Family · kids · outdoors

Home From Summer Camp

A Parent’s View of How Things at Camp Have and Haven’t Changed.

My eleven-year-old daughter is home from a week at summer camp. She’s never been so exhausted in her life. At pick-up on the last day, with slightly dirt-smudged face, messy ponytail, and tired eyes, she was smiling and happy to see us, but she was so DONE.

“Mom, I’m ready to go home,” she said softly as my younger son helped himself to a second piece of watermelon at the family barbecue.

But, in the car on the way home, as she recounted her week’s activities to her father, brother, and me, her eyes lit up again, laughing and recalling “you had to be there” moments the way only a pre-teen girl can do.

“It was sooooo dark at night!”

And, “The food was sooooo good!”

And, “You wouldn’t believe how loud my counselor snored.”

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But to get to that point of exhaustion, she told us with excitement how she’s also never been so busy in her life. Every moment of her day was filled with the hustle-bustle of activity.

She made several new friends with whom she exchanged phone numbers and Instagram accounts. Although she went to camp and bunked with a friend from home, the two mixed right in with the rest of the girls in their cabin. In her most mature voice, my daughter related, “Nope, no drama. Everyone was really, really nice.” (Whew.)

On top of strengthening those all-important social skills, she stacked up a long list of accomplishments, too. She learned how to dive. She shot ten bulls-eyes over the course of a week of intensive archery practice. She made a friendship bracelet. (“Two kinds, actually.”) She tie-dyed a T-shirt. She went on a night hike without flashlights. She splashed about at an all-camp water carnival. She made Flubber, a glue, Borax, and water concoction that becomes a Silly Puddy-like material when mixed. She sang so many camp songs that I’ve caught her singing Boom-De-Ada around the house, twice now. She made a superhero cape out of felt for the dress-up theme day. She spoke her comical lines in a group skit, onstage, in front of her fellow two-hundred-some peers and staff, and received the appropriate laughter and applause!

Yes, the week was a huge success, and I’m thrilled that she loved it and wants to go back next year.

But not everything about the week was great. For one, her counselors gave the girls only five minutes in the morning to get ready for the day. She felt rushed and stressed because of it. What middle school girl can get ready in five minutes??? None that I’ve ever met. Fifteen minutes might’ve done the trick.

Also, on the evening her cabin group was set to have it’s overnight, an outdoor, sleep-under-the-stars occasion, it thunder-stormed all afternoon. So instead of just cancelling it, her counselors decided to have the 20 ten-eleven-and-twelve-year-old girls take their sleeping bags and pillows to the recreation lodge and sleep on the floor. It seemed like a good idea.

It didn’t take long until a bat in residence came flying about in the rafters, however, which inevitably led to unabashed screaming and even a few tears. When the sorry little critter finally left the premises or went back to its hiding spot (no one is sure which), all that was left for the girls to focus on was how unbelievably hot and humid it was in the lodge, and how hard the wooden floors were. My daughter said they sweated all night long and that the lot of them hardly slept a wink. So, not everything was picture perfect. But I bet she’ll never forget that story. She’s starting to see the humor in it already.

I attended camp as a child, and went on to become a CIT (counselor in training) during high school, and then a full-fledged counselor for a few summers in college. (This was the late 1980’s and early 90’s). I’ve always said it was the best job I’ve ever had. I ran the arts and crafts program and taught archery. I led songs and skits and was a senior counselor for the seven-through-nine-year-old girls’ unit for several years. I knew what it meant not only to multitask but to have that close-knit community of fellow staff people around to enjoy the wilderness with, for ten weeks at a time.

So, I knew how to prepare my daughter well for camp, telling her what to expect, so she’d arrive without any worries:

“You’ll be busy, honey – very, very busy. It will be tiring, so get your sleep! Don’t stay up all night talking.”

“The camp staff will organize activities and events so that it’s easy to make new friends. You’ll see. Just be outgoing and be yourself.”

“You’re probably going to have to clean the toilets in your cabin’s bathrooms.” (She was surprised by this one. And it turned out that I was wrong. They only had to make up their beds and neaten up their belongings. But in my day we always had to clean the toilets and the sinks – at all of the camps where I attended as a camper and worked! Lucky break for kids today, I guess!)

But it turned out that I was right about most things. Even down to her question about the pool. “You probably won’t go swimming the first day. They’ll do some sort of ice breaker games and probably a campfire the first night.”

Right again. And it all helped. She was confident and excited when we carried her (hundred and fifty pounds of??) luggage to her new cabin and she and her friend met their bunkmates and counselors.

So, although most of what I remember about summer camp has not changed, it surprised me how much some other things have. Or maybe it’s just now that I’m looking at things from a parent’s point of view that these things stand out to me.

For one, the digital age has come up with some solutions for the worried parent. Let’s admit it: we all worry that our children, while away at camp, might get hurt, lost, lonely, homesick, left out by the other kids, stung by a bee, covered in poison ivy, (chased by a bear??) you name it, the list goes on. And we fear we’d know nothing about it until we arrived to pick them up at the end of the week.

But this camp, like many others, has an answer to that, a way to calm us, the worrying old folk. It posts about two hundred photos of the day’s happenings every single day, on a password-protected web site for parents to view each evening. The camp has a dedicated photographer who does nothing but move from activity to activity, snapping at least one photo of each child. So parents can rest easy, getting to see little Johnny in action, smiling as he cannonballs into the bright blue pool.

For the worrywarts among us, this is a no-brainer. We get to quiet our nerves that all is well with our children while they’re away from home. While I don’t count myself as a hoverer or a helicopter parent, I do live peacefully and respectfully, side-by-side with many of these parents, and I understand how frightening it is out there. This world is not what we grew up with and I’m not going to judge how another person chooses to deal with it.

“There she is – in that picture. Oh, thank goodness, honey, look! She looks okay! She looks happy. Okay, I can go to bed now.” (We both breathe a sigh of relief.)

But even for those parents most comfortable with sending their kids off on their own, for adventure and independence, even if they (we?) don’t want to admit it, this nightly-camp-photos thing is still a bit of a treat. We get to see what they’re doing! We get to see where our money’s going! We get to see their smiling, little faces when we miss them, and we get the satisfaction that all the effort was well worth it.

And, although I’m sure the photo web site is a strong selling point for families who are new to the camp or to summer camp in and of itself, I still am not sure it’s entirely necessary. Having the ‘Papparazzi’ around all day has got to be nothing new to our kids in the age of Smart Phone cameras, but are they, and are we, really better off because of it?

Some other things, like communication, have also become easier for parents, thanks, once more, to the digital age. The camp that my daughter attended has a one-way email system, wherein a parent (or a doting relative) can send an email to a child. The emails are then printed out at camp and handed out at mail call each day during lunch. A couple of clicks and – done!

The kids can’t email back, but would they if they could? (Recall how busy they are playing volleyball, canoeing, roasting marshmallows, learning to fish.)

So yes, while some things have changed, some for the better, some a little more questionably, I still believe in and will shout from the rooftops the benefits of summer camp for a child: it builds independence while it builds friendships, it encourages silliness and lightheartedness, it teaches new, self-esteem building skills – tons of them, it fosters a love of the great outdoors, and it helps a child to grow up!

And while my daughter is glad to be back in her own bed and finally getting some rest, she already misses her new friends and all of that busy, busy, busy fun. She wore the new tie-dyed shirt just today.

Ahhhh…summer.

Shana Gorian is the author of the early middle grade book Rosco the Rascal Goes to Camp and two other titles in the Rosco the Rascal series.

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