How Camp Helps Build Self-Esteem

Camp girl showing self-esteem

How does summer camp help children gain self-esteem?

Parents know it’s important for children to feel good about themselves, to be proud of their abilities and accomplishments, and to be accepted socially. That’s why we take such great care to provide experiences where children will succeed. Music lessons, organized team sports, even the “right” haircut and clothing— we hope all of these will help our kids be more competent, confident, and ultimately happier in life.

Many times this strategy works. Our child may find a talent, rise above the ability of others, gain some praise and recognition for it, and thereby feel good about being “good.” Being recognized for an outstanding ability, winning the competition for social attention, can be a real boost to a young person’s self-esteem. But what if a child doesn’t quite measure up, and she’s not the prettiest, the smartest, the most athletic, or the most talented in some way? What about her self-esteem? Is winning some unspoken competition the only way to feel good about herself?

Fortunately, there’s more to self-esteem than just individual success. It’s also about feeling competent in the face of life’s general problems, having a sense of “personal capacity.” It’s also about being able to simply have fun with others, to be able to make decisions for oneself, and feeling included in group endeavors. Interestingly, self-esteem is also about cooperation and community. In an environment defined by encouragement, mutual respect and collaboration, it’s not important if a child doesn’t stand out as an individual because of some extraordinary talent. Instead, a sense of self-worth and dignity can arise from doing something great together, from being a part of a group accomplishment.

And that’s why camp is so ideal for helping children grow their self-esteem; it is exactly this kind of environment. On the one hand, summer camp is a place for kids to make their own decisions, try new things, and discover individual achievement.  There are small moments of personal success everyday.  And on the other, there is incredible community spirit at camp, with groups of kids working together to solve problems, taking care of each other, and collaborating on creative projects. Regardless of their age or ability, their experience or talent, children at camp are reminded everyday that they can do it, and that they can believe in themselves. Everyone’s in it together at camp, and while we each may not hit the target with every arrow we shoot, there’s laughter and joy among friends no matter what. It’s through building this kind of community that all the girls at camp strengthen their self-esteem. Around here, you can count on it!

A Teacher in Everything

For quite some time now, we’ve talked about summer camp providing children valuable lessons, unique opportunities to learn that can’t be recreated in traditional educational contexts. If you mention this claim to just about anyone associated with a summer camp, you’ll find full agreement. Summer camps are “Youth Development” organizations. Camps are heaps of fun, but are also something kids need to foster their growing up.

Kids Learning CampThe American Camp Association has articulated these educational benefits of camp most extensively. Following broad research initiatives and years of collecting data from summer camps across the country, the ACA continually makes a strong case for what children gain from a camp experience. The list of these “outcomes” and “competencies” is now well-known: self-identity, self-worth, self-esteem, leadership, self-respect, compassion, contribution, commitment, caring, honesty, generosity, sharing, resilience, resourcefulness, ethical awareness, responsibility, and communication skills. We have discussed many of these benefits on this blog, here and here for example.

The next question to ask, however, is not “what gains do children make at camp,” but “how does camp provide these benefits?” There is a lot to this, of course, but let me point out one crucial reason summer camp has this unique educational power, and again, power above and beyond what traditional classroom educational settings offer.

Residential summer camps are uniquely educational because they are first and foremost communities dedicated, through first-hand experiences, to broad personal, social and physical well being. Camps are experiential learning communities. Led by admirable, caring adult role models, summer camp communities are tightly-knit groups of people who not only live (eat, play, make) together, but also grow personally by virtue of experiencing so much together. So many of the “outcomes” and “competencies” above, those personal qualities we all recognize as valuable— honesty, compassion, responsibility, generosity, etc., can be traced to what individuals gain from fully participating in a vibrant positive community. Summer camp communities are dedicated to, thrive upon, and thus foster, these kinds of personal traits.

Equally important is the full-time nature of the summer camp community experience. These aren’t lessons taught sitting at a desk in idealized abstract language. This is learning that’s lived. At camp, the “teachable moments” actually happen, involve real people, and carry real personal consequences. Just about every moment at camp is this kind of “teachable moment,” an opportunity to learn from the interaction with others and the natural world. At summer camp, there is a teacher in everything!

Being at summer camp is almost non-stop fun, but it also brings out the best in kids by asking them to pay attention to the people around them, and to build positive relationships of all kinds. It’s this kind of direct experiential community learning that gives camp the power to shape young people so profoundly.

Being Camp

joy of summer living campRockbrook’s program philosophy has long revolved around several core concepts, each of which is intended to help girls grow more independent, confident, and capable while at camp. These include providing a caring community of people offering genuine encouragement, exciting challenges, and new experiences, but also opportunities for creativity and cooperation rather than competition. As you walk around camp and see the girls in action, it’s easy to notice them create— new arts, new skills, new relationships— and not compete. Certainly the campers don’t think of their camp experience in these terms, but I think emphasizing creativity over competition, encouragement over critique, helps everyone at camp enjoy themselves more and feel good each day.

camper departs summer camp wavingToday was the day we had to say goodbye to our friends in the first July Mini session. Sadly, their session has ended even as the main session girls have two more weeks to go. All of us will miss those girls. Even in just two short weeks, we’ve done so much together, made so many memories, it’s hard to say farewell. The good news is that most will be back next summer, and will have another chance to see each other, enjoy camp, and recharge at Rockbrook. For the entire staff, it’s always a pleasure to be with the girls at RBC. The sessions are action-packed and full of excitement, but more important to us is getting to know the campers and being with them as they grow closer to each other and begin to feel a part of Rockbrook. It’s really their camp, and they know it in such a short time!

Camp Drama class driving improvisationWhen you see the smiles, and can almost hear the laughter in the daily photos, it’s not just because the girls are being entertained at camp. They’re not just happy they’ve been rock climbing or thrown a pot on the wheel (though they are that too), or merely interested in a novelty or trend. Their happiness is deeper than that and stems from the positive feelings arising from the people around them and the freedom camp provides to explore who they are. Camp is a true haven, a special place where girls can be themselves and be happy about that. Being surrounded by friends, it’s easy to smile!

The Camp Fire Girls

Summer Camp Fire Girls Book

Do you know about the “Camp Fire Girls” of America? This is a drawing taken from the inside cover of their handbook (the 1947 edition), The Book of the Camp Fire Girls.  The history of this organization is really cool.  Founded in 1910 in Vermont, it’s as old or older than the girls scouts in America.  It later became coed, and has since changed its name to “Camp Fire USA,” but it originally sought to help girls gain important skills for living a “well rounded life—a vivid, intense life of joy and service.”

As you can see from the drawing this included all kinds of skills. Some, like boating, camp craft, nature lore, gardening, dramatics, dancing and art, are still part of the camp experience at Rockbrook. Others are more specialized, like aviation, science and business. Click on the drawing to see a larger version. It’s really great.

The Camp Fire Girls valued spirituality, beauty, service, knowledge, trustworthiness, health, work and happiness, and provided opportunities for girls to form, as Luther Gulick the founder put it, “habits making for health and vigor, the out-of-door habit, and the out-of-door spirit.”  It’s neat to realize that this was “in the air” when the first summer camps were forming in America, and how Rockbrook too shares these ambitions.  Camp really is a place to grow… in some really important ways!

Camp Milk and Cookies

Summer Camp Treats CookiesMore Cookies!

At camp, there are cookies every night! It’s a long standing tradition at Rockbrook for all the campers (and counselors 🙂 ) to have a cookie and small cup of milk at the end of the day. Everyday the kitchen crew makes a batch of homemade cookies— chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, cinnamon nut, peanut butter, or maybe sugar cookies. Which kind is a daily surprise. When the evening program is finished, a couple of staff members from each line grabs their bag of cookies and jug of milk from the kitchen and sets it all out for the girls.

It may seem a little strange to have cookies right before bed, but it makes a nice little snack to get you through the night. Don’t forget to brush your teeth before hitting the hay. Maybe read a little in bed, and the next thing you know you’ll be waking up to the morning bell. Ahhh camp..

Evening Program Writing

Girl Teen Sleepover Camps

We found this great old photo in the Rockbrook archives the other day. It’s not exactly clear when it was taken, but we’re guessing that it was sometime in the 1950s. It looks like the girls are all writing for the camp yearbook, “The Carrier Pigeon” during an evening program in the upper Lakeview Lodge. It’s when all the girls in an age group take time to jot down a favorite memory (sometimes as a poem or drawing) from their time at camp that summer. We later compile them all and publish the “Carrier Pigeon” each year.

From the photo, you might think it’s a sleepover, since the girls are in their pajamas, but that’s just life at an all girls camp. Nice and relaxed.

The Best Girls Summer Camp

best-girls-campWhat makes the best girls summer camp? It’s funny, but you see that claim now and then. “We’re the best girls camp ever!” or “Welcome to the best girls camp in North Carolina.” Most of this can be considered akin to team spirit, the folks from a camp expressing how much they love their particular camp, how proud they are of it, and how they know their camp really is excellent.

Of course, in reality, you can’t say objectively which girls camp is the best. Here in western North Carolina, there are so many great girls camps, each with dedicated and experienced directors, outstanding counselors, beautiful facilities and diverse fun activities. These camps also have very strong supporters, families who have found the camp perfect for their children. You will certainly find happy enthusiastic campers at all of these camps.

So is there really a best girls camp? Only to the extent that a camp is right for you. The subtle differences between camps, their particular strengths or emphases, will probably make you feel more at home at one girls camp or another. To put it differently, there are of course differences between camps but they do not distinguish which camp is “best.” That is something that follows from how much you love your camp, and that’s what makes it best.

So yes, for many reasons, generations of girls believe Rockbrook is the best girls summer camp. They believe it because they’ve experienced it and love it as their own.

It’s Your Adventure Girls

Adventure GirlsAre you ready for some adventure girls? Are you ready to put yourself out there, or up there as the case may be? Camp is the perfect place for girls to try out outdoor adventure sports. There’s rock climbing, high ropes course climbing, wilderness backpacking, camping, hiking, whitewater kayaking and rafting, to name just a few.

But what makes these adventure activities? They all are a little intense, a little uncertain, and a little scary. They often test girls’ mental resolve and determination, and sometimes require physical effort beyond the ordinary. Adventure activities usually require special safety equipment and techniques as well (think ropes, paddles, helmets, tents, etc.).

When girls first try adventure sports, they are usually surprised how well they can do. With quality instruction, encouragement, and some practice, most of the girls at camp can climb a real rock, paddle a kayak, and camp overnight in the woods— and this in just their first year at camp! Everywhere you look there are adventure girls at camp.