Perched on logs and camping chairs that circled a flickering campfire, a few staff members enjoyed the still, clean air of what felt like the quiet after a storm, or more accurately, just another day in the life of a camp counselor. The campers were in bed, supervised by the on-duty night staff, and I was relieved to have a few moments of relaxation, feeling exhausted but filled, soaking in the vast night sky and the events of the day. It was then that a fellow counselor nudged my elbow and said, "why do you do it?"
I was a little taken aback at first and confused by the question so I stuttered a "what do you mean" sort of response to which he interrupted with something that shocked me completely. From what I recall, it went something like,
"Why do you wear make-up? You wear makeup some days, don't you? You know you don't have to do that, right? Not out here. You're pretty without it, if that's what you're worried about."
Moments like this, people like this, are the reason I place my summers at camp at the top of my list of the best things I ever did. It was crazy and wild and sometimes lonely and other times overwhelming but always raw, real, and worth remembering.
As summer begins winding down and back-to-school season begins winding up, I think fondly about all the lessons I learned around campfires, at the foot of flagpole during evening meetings, at the green cafeteria picnic tables, without a worksheet in sight. Today, there are more than 12,000 day and sleep-away camps in the United States, according to the American Camp Association, and they employ more than 1.2 million adults to work as counselors, program directors, and in support services. If you've been to camp, you're not surprised to hear about all the benefits that summer camp has for kids, but you may not realize just how impactful it is even further down the road into adulthood as well.
I definitely was not an adult when I first became a counselor, though I was trying to be. As a college student beginning my study of education and harboring a love for photography and media, I simply thought it was the perfect compromise of a summer job for a girl like me with a spontaneous streak, a desire to get out of dodge, and the hope for an experience that was bigger than folding clothes at the mall. So I became the resident photographer/counselor for the international sleep-away camp called Camp Twin Creeks, packed a bag for Marlinton, WV and came out with some of the most unforgettable lessons of my life. To share the extent of those lessons for kids, teens, young adults, anybody really - here are my 10 Good Reasons Why Everyone Needs Summer camp.
10 Good Reasons Why Everyone Needs Summer Camp
10. You gain a heightened sense of appreciation for nature.
At camp, you have shelter (technically) but you live outdoors. You eat, sleep, shower, and play in the fresh air, with all it's humid, buggy glory. You see nature with a closeness that you can't experience at many other times of your life. You learn to get dirty, to embrace the heat of the day or the cool, crisp mountain nights with fondness, to notice the beauty of a foggy morning, or what a sky of stars really looks like when there's no other lights for miles to block them.
Side note: did you know that a number of recent studies have found conclusive evidence to suggest that regular exposure to nature reduces symptoms of A.D.H.D as well or better than a dose of medication? Huh... well wouldn't ya know...
9. You learn to take chances.
Being away from home in a new setting with new people, you immediately feel the urge to make it count, to take advantage of this freedom, these new rules and settings. There are so many new things that it's impossible to leave from camp without stepping outside your comfort zone. From a parent's perspective, because there are indeed responsible adults, guidelines in place, and safety procedures set, it's a manageable amount of risk - but from the other end, it's a sense of freedom that feels like the world is your oyster. Even when you become the one "in charge." something about the open space, the adventure... it just begs you to experience life differently.
8. You learn to let loose.
This goes hand in hand with #9, but where I consider taking chances more of a physical action, letting loose comes from within. It's about letting your guard down, becoming vulnerable and open. You arrive with no stigmas attached, just your suitcase, your personality, and the choice to either let it out or withdrawal. Camp doesn't really allow anyone to stay withdrawn for long, though; it's inevitable you will let loose somehow, someway. When you strip away the gadgets, the fashion, the makeup, the expectations and replace them with goofy chants and team songs, you find a common sense of purpose. Sometimes, in the process of letting loose, you somehow also find roots.
7. You learn to be shameless
The counselors who are most admired by campers are the loudest, the ones who are willing to wear a sleeping bag as a suit and sing a song about a baked potato, the one’s who are willing to repeatedly perform legendary belly flops, all in the name of fun. Every employer appreciates a free-spirit; someone willing think outside the box and take a little risk. And every kid learns from observing shamelessness that individuality should be celebrated and that you miss out more when you worry about what other people think.
6. You learn the importance of the team.
Cabin checks. Team building games. Group song-writing at flagpole. Olympics. When you become part of a team at camp, you bleed their colors, you scream your lungs out for their theme song, you scribble that name over every letter home and notebook and craft you get your hands on. Camp teaches loyalty and the rush of fighting for something. Even if your friends are on the other side, you fight for your side with all your might because that's your team and darn-it, the winner gets ice cream.
5. You discover a smaller world.
In the case of international camps like the one I worked at, kids and staff come from all over the globe. You learn about new places, their words and customs, games and songs. You find connections you didn't know could exist between people from such different lives but suddenly, there you are, opening up to someone you just met who's everyday life exists oceans away from from yours. You learn the importance of keeping in touch and how to do it with those you care about.
4. You learn to adjust quickly.
Thunderstorms today? Change of plans. Your regular morning breakfast food not an option? Find something else. Used to 15 minute showers? Better learn to cut it to 3. Don't know a single person? You will in a day. Camp is all about adjustments, learning to work with what you have, being innovative and accepting of your circumstances and making the best of them- good, bad, and ugly.
3. You learn to grow up without growing old
No matter your age or your role, camp life requires you to be accountable for your actions, to find a balance between spontaneity and safety. You learn by doing and sometimes you mess up, but there are people all around you who support you and help you figure it out so you learn. And while you're learning, you're doing it your own way and you're doing it with flair because it's camp after all and everything has flair. Camp is perfect proof that responsibility and growing up doesn't have to equal stuffiness and boredom. Now that is a refreshing thought.
2. You gain confidence.
Something about the ability to make your own decisions- what your activity schedule will be, what you'll have for lunch, what you'll do with your quiet time- it's an empowerment that many kids don't experience at home but gets the wheels of self-efficacy turning. And no matter how old you get, when you discover new things about yourself, you make new friends, you have fun without anyone telling you how, you make a difference in someone else's life...someone tells you you don't have to wear make-up for people to like you... with every little case, big or small, you gain confidence.
1. You find out what you miss the most and you go home appreciating it even more.
When I look back at those summers at camp, I see that I learned so much about who I did and didn't want to be. For one thing, I went into my first summer at camp with a boyfriend that didn't last past the first few weeks, and the second summer, dating a different guy, I realized quickly just how deeply I wanted to avoid that happening again. I married the man I dated that second summer, by the way.
And sure I missed my nightly bowls of cereal in front of the TV. I missed long, hot showers... in private. I missed chatting on my cell phone. I missed my parents, my friends. But I also got to teach a shy French camper how to make her first s'more. I got to take an outdoor shower in the early dawn and watch a doe cross a field only a few yards away from me as I walked back in my towel. I learned to write good letters and cherish communication from people who were willing to go the extra mile to get in touch with me.
I learned that I could do something new all on my own, and do it well. I learned to be someone else's support system. I learned how much I loved photography, what it could do for people, and that I was good at it.
I'm a firm believer that everyone can use a little dose summer camp in their lives. If nothing else, at least you'll learn how to properly roast a marshmallow, and who can't consider that a life skill?!