By Jeff Carter
It’s an ongoing project of mine to think about why camp, the rich life we lead here at Rockbrook, is so wonderful. Why is camp cherished by the campers and staff? Sure it’s “fun” and there are lots of friendly, kind, generous people here to interact with, but why do most people absolutely love camp? Certainly it’s complicated and there are many answers to this question, but what can we say?
First of all, I think it’s much deeper than saying, “the campers get to _______ (fill in the blank).” The girls at Rockbrook don’t love camp because they get to go whitewater rafting, make pottery or eat a fresh muffin everyday, for example. All of the activities at camp, the list of “amenities” you might see on a TripAdvisor listing (if a camp had such a thing!), correlate with the fun of camp life and with how we feel about it, but I don’t think there’s a causative relationship there. Having lots of amazing fun things to do, in other words, does not make a camp loved. As I’ve said before, what we do each day is the context, not the essential content, of camp life. I have a hunch we could substitute many of the activities at Rockbrook for others, and still retain what makes this place special in the lives of the girls who attend. The activities have something to do with the feeling of camp, but no one or two is essential.
So if it’s not the activities —the food, the facilities, or even the outstanding staff members at Rockbrook, to list other possible explanations— what is the “secret sauce” that makes kids love camp this much? What generates this much smiling, singing and dancing each day, and when it’s over so many tears and longing to return next summer?
Camp Satisfies Critical Childhood Needs
One way to begin understanding this— and again, I’m sure there are many —is to recognize that camp provides children with a number of things we know they need, but for various reasons they fail to get otherwise. Ordinary life throughout the year is simply limited in its ability to fulfill certain important childhood needs, while camp life, thankfully, is especially well suited to compensate. Put differently, modern life for children, despite the best intentions at home and at school, suffers from a multifaceted deficit disorder, and when camp lessens that deficit, campers report being the “happiest they’ve ever been” and being in their “happy place.” Kids love camp because it is a cure for a modern dis-ease. Camp feels really good to children because being here offers relief.
Consider each of these. They are core aspects of camp life, and at the same time frequently deficient in our children’s experience throughout most of the year.
- Being physically active throughout the day.
- Putting competition aside and thereby being more inclined to try new things and accept challenges.
- Enjoying free time for unstructured play with others regardless of their age.
- Ditching technology yet still being entertained through creativity and interpersonal engagement.
- Reconnecting with the wonders that nature provides.
- Encountering kindness and caring in daily relationships.
- Practicing cooperation, communication and compromise in a close-knit community.
- Rising above social pressures and expectations to “be” a certain way.
Some of these have been identified and are well known. You’ve probably heard of “Nature Deficit Disorder” coined by Richard Louv, for example. And I’m sure you’ve read something about the detrimental effects on children of excessive technology use. There’s also the “Let’s Move” campaign that encourages kids to be more active. Each carries with it significant consequences that can have lasting effects on kids later in life, impacting their health, happiness, and personal success.
I believe kids need all 8 of these experiences regularly, but unfortunately, there are powerful modern forces working against satisfying these needs. It’s really an indictment of what’s typical these days: kids spending most of their time inside, using screen time as entertainment, competing incessantly in school, ignoring community, being fully scheduled, falling for the allure of social media, and so forth.
I also believe, though, that camp is wonderful, and your girls love it, because we have these experiences everyday here. Far more than the activities we offer, these 8 help define Rockbrook, and taken together, they are what elicits the deeply felt joy, the profound sense of comfort and belonging, and the almost ineffable happiness we cherish about our camp days.
It’s not impossible to provide some of these eight experiences throughout the year, but I’m sure you know to do so quickly turns into a battle. Let’s keep trying, and meanwhile, there is camp.