Camp offers kids enormous opportunities during the summer months, from arts to athletics to learning about the environment first-hand. Campers trek Maine’s mountains, paddles its rivers, kayak its vast coastline. They also learn, through experiential activities of all kinds, and through social interaction with peers and role models. It may feel like play, but when campers get back to school, the benefits continue.
“Summer learning loss” is real. Research has shown that kids lose ground over the summer, in a variety of measurable areas. But camp helps. Being engaged, active, and social doesn’t just make for fun summer vacation – it carries over into the school year.
Terri Mulks, director of Camp Susan Curtis in Stoneham, is hearing about those benefits this fall. The camp, which offers tuition-free camp to economically disadvantaged Maine youth, conducts a family survey every other year, Mulks says. Responses to this summer’s survey show that kids are “more attentive to homework, more responsible about going to class and listening, and talking more about school when they get home,” she says.
Mulks says the “positive relationships and interactions with their peer group and adults” give kids that advantage.
“We’re not just keeping them physically active,” she says. “There’s a ton of reflection and thinking about what’s going on.” Those conversations address carrying new skills back home, she says. “We’re constantly thinking about that,” she says.
For example, on the last night of each two-week session, campers enjoy a final campfire and then return to their cabins for a gathering called “Summit.” Each camper sets a goal for the upcoming year, Mulks says. Staff members help kids connect their camp experience to their life at home and school, she says.
Mulks says much of staff training focuses on how to talk to kids and how to keep them engaged. Even with camper groups of ten kids, staff must help each camper feel like an individual and “not just part of a group.”
“Relationships are absolutely the key to what we do,” Mulks says.
Literacy is also part of the summer learning loss equation, so reading is also part of camp, Mulks says. Staff members read out loud to campers for 20 to 30 minutes each night before bed, and all campers in each cabin are lent a copy of the book being read so they can follow along or read ahead during rest hour. In addition, the camp holds a book fair at which each camper may choose a free book to take home. And Camp Susan Curtis has a library that lends books and offers a place for kids to gather during their social recreation time.
Living and Learning at Tanglewood 4-H Camp
Jessica Decke, director of the Tanglewood 4-H Camp and Learning Center in Lincolnville says the hands-on learning and structure of camp gives kids benefits all year-round. The camp, which offers both day and residential programming, keeps campers fully engaged, Decke says.
“We’re having them participate in activities that are physically and mentally challenging,” she says. Camp also gives kids a chance to work on social relationships, and build resiliency and confidence, she says. All those skills help at home and in the classroom, she says.
Like Mulks, Decke says staff training is a key to helping campers succeed post-camp. When staff are taught lesson planning skills, she says, they learn the importance of immediately engaging campers, of initiating inquiry-based learning, and of connecting lessons.
“Regardless of the subject matter, the structure of programming includes reflection,” she says. And at week’s end, kids can say “’this is a set of skills I’m going home with.’”
Decke says the camp experience can be especially helpful to kids who don’t have other summer activity opportunities. The camp’s robust scholarship program fosters a true excitement in kids who otherwise might be home spending unstructured time, she says.
Building Confidence at the YMCA Camp of Maine
Jeff Gleason, CEO and director of the YMCA Camp of Maine in Winthrop, agrees that self-confidence and leadership skills give campers a leg up when they get back to school.
“It’s really fun to watch the campers who are timid when they show up at the end of session up on stage singing and dancing,” he says. That confidence, and the ability to meet new people in a new community, certainly carry over to the school setting, he says.
Leadership skills also blossom, he says. “Campers at all ages learn how to take an active role in the community. It sets them up to go back to school to be leaders of their clubs, or captains of their sports teams.” It also fosters leadership in academic projects, he says.
Kids also improve their social skills, Gleason says. Being unplugged from technology and away from screens fosters communications skills, as does eating family style and having conversation over meals.
The experience undoubtedly pays off for kids, Gleason says. “We had a young lady who came this year and ended up staying longer than she intended to,” he says. “Seeing her leave at the end of the summer, compared to when she came; I have no doubt that will trickle through.”
Camp is an experience unto itself, no doubt. Kids trade in cellphones and notebooks for bathing suits and hiking boots. They let go of the stress of homework and social media. But what they learn at camp – a recent activity, a problem-solving strategy, a social skill – carries beyond the camp session and into school. Camp is over for another summer, yes, but for kids who attended Maine camps this summer, the benefits are just getting started.