A case for camp

Children need summer camp. Whether it is secular or religious, one week or several, day camp or residential, children need to participate in camp.

I have no credentials to make this assertion. I am not a noted child psychologist or a Ph.D. in childhood development. I’m just a parent who has been to camp with kids. I’ve seen the advantages with my own eyes.

Kids play a parachute game
Where else but camp can kids have fun with parachutes (and not jump out of an airplane)? Photo by Rebecca Orton (http://rebeccaortonphotography.com/)

My particular preference is an overnight camp away from home, and my experience is mostly with church camp, although I have volunteered at Cub Scout day camp. For the past four years I have chaperoned the third through sixth graders from my church at PassportKIDS camp at the Clyde M. York 4-H Center in Crossville, Tenn.

Fresh off this year’s experience, here are five reasons why kids should attend summer camp, especially kids in the New South:

1. Unplugging. In this case, I mean literally. Parents have a sense that their children spend too much time in front of screens: television, computer, tablet, personal device, game system, etc. Unless it’s computer camp, kids have the opportunity to look up and see the world around them. They interact with each other, for good or bad, and learn how to relate to each other, solve problems and deal with the challenges of human relationships. They pay attention to their surroundings and notice details of the natural world that may have escaped them. They are more teachable and alert to possibilities and their potential for growth.

2. Moving. There is no better cure for summer coach potato syndrome than a good dose of camp. Kids are constantly in motion at camp, running, playing, competing, and even getting from place to place across the facility. Most of the recreational activities at PassportKIDS are creative games that don’t require athleticism. All kids need to do is commit to the activity and get in the game. Fun, not proficiency, is the goal. Sweating may produce a stinky suitcase and a cabin that could use generous quantities of Febreze, but that’s a small price to pay in exchange for burning calories and getting some exercise.

3. Cheering. Kids have nine months to use their indoor voices. At camp, they can let it all out, usually at the encouragement of hyped-up, over-zealous college students who seem to be fueled by Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor. It usually takes kids a little while to join in, but by the end of camp, the yelling and chanting and cheering have drawn out even the most extreme introverts. By selling out and rooting for each other and themselves, the kids tap into a source of self-confidence and selflessness that can cure narcissism, cynicism and several other “isms” that you don’t want your kids to have.

4. Listening. It’s nearly universal: kids at camp pay attention. When I am at home and have to get my kids to the dinner table, I have to repeat my instructions at least three times. When kids are at camp, they are more focused on what is being communicated. They hear you when you talk to them. They learn. They internalize truths so much more readily than when they are distracted by the noise and toys of home. If you don’t believe me, try being a chaperone one time. It will suddenly make you feel like the best parent ever. Kids listen at camp.

5. Being independent. This is the one point that my chaperoning may have impeded my children’s growth. When kids are at camp by themselves, they learn to get around, follow a schedule, keep up with their stuff, and generally take responsibility for themselves and each other in ways they can never do while a parent is hovering. I noticed this year at camp, rather than pick a bunk above mine or even near it, Barron picked the one at the opposite end of the room. He’s also had two summers of being at Boy Scout Camp on his own, and he’s found that he likes it. Children need to learn to make decisions for themselves, and as a parent, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing or knowing your child has made a good choice on his or her own. At camp when you’re not around, they have to make their own choices. Sure, they may come home with a fewer socks or towels, but that’s part of the learning experience, too. The next year, they’ll be more likely to keep up with their stuff.

Camp may be over for this year, but I’ve already marked my calendar for next summer. I can’t wait to go with the kids from Parkway again and see the next generation experience the wonders of camp.

What did you learn from camp? What are your fondest memories of camp? Did you have a positive or a negative experience? What do you think your kids get from their camp experiences?  Leave a comment below or you can’t ride in my little red wagon…. Oompa, ooompa, oooompapa.

Summer camp in the age of Facebook

Facebook has no higher calling than when it is used to demonstrate to anxious parents that their children are still alive while they are away at camp.

Parkway kids ready for PASSPORTkids.
Parkway’s children ready to have their every move chronicled in photographs on Facebook. Oh, and they are also going to PASSPORTkids Camp in Crossville, Tenn.

I’ve recently been on both sides of this phenomenon. When our oldest when to Boy Scout Camp at Camp Rainey Mountain in Northeast Georgia a couple of weeks ago, there was radio silence. No word from him for seven days. We friended Camp Rainey Mountain on Facebook in the vain hope that we would catch a glimpse of him in a photo posted during the week.

This week I’ve been with our church children at PASSPORTkids camp in Crossville, Tenn. As chaperone my chief duty – other than make sure no one died – was to chronicle the week on Facebook so parents could see how much fun their children were having as they were having it. Rebecca, our children’s minister, used her Nikon to take the “high quality” images for sharing after the event. I used my smartphone camera to shoot and post immediately. The one-two photographic combo worked pretty well.

Facebook’s contrasting role in these two camp experiences begs the question: if it doesn’t happen on Facebook, does it really happen at all?

Social media in and of itself is not good or bad. It is simply a communications tool. How we use it determines its value. It can help us stay connected with family and friends, or it can consume us by creating an insatiable appetite for personal information. It’s gossip on steroids.

When it comes to camp, it’s nice to see images of our kids having a good time. And if we can be content with seeing the occasional shot of them in a canoe (life jacket properly fastened, of course), playing soccer (scoring goals) and participating in worship or performing on stage, then I think that’s great.

However, if we as parents sit, smart phone in hand, hitting refresh continuously, waiting to see the next image of our child so we can convince ourselves that they are OK without us, then there’s a larger problem. Facebook can feed our worst “helicopter parenting” tendencies, sometimes without us even being aware of it.

Mail call
The way parents communicated with kids at camp before Facebook. Brendan opens his care package on Day 2 of camp. It contained lots of breath mints. He had the freshest breath in camp, hands down.

As a chaperone, I was conscious of getting images of each of our children posted to Facebook as often as a spotty cell signal would allow. We were at camp, after all. I heard nothing but positive feedback from the Parkway parents, and I am not accusing any of them of abusing Facebook’s never-blinking eye to maintain a connection with their children.

But I think the temptation is there. I know, I know, easy for me to say, I was with the kids all four days at camp. That’s where my Camp Rainey Mountain experience was helpful. As I shared in New South Essays two weeks ago, I had my own parental anxiety about not hearing from Barron for a week, and though I scoured Facebook for images, I think it was better for me not to know what was happening with Barron every second of the day.

In the New South, Facebook changes the nature of the camp experience – not for the children, but for their parents. Whether that’s a good change or a bad change is up to you.

Do you appreciate or question Facebook’s role in keeping up with your kids when they’re away? How is your children’s camp experience difference from yours? Is the separation really separation if you have Facebook? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Have inhaler, will travel

I recently spent a week chaperoning kids from my church at camp. While they are all great, active, healthy kids, what struck me about the experience was that 5 out of 6 had rescue inhalers or allergy medications with them, including my oldest son, Barron.

No breathing issues this week at camp despite lots of activity.

For the four-hour bus ride north, they had their iPods and Nintendo DS game systems, but after going over the medical checklist and realizing that we had a lot of potential breathing issues, I was a little nervous.  I needed to make sure they had their rescue inhalers, too.

As it turned out, we didn’t have any problems, and I only know of one incident where an inhaler had to be used.

When did childhood asthma become so prevalent? When did a rescue inhaler become so commonplace?

Naturally, the Centers for Disease Control had answers. According to a 2006 report on the
state of childhood asthma in the United States
, the turning point occurred in the 1980s. From 1980 to 1996, the prevalence of asthma in children ages 0 to 17 years more than doubled, jumping from 3.6 percent of the population to 7.5 percent. It is now hovering around 9 percent or 6.5 million children.

When I was a kid, having to carry an asthma inhaler was a reliable predictor of a child’s athleticism. Now, so many kids have it that a rescue inhaler doesn’t relegate you to the bench. Some of the most active and best athletes retreat to the stands to take a puff when they get short of breath.

The stereotype of the bookish, withdrawn child in glasses sitting on the sidelines clutching their inhaler just doesn’t hold up anymore.

Getting kids out of smoggy Atlanta played a big part in helping kids breath easier this week.

I am convinced that allergies and air quality have played a huge role in our own experience with the disease.  In fact, our son was diagnosed with asthma just months after moving to metro Atlanta, and his seems to be both allergy and exercise-induced.  I found it interesting that even with temperatures in the mid-90s all week and the non-stop exercise
that is inevitable in the camp environment, the Cumberland Plateau provided cleaner air than metro Atlanta and produced no asthma outbreaks.

As our understanding of asthma continues to improve you may see even more kids carrying inhalers. The day is coming when a sideline shot of an athlete celebrating a big play will inevitably include a puff on a rescue inhaler.

In the meantime, just be aware that more and more kids are packing inhalers, and breathing isn’t something we can take for granted anymore.