Ten Things Kids Learn at Summer Camp
A Mother’s Tips for Making the Most of Summer Camp
by Jennifer Slate
The first time my son went to summer camp, I was a nervous wreck. He was 9 years old, sleeping away from home for three weeks. We would have no contact with him except through letters. The camp was relatively far away and in a town with minimal mail service, so it took almost a week before we heard from him. I tore open the envelope when it finally came, eagerly unfolding the letter, ready to hear all about how he was doing, if he was alright, having fun, still alive. There was nothing on the page except these words scrawled in the top margin of a torn piece of notebook paper: “Hi Mom and Dad. I had to write this before I could go to lunch. Love, Me.”
In the six years since then, and through the weeks my two other children have spent at camp, I’ve learned that this phenomenon is called “The Chicken Letter” — as in, “You have to write a letter to your parents before you can go eat chicken today.” I had never considered that maybe my babies wouldn’t want to spend time at camp writing me every detail of their day, or that the promise of chicken fingers would be the motivation they needed. Would they really be having too much fun to find time to write to the woman who gave them life?
The letters have gotten better as time’s gone on: “Dear Mom, I learned how to ride a horse.” “Dear Mom, I made my first 8-string lanyard.” “Dear Mom, we learned how to paddle kayaks today. Saw two water moccasins.” I’ve hung on every word, interpreted, misinterpreted, waited desperately for more news about how that snake sighting ended up. These letters have been a real gift, though, as they’ve taught me not only about patience, but also more about my children and what they find interesting enough to write about. In the spirit of these unexpected revelations, I’ve compiled a list of things my children have learned at camp — though I’m pretty sure they’d never admit to any of them.
1. Campers Learn How to Share.
In my experience, there are three main things that get shared at summer camp: lice, stomach bugs and cabin space. Let’s focus on the third, because the first two will never happen to your child, right? The camp cabin is like one giant slumber party. Until Jenny leaves her wet towel on top of your pillow. And Charlie won’t stop singing the Oscar Meyer Wiener song at lights out. Lots of kids share a bedroom with a sibling, but I’m guessing few of them will ever share it with seven kids their same age. Camp, like family, is a shared life, and it works best when everyone learns how to do that — how to share. The concepts of teamwork, sacrifice and conflict resolution are unavoidable when they spend a week (or two, or four) with their fellow campers. Kids learn that even people they really like, not just their siblings, can be annoying. And with a good camp counselor, they learn that it’s okay to talk to them about it.
2. How to Clean is Taught at Camp.
My kids learned pretty quickly that leaving your clothes on the floor at home is not the same as at camp. At home, nothing happens except mom complains about it. At camp, your stuff gets lost, broken, dirty or wet, and you might not get that extra scoop of ice cream after lunch. I was shocked that my son knew what a dustpan was and that he knew how to use these things we have called shelves. I get happy just thinking about those glorious few days after my kids get home and forget where they are and start making their beds before they’re fully awake in the morning.
3. Camp does Teach How to Be Clean.
Well, clean enough. They are at least learning to take personal responsibility for their personal body parts. My kids can do their own tick checks, sunscreen and bug spray now. And it only took a few hundred mosquito bites, three sunburns and a case of impetigo to learn how! My older children have even learned how to get clean quickly. Did you know that it’s legal in most states to set a time limit for the shower?
4. How to Make a Friend is a Powerful Summer Camp Lesson.
Also, how to be lonely. Summer camp seems like a safe place to try out both. Camp counselors are there to help facilitate relationships, and there’s always something coming up on the day’s schedule so loneliness doesn’t last too long. My kids also learned to practice their grandfather’s favorite saying, “To make a friend, you need to be a friend.”
5. Summer CampsTeach How to Unplug.
Our kids go to camps that don’t allow any electronics or phones. I’m always excited to hear about the books my kids read, card games they learned, and that they didn’t really miss TV after all. Parts of summer camp are slow and boring — what a gift it is to learn how to live and rest in those moments.
6. Campers Learn How to Eat Mystery Meat.
And vegetables. And a whole bunch of other foods that I might never serve and they might never be hungry enough to eat. When the camp kitchen is closed, it’s closed, so you might as well eat what’s in front of you when you can. Don’t worry, there’s always enough variety that your child won’t starve. They just can’t be as picky as they might usually be. Mine also learned how to handle a platter of food without dropping it, how to offer to the left and pass to the right (or is it the other way around?) and how to make sure that everybody at the camp table gets a helping before anyone gets more. One of them might have learned how to get someone to think a stick of butter is a piece of cheesecake, but that’s for another list.
7. Charlottesville Camps Know How to Have Fun.
I’m pretty sure my kids learned every single camp song ever written. And they learned to sing them at the top of their lungs. You can’t be too cool at camp. Kids need to be reminded that being silly is a lot of fun, costumes make everything better and wearing a fake mustache to the sister camp’s social might just get you a dance partner or two.
8. SummerCamp Teaches How to Fail.
This is the scariest part of camp to me. Sending your child off to try new things without being able to control the outcome. There is something so important though about letting kids try, fail and try again — especially without Mom and Dad looking on. It took one of our kids three activity periods to finally go on the zip line. Can you imagine how proud he was though when he did? We love that our kids’ counselors get trained to encourage kids to take a risk (and trained in all the safety requirements too!).
9. How to Find Michigan on a Map.
Oddly enough, the world is bigger than my kids thought it was. They met people from other states, including a place called Michigan. They learned that not everyone lives in a college town, plays soccer and knows who the Wahoos are. Sadly, one of them learned to root for teams in the SEC. I personally think we should get a refund for that summer.
10. How to Appreciate Home is a Very Important Thing to Learn at Camp.
The hugs and smiles we get on Closing Day are priceless. These children are never so happy to see you, even though they are already tearing up at having to leave this place they’ve grown to love. Absence has made the heart grow fonder. And having a college-aged counselor tell them to “quiet down,” “clean that up” and “stop and think before you do that” has made them realize that maybe Mom’s not so crazy after all.