What Does Summer Camp Offer Your Child?
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Parents spend a lot of time trying to motivate kids. We use chore charts, checklists, reminders and rewards to get them to feed the dog, clean their rooms, and complete schoolwork. But these techniques don’t change behavior long-term. Real motivation must come from within.
Summer Camp Benefits and Self-Determination Theory
Time at camp may be all it takes to spark a little self-determination in your kid. I know it sounds too good to be true. Your school-age slacker – the one who expects you to find his homework and pack his lunch – might start doing some things for himself. And your often-bored tween might come home with more pep in her step.
Psychologists use self-determination theory (SDT) to explain why some experiences make us feel engaged and excited while others drain and deplete us. The premise is simple: when an activity meets our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, we are energized and empowered. Kids’ basic needs are no different from adults’.
Kids want to do things for themselves. They crave a sense of accomplishment and routinely seek feedback. (“Look what I made, Mom!”) And kids thrive on connections with loved ones and peers. Feelings of belongingness boost their self-worth. Summer camp offers loads of opportunities to meet all these needs. And that should make kids (and the parents who love them) very happy campers indeed.
The need for autonomy is satisfied when kids control their own lives. At camp, your son will have endless opportunities to care for himself. Staff won’t select his clothes, organize the contents of hislocker, or remind him to put on deodorant. No one will delay dessert until he eats his veggies. Independence is what camp is all about. Don’t worry. The world won’t stop if your son wears the same shirt three days in a row. His peers will speak up if he gets super stinky.
During the school year, many kids jump from one regularly scheduled activity to the next with no unstructured time in between. Camp puts kids in charge of their own activities. Maybe your daughter will take a hike. Maybe she’ll paint pottery. Maybe she’ll write you an email. It is up to her to decide how she’ll spend her free time. One thing is certain: she won’t sit around whining about having nothing to do. And if she does, you won’t be there to hear it.
The need for competence is satisfied when kids learn new things and get positive feedback about their efforts. Your kid might choose a camp focused on art, science, sports, or music. Or he may opt for a good old-fashioned sleep-away experience, complete with rowboats and weenie roasts. Some camp activities may be outside your kid’s comfort zone. Stretching is good.
“Summer campers have the opportunity to try new things each and every day,” said Collin Sparks, a summer camp director with Kanakuk’s K-Kountry summer camp for ages 7-11. “As a result, children are affirmed in their strengths and challenged in areas of growth.”
Your child may be unsure she can cross the slippery log over the creek. She may tremble with excitement about her role in the theater production. Peers and counselors will coax her along and give constructive advice. By the end of camp, she’ll be the star of her own adventure stories.
“Summer campers leave the summer with a newfound confidence that impacts their study habits, willingness to volunteer in class and desire to step out of their comfort zone,” Sparks said. “They feel more prepared going into class, on the field or in other extracurricular activities.”
Sparks also pointed out that kids at camp are given opportunities to step up and serve those around them. If your kid is an experienced camper, encourage him to share what he knows with newbies. Being an ambassador or mentor affirms kids’ competence in a big way. Teaching a peer how to trim a sail or chip a golf ball out of the tall grass will take your son’s skills to a higher level. His confidence will soar in response.
Your biggest concerns about summer camp may center on the social scene. Your child may not know anyone on arrival. That’s okay. Camps create connections in many ways. Your kid will be instantly bonded with bunkmates because they share a home base. Family-style dining and friendly competitions encourage interaction, too. The pursuit of shared goals – like building a robot or putting a frog in the counselor’s sleeping bag – cements kids’ camaraderie.
Extroverted kids may make lots of friends at camp. Less sociable souls may not. What matters most is that kids have opportunities to talk, play and live with a diverse group of peers. They won’t all become fast friends. Learning to navigate the choppy waters of friendship formation is a big part of the camp experience. Your kid’s social skillset will expand – even if she doesn’t find a new BFF.
Sparks said that the duties and responsibilities that campers have such as working together to clean up the cabin can not only instill responsibility and commitment during summer camp, but can also carry over into the school year.
“An important skill summer camp hones that applies strongly throughout the school year is creating a day-to-day schedule and sticking to it,” Sparks said. “Summer campers often enter the school year with a new perspective – one that pushes them to try new things, put others ahead of themselves and work hard to reach their full potential. While each summer camp may differ slightly, most camps offer a form of routine, encouraging campers to be diligent in their schedules and responsibilities.”
No matter what your kid takes to camp, he’ll come home with a suitcase full of memories and a renewed sense of self-determination. You’ll see it as soon as he wakes from his long post-camp nap.