully avoid infections. While luck played a part in our success, not every camp was as lucky as we all learned.
“One of my best friends had kids at a camp where there were a lot of COVID outbreaks,” said Jodi Kravitz, mom of three CWW campers, “and so especially hearing about that, where kids are getting sent home and that there was that worry, the fact that my kids might eat, you know, French toast twice in a row, I was not stressing about that,” she said, referring to our letter home early in the season informing parents of our food supply issues at the start of summer.
“I felt like they were safe, that they were in the best place that they could be, from the second they ran off when I dropped them off, until the second I had to drag them home at the end of the summer, all three of them were happy as happy as can be.”
Jill Fink, also a camp mom of three kids at CWW, echoed her relief that camp became an escape from the outside world. “We were so happy that our kids could be in this bubble, where life as they knew it before the pandemic could actually materialize for them,” she said.
5. In the Pandemic, the Value of Camp Became Even More Evident
Debbie is a true believer in the “break” that camp affords — “parents getting a break from their kids and kids getting a break from their parents and … their town and their school friends, and being able to have a whole different experience.”
During the pandemic, this break became even more pronounced and attractive because everything was so redundant for 16 months. “You weren’t going away. You weren’t really doing something different or new things. You were kind of home all the time.”
But camp also checks a crucial developmental box — widening your child’s loving circle of peers, older children and adults who care about them.
“The more people in your kid’s life, who love your kid, hang out with your kid, want to be around your kid— the more people in the world that do that the better,” she said. “And so to watch these kids have the time of their lives and so carefree and so happy and when they’re not, when they’re struggling, to have 80 counselors that they lean on” was amazing for the kids, and the counselors.
“I mean these kids would really rely on us in the way they would rely on their parents, and to have other people in the world that they trust enough to do that, I think it’s just so wonderful and I think kids grow exponentially with that, to know that they can do that with other people. I think it’s got to feel comforting to know that that exists outside of your house.”
Just as importantly, she pointed out, the kids did this independently from their parents, which is part of the growth that camp affords.
While we are all anxious to close this pandemic chapter of our lives, this summer was one for the books. What initially felt like a shock to the system — being around so many people, with so much to do after doing so little — quickly transformed into a rare experience: a blissful bubble free from Covid, and filled with the kind of fun and friendships that can only be found at camp.