Pleasanton Weekly

- February 21, 2014

Childhood summer camps offer key benefits

Programs help teach youth independence and confidence, experts say

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

In songs and movies, summer camps are a rite of passage for children and usually involve mishaps -- because otherwise there would be no plot.

But what about in real life? How is the experience?

One great thing about camps these days is that they get kids unplugged, from cell phones, TV and the Internet. And the youngsters discover that even without technology, there is plenty to do.

Parents may question whether their kids will be too homesick if they go away to camp, but psychologist Michael Thompson, author of "Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow," said the question often is whether the parents will suffer from "childsickness." Parents who revolve a lot of their lives around their children may find they aren't ready to have them leave, even temporarily.

"The only way children can grow into independence is to have their parents open the door and let them walk out. That's what makes camp such a life-changing experience for children," Thompson wrote in a 2012 Huffington Post blog.

He contended the away-from-home camping experience teaches children skills that are just as important as the obviously impressive ones taught at specialized programs that many feel are important in today's competitive world.

"I believe that children develop in profound ways when they leave their parents' house and join a camp community," he wrote.

"When a child is on his own, the experience is his alone, the satisfaction belongs only to him and he does not have to filter it through what his parents think and feel," he explained.

He also said college admissions officers believe former campers succeed in college because camps built confidence and identity.

Campers learn more than how to build a fire or go on a hike, said Michael Ungar, a family therapist, and author of "The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids."

"There are the much more complex challenges of getting along with a new group of peers, learning how to ask for help from others, or taking manageable amount of risks without a parent following after you," Ungar wrote in a recent Psychology Today article.

He listed seven things that camps provide for children:

1. New relationships, both with peers and other trusted adults.

2. An identity that makes them feel confident.

3. They help children feel in control of their lives.

4. Camps make sure all children are treated fairly and valued for who they are.

5. Campers get fresh air, exercise, a balance between structured and unstructured time, and good food.

6. Camps help kids feel they belong.

7. Camps can offer children a better sense of their culture.

Ungar noted that these experiences can be found in luxurious residential camps or in subsidized day camps in cities.

Camps also emphasize that children learn social skills as they learn to cooperate and trust each other. And they make good friends as they laugh, sing, talk, play and do things together with the pressures they have at school.

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