For kids who attend camp, the experience can be described in any number of ways. Fun, challenging, exciting, an adventure. Camp also teaches a broad range of skills, in the art studio, on the playing field, on the water and atop mountains. But camp also teaches kids abilities that transcend specific activities, abilities they can carry with them into home and school and social settings. Take for example, the benefits that come from giving campers the opportunity to take risks in a safe environment. Risk taking at camp – such as the physical challenge of a ropes course, or the emotional risk of performing on stage – teaches kids resilience and builds confidence. So, while kids at camp may experience fear and anxiety about trying new things, the lessons they learn in that supportive and safe environment make taking that leap a just-right choice.
Catriona Sangster directs Camp Wawenock, a girls’ camp in Raymond, and also serves as president of Maine Summer Camps, a membership organization supporting more than 120 member camps across Maine. Sangster says at Camp Wawenock, staff members are trained methodically to provide campers with a safe and comfortable environment, which, in turn, promotes healthy risk taking. Campers know they won’t be laughed at, for example. Rather, she says, they’ll be encouraged to try again.
Sangster says the counselor-camper relationship also promotes risk taking. Campers “idolize their counselors, want to perform for them and please them,” Sangster says.
“The dynamic of that relationship allows the counselor to encourage healthy risk taking,” she says.
Sangster also says camp rituals “celebrate kids being persistent and resilient.” For example, a weekly campfire includes recognition and appreciation of girls’ efforts. Seeing acknowledgment of campers may cause a girl to think, “’To do well, I have to try something.’” At the same time, she says, Camp Wawenock promotes not just “being really good at things, but kids working hard to achieve those things.”
The key to creating this safe environment for campers is staff, she says. “Staff are what make it happen.“
“I feel like the most important part of my job is helping staff to be successful at what they do,” Sangster says.
At another girls’ camp, Alford Lake Camp, in Hope, director Sue McMullan says campers gain self-confidence when they realize they “don’t have to be successful in everything they try.”
Indeed, it’s “not how you’ve done it, or how well, but that you’ve tried it,” McMullan says. Again, the staff are key, McMullan says. “Follow-through feeds campers’ souls,” she says. If a counselor processes a camper’s experience “in the moment,” the camper gets the message of “’I’m going to stick with you no matter what.’”
“It’s all about connection, all about relationships,” she says. “Being able to say, ‘that was awesome, you tried that, and you learned a lot, now you know what you can do differently,’” is a key to a counselor working with a camper, McMullan says.
“It’s so important that we try to create a community where everyone is valued for things they can do, and supported in things that are challenges,” McMullan says.
At Camp Agawam, a boys’ camp in Raymond, assistant director Karen Malm says “camps are set up for healthy risk taking.”
Malm says there’s a “sense of family” at camp. “You have people to catch you.” As campers get older, they sense that even more and are “really willing to put themselves out there,” she says.
Malm says a ropes course is a perfect example of kids taking healthy risks.
“You have all those safety factors around you. You’ve got that harness, and confidence that you will be caught metaphorically and physically,” she says.
Like other directors, Malm says staff members are integral to the equation. Counselors serve as role models who encourage campers to take challenging steps.
Malm says Camp Agawam’s schedule is also “set up to encourage risk taking.” Campers over the course of their stay will try every activity the camp offers, she says.
The camp’s trips program also offers kids a “great sense of accomplishment.” The fact that campers are not graded on their efforts also supports risk taking.
“It’s not the same as school, where you’re trying new things, but repercussions can be tough,” Malm says.
Matt Pines, director of Maine Teen Camp, in Porter, agrees.
“For a lot of campers, it might be the first time in a long time where it’s competition by choice, or they don’t have to compete,” he says. “That in and of itself makes them so much more comfortable taking a risk.”
Pines says that as kids age, they often see participation in activities as a “binary choice: all in, or don’t do it at all. At camp there’s a third way, do it because you love it.”
“A really big part of it is being away from expectations: parental observation and judgment, and peer and teacher judgment,” Pines says. Not having to worry about what teachers or parents think allows campers “to try new and different things.”
“It’s the first step to developing a new skills or hobby,” he says.
Pines says that a “culture of support and encouragement,” can also prompt campers to do things they may be afraid of.
“A lot of kids these days don’t have the knowledge that you can be scared and go forward at the same time,” he says. Maine Teen Camp is intentional about supporting kids to keep pushing forward, and then talking to them about the experience. As a result, kids may learn how to experience fear and anxiety, yet still keep going. That gives them a sense of their own capabilities, but also “speaks to a growth mindset,” Pines says.
“They start to understand and appreciate that they may have more control over their feelings and emotions than they previously recognized,” he says. “It’s hugely valuable for them to be able to have opportunities to identify what if feels like to be scared, and persevere and move forward.”
Camp is fun, no doubt, but living away from home, making new friends, and trying unfamiliar activities are all challenges that kids may find scary. Yet as these camp directors explain, providing those challenges in a safe and supportive environment teaches kids lessons with far-reaching benefits. Persistence, resilience, confidence, and self-awareness are all rewards of healthy risk taking. And camps throughout Maine, with specifically trained staff committed to kids’ growth, are providing an ideal setting for those rewards to become reality.