“Unstructured free and play time is tremendously important for cognitive development"
There is perhaps no greater challenge to a parent come summertime than finding solutions to keep bored children entertained without resorting to omnipresent technology. While there are many local activities to draw from, summer camps offer more than mere entertainment, providing character-building experiences and developmental benefits that extend well into later life.
A landmark study involving 5,000 families and over 80 camps done by the American Camp Association found that summer camp went well beyond the usual benefits of just getting out into nature. 96% of campers said that camp helped them make new friends. 93% said they got to know kids who are different from them. 92% said that people at camp helped them feel good about themselves and 74% said that at camp they did things they were once afraid to do.
When removed from the usual social hierarchies that can cause problems in school settings, children at camp often come with few or no preconceived notions of each other, offering them opportunities to try on new ways of being, and to meet and interact with people who are different from them. “One of the most important things for the developing brain is the ability to understand other people from their point of view and be able to be interested in and tolerate different perspectives,” says Jennifer Freed, a psychologist and co-founder of California-based Aha! camps (Attitude, harmony, achievement.)
This new environment, and engaging in new activities, provides children a chance to “learn they have all these talents and things they never knew they had,” Freed says. In her experience, she has met more than a few adults who had great summer camp experiences and who “testify that is where they really found their voice, some of their vocation, how to be part of the community and learned a lot of teamwork sills that later helped them in job situations.”
Chris Willard, a psychologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, agrees that camps are often more community focused than schools and “foster inclusivity.” Dozens of studies on children with disabilities or illness who attended summer camp show that showed that a camp experience promoted greater acceptance and normalizing of their illness, better self-esteem, and sense of belonging and agency.
“It’s easier to take creative risks at camp than at school, not to mention that a break from technology really offers a way to give their brains a break,” he says.
Camps may be the best way in summer to break children of negative technology habits, and ameliorate the fact that modern children are suffering from Nature-Deficit Disorder, a term coined by naturalist Richard Louv. One longitudinal study of 8,950 preschool-aged children found that little more than half of them were getting regular outdoor activity.
“We know for a fact that being in nature calms the nervous system, and that getting exercise is extremely important for not only brain functioning, but emotional satisfaction,” Freed says. At summer camps, not only are children most often exposed to nature, she says, “they’re not going from one organized activity in a car to another…they’re getting all these benefits nature has to offers us: spiritual, mental, emotional.”
Camps also provide a tremendous opportunity for a key part of healthy child development: imaginative play. “Unstructured free and play time is tremendously important for cognitive development, and to recharge [children’s] little brains to practice creativity and integrate what they’ve learned,” says Willard.
Of course, since not all families can afford to send their children to summer camps, Freed reminds parents to “aggressively search for all opportunities to get kids out of the house and into nature.” That may be as simple as a walk to the local park, a drive to the nearest beach, or even planting a garden in one’s own backyard. Parents can feel good that they’re investing in more than just a summer of fun, but a lifetime of important skills for their children.