By David Katz, Program Director at Camps Chipinaw and Silver Lake, New York.
Each year, parents send children off to summer camp with the hopes that that they’ll have fun and make friends. They hope that they’ll learn more skills in soccer and baseball and try out the many crafts activities, too. They hope they’ll become stronger swimmers and get across the zip line. The way they know whether their kids had a great summer is how enthusiastically their children write and talk about their new friends, new accomplishments, and newfound skills.
But there’s an even greater value to summer camp that campers say very little about, in large part because they do not realize it’s happening. At camp, the long-term immeasurable learning of soft skills is an essential part of the program. The United States Department of Labor identified the skills of communication, networking, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism as the important competencies to the development of a successful young worker. Unlike schools, camps are intentional about helping young people develop these skills.
At camp, without the intervention of their parents, youngsters must learn to communicate their needs to their counselors. Young adult counselors do not have (and should not have) the intuitive sense of individual needs that parents have. This requires that children take initiative to reach out and communicate. This may make them uncomfortable at first, but the ability to express needs and desires clearly is an essential life skill. Campers also live in small spaces with many others and must learn to communicate with their peers about shared needs. They have to learn to be good listeners as well as good speakers and learn to compromise for the benefit of everyone in the cabin.
Living in camp provides great opportunities to develop the capacity for networking. There are many people with whom to interact, and the more campers learn to talk with others about their skills and talents, the more they will grow comfortable with networking, which is an essential personal and business skill. Children who are shy in school very often become more outgoing at camp because performance pressure is reduced and young adult counselors have more opportunities in informal settings to help children break out of their shells than teachers do in the more controlled, formal settings of classrooms.
Enthusiasm & Attitude
Camp is all about enthusiasm! Through cheering on Color War teams and getting excited about the winning team in a basketball league, campers are encouraged to be enthusiastic and to develop positive attitudes. At camp, counselors are the ultimate role models for positive attitude and enthusiasm – these are the primary attributes camps look for in their hiring practices. Dealing with life’s inevitable disappointments with a positive mental attitude has been shown to be a predictor of personal success. Because so many of the experiences at camp are new and different, campers often do not succeed at the first try. Building a capacity for a positive attitude allows campers to continue to make attempts at success. And, without these attempts, there is no way to achieve something new and great.
Of course, camps are the perfect place to learn and develop teamwork skills. Campers work together to take care of their living space, to participate on competitive teams, to put on a performance of the annual camp show, to help one another at the ropes course, and to learn songs for the camp’s singing competitions. Everyone benefits from working with a team. To be a good team member, campers need to learn communication skills as well. They need to be introspective, too, and develop a greater understanding of what they bring to the team in terms of skills, ability, personality, and attitude.
Problem Solving & Critical Thinking
The opportunity to live away from home provides campers with the chance to build problem solving and critical thinking skills. At home, parents are always available to help children solve their problems, but at sleepaway camps, children need to think on their feet and develop solutions to problems on their own, with help from their peers, and with help from their counselors and camp staff. Practice at problem solving is an essential aspect of living away from home in a camp environment.
Professionalism is a combination of all of the soft-skills that campers learn, and also includes integrity, honesty, and responsibility. These are values that camps instill in campers. Most camps have programs that celebrate these character traits and values.
Many parents choose a summer camp for their children based on the facilities and list of varied activities that they can read about in the brochure and see on the website. It is our belief that parents should ask camp directors about the ways in which they are intentional about teaching these important life skills to youngsters. Long-term success at camp and at life is built around learning to communicate, networking, being positive, working with a team, solving problems and learning the values of professionalism. Ask your camp director about it.