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Written by:  Mary Parry
Date: February 1, 2010

Kids go to camp to play hard, hang out with friends, and enjoy a break from school. They much prefer a fishing pole or a game of tag to homework. While it's important to break free from routine expectations and have fun, the truth is campers actually learn many life-changing lessons and skills they take with them into the classroom and into adulthood.

New people and places

Camp offers kids of all ages a chance to explore new places, from hiking trails to science labs. "It gives children the opportunity to discover and develop new talents and skills," says Lorie Barnes, director of education at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh. These experiences unleash new possibilities within children, encouraging them to ask questions and explore their potential.

Attending camp also means building new relationships. Most camps offer themes or specific focus areas that draw the interest of like-minded kids, creating an ideal platform for starting friendships. Because camps bring together children from different schools and communities, new friends offer diverse backgrounds and perspectives to which children might not otherwise be exposed.

As both a parent and an educator, Raleigh's Conn Elementary School principal Diann Kearney has seen firsthand the impact camps can have on classroom learning. "Children benefit from exposure to a variety of people, opportunities and settings," Kearney says. "That exposure leads to an improved academic experience."

Learning from role models

Camp counselors serve as both the ringleaders of fun and experts in teachable moments, sharing their own spectrum of talents and skills. These run the gamut from everyday life skills like tying shoelaces to demonstrating complex techniques like tying intricate knots used in rock climbing or boating. Counselors lend their varied life experiences and expertise through a fun-focused setting, maintaining the awe and attention of their campers all the while.

"Counselors are trained to make real and meaningful connections with campers," says Thomas Patterson, director of youth programs at Duke Continuing Education. These bonds are especially helpful for adolescents who benefit from developing close, long-term relationships with other adults as they naturally start pulling away from parents. Making a big impact on kids in a short amount of time takes skill and determination.

In many ways, it is the little things that counselors do for kids that have the biggest impact. Patterson recalls a student whose residential counselor taught him how to wash a load of laundry. The student was eager to learn and fascinated by something as simple as adding detergent.

Taking risks

Today's parents are often accused of hovering too much, with a primary focus on protecting children from encountering problems or dangers. Living within predictable boundaries lends a sense of security from which both kids and their parents benefit. But being able to adapt and respond to uncertain situations is a valuable skill that takes practice.

"Camp is about taking a chance — entering a new community of learners and taking safe risks," Barnes says. Children discover a lot about themselves and others when they have to rely on their own merits to navigate a new experience or problem. Through this process, they begin to build a personal sense of security, gaining confidence and competence to take on adversity that comes their way.

A new trend in camp experiences for teens allows them to take more adventurous risks while traveling abroad and immersing themselves in other languages and cultures. Parents entrust their teens to certified scuba instructors and marine biologists who help them explore destinations like Fiji and Belize through diving, sailing and other exciting hands-on adventures.

"Students not only strive to master new skills and have tons of fun, but also grow as individuals, build confidence and gain greater insight into themselves and the world around them," says Carlton Goldthwaite, Raleigh-based founder and director of Broadreach and Academic Treks. Participants can earn community service hours and college credits on these adventures as well. Goldthwaite adds, "No experience is required for many of our trips, just a desire to learn, have fun and explore amazing environments and cultures."

Building character, creativity and curiosity

What children learn about themselves is perhaps the most valuable information gained from attending camp. "It gives kids the opportunity to navigate through a whole new social, academic and creative experience," Barnes says. Being away from mom and dad in this new environment allows kids to rely on their own skills and better understand their personal abilities. The resulting boost of confidence and independence contributes toward a positive self-esteem.

Campers become self-aware by exploring their interests and discovering new abilities. "Camp is an opportunity for students to become someone else they're not allowed to be in the regular classroom," Patterson says. Because fun is a primary camp focus, curriculum demands are set aside and creativity flourishes.

Campers learn that education doesn't stop in the classroom, but expands into every facet of life. "Through experiments and other problem-solving situations, we know that campers are walking away with a better ability to ask questions," says Beth Cranford, educator and camp coordinator at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill. Having the confidence and ability to think through situations and solve problems independently is a tremendously valuable life skill.

After all of the planning and preparation camp directors put into their programs, at the end of the day, curiosity is what guides the camp experience. "We trust children enough to leave a large window open for flexibility," Barnes says. She tells her camp counselors, "If a child is showing the capacity to explore something deeper, go with that."

Ready for school

Camp programs stand shoulder-to-shoulder with schools, working toward the common goals of educating our youth and preparing them to become successful and dynamic members of society. While camp focus is weighted heavily on having fun, that fun is tied to educational goals. Barnes says camps send kids back to school ready to learn. "When they show up at the door at the start of school, students are excited, ready to go, and maybe better prepared for the school year."

Mary Parry is a freelance writer and mother of three from Chapel Hill.


What kids learn at camp

Social Skills
* Leadership opportunities
* Communication with peers and camp counselors
* Participation in team sports or group activities

Self-Respect and Character
* Responsibility for oneself
* Resourcefulness in problem-solving
* Resilience in uncertain situations

Community Living & Service Skills
* Caring for fellow campers
* Fairness in opportunities and actions
* Citizenship through actions and deeds
* Trustworthiness among peers and counselors

Provided by the American Camp Association, www.acacamps.org



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