Ah, summer – long hot days, rainstorms, no school, vacations from work, fishing, swimming, picnics, visits to National Parks, trips to the beach… We all have our own associations when we think of summer, these and others. Last week, I picked up my 10-year old grandson Jude from a summer camp that he attended, one that focused on wilderness skills such as shelter building, finding safe drinking water, and how to build a friction fire. I thought that summer camp will likely be on his list of summer associations when he is an adult. I hope so.
Along with being fun, summer camp can be one of the most valuable experiences that a young person can have. Jude talked about learning to use friction to start a fire and how his shelter, built out of sticks and pine needles, was a bit small for sleeping. Beyond the wilderness skills, he talked about how he ran out of lunch snacks because he ate all of them on the first day, and how tired he was on the last night because he was up so late the nights before, and how there was this kid who could burp really loud, like at 50 decibels. He said that he wasn’t at all scared when a thunderstorm rolled through just as he was falling asleep on the first night, but some other campers were, and so he told them that thunder couldn’t hurt them, but that they should always be on guard about lightning.
You see, along with giving kids experiences in Nature, which are so important since so many of our children suffer from Nature-deficit disorder, summer camp also provides young people many opportunities to practice being more on their own, without a parent telling them when to go to bed, or constantly reminding them not eat all their lunch food at once. Sure, the camp counselors are looking out for their campers, but camp counselors are not their parents. From the sounds of Jude’s comments on his counselors, they were all about keeping the campers safe relative to fire and bear etiquette and the like, but they didn’t hover over them when it came to lots of other not-so-dangerous things. They told them the rules, and then they let the kids run with them. From the sounds if it, they were good camp counselors who understood that camp is about having fun, and being safe, and learning all sorts of cool things. But they also recognized that summer camp is just as much about kids learning to be responsible for themselves, and that includes making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.
This morning, I ran into a Mom who sent her son to many of the camps that I used to oversee when I ran an environmental education center. Her son is now finishing up college, with a major in environmental studies. She said she was just talking to him about his college experience, and what kind of jobs he is looking at, and how pleased they both are about the direction he took with his education. She said that her son always mentions that the summer camps he attended had a lot to do with why he decided to major in environmental studies, and also why he now loves to backpack, and hike, and spend time in Nature. She said he is an activist for the environment, and summer camp had a lot to do with why.
Yes, for many people, going to camp is a memorable association with summer. But summer camp may very well be so much more. Along with learning things about Nature, and being safe in the wilderness, and how getting enough rest is important, and how if you eat all of your food there won’t be any for later, and that Nature needs folks to act on her behalf, a child also might learn how to burp at 50 decibels.