The Competitive Advantage That Summer Camp Gives Kids
A few years ago, a writer for The Washington Post, Laura Clydesdale, shared her thoughts on why sleepaway camp gave her kids a competitive advantage in life. It wasn’t because of the social connections her kids made with their peers. Instead, she and her husband were “opting out of the things-to-put-on-the-college-application arms race” and instead, bet that sleepaway camp would instill character traits in her kids that would serve them well throughout their lives.
So how exactly does camp give kids a leg up in an increasingly competitive world?
Camp builds creativity. Given how quickly technology is changing how we work and live, being able to invent and innovate is key to keeping a competitive edge in our man vs. machine world. Clydesdale cites Steve Jobs as a prime example of an innovator who believed that creativity was simply the ability to make connections between the many experiences one has had. She supports this idea that a rich and varied life yields invention by pointing out the number of Nobel Prize-winning scientists who were multi-talents, and practiced other creative arts on the side, be it music or even magic.
At camp, we provide endless opportunities to create and be creative. Campers improvise campfire skits, write poetry, spin pots in ceramics, makes things on our 3D printer, create acts with friends for the camp talent show, dress up and create different worlds during evening activities, sit under the stars and come up with new constellations, build hotels in the sand for the newts they catch, make summer camp Halloween costumes in the art studio. And we do all these things in and among nature, a creative stimulant in its own right.
Camp helps a child develop “broadly as a human being.” This catchphrase comes from none other than the dean of Harvard admissions, William Fitzsimmons, who stressed how important it is “to develop broadly as a human being, as opposed to being an achievement machine. In the end, people will do much better reflecting, perhaps through some downtime, in the summer.” Camp provides a much-needed opportunity to step off the academic and extracurricular treadmill during the school year, recharge their batteries, and take time for fun and friendship.
Most importantly, camps take screens out of the equation. We are all so used to grabbing our phone or computer at any moment that we have lost old-fashioned downtime and all that kids gain from it. Whether they spend time quietly reading or writing letters home during rest hour, playing board games and card games with friends, entertaining themselves during a game of solitaire (with real cards, not an app), or lying on the lawn under the stars at night with friends and counselors and discussing the vastness of the universe and the meaning of life—camp is made up of thousands of these quiet, little moments that encourage them to pause and reflect and really be with themselves.
Camp fosters independence. As I’ve written before, one of the telltale signs that your child is ready for sleepaway camp is if they can already handle basic tasks on their own. Once they arrive at camp, this trend toward independence only deepens. Clydesdale quotes from one of our favorite books, Michael Thompson’s Homesick and Happy, to reinforce this idea. “The only way children can grow into independence is to have their parents open the door and let them walk out,” he writes. “That’s what makes camp such a life-changing experience for children.”
I would expand even further on this last attribute because camp also encourages resilience and grit. As wonderful as camp is, kids will experience ups and downs and challenges while they are away at camp that mom and dad can’t prevent or fix. Instead, kids learn how to deal with challenging or upsetting situations themselves, whether it involves striking out to end the game, feeling homesick, not getting the lead in the play, falling down and scraping their knee on a hike, or getting into an argument with a friend. Counselors support them through these challenges, but the children move past them on their own. This is why kids leave camp feeling such a sense of confidence—they have learned that they can overcome challenges in a way that doesn’t happen at home.
Camp also builds effective communication. Children learn to speak up to communicate their needs, handle difficult conversations with grace, learn to disagree respectfully, listen to others, and converse face-to-face rather than over text, at camp.
It’s natural for us to want to help our kids avoid life’s pains, and to help pave their way toward success. But often we’re just getting in their way and messing things up. As Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. writes in her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, “Today many parents see their children’s achievement as an important family ‘product.’ This attitude leads to an upside-down, child-centered perspective where we cater to children’s whims yet pressure them to achieve at all costs—academically, socially, and athletically.” This pressure can backfire, she points out, and lead to a myriad of ailments. Summer camp is like a release valve and creative outlet that kids need to survive the challenges of an always-on, high-stakes world.