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Building kids who connect

Summer camp helps kids develop key relationship skills

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Connecting with others is more than a basic human need — relationship skills are one of the five competencies associated with social-emotional learning (SEL), a framework that educators say is critical to healthy growth and development. Being able to communicate clearly and build strong relationships helps individuals succeed in school and in the 21st century workplace, and in childhood, the emotional and social intelligence that comes with good relationship skills helps children make and nurture friendships, become better listeners, cooperate in teams, and practice empathy.

Why is summer camp good for kids? Among many known benefits, an independent five-year Impact Study commissioned by the American Camp Association (ACA) found that relationship skills are one of the most enduring and transferable outcomes of a summer camp experience. And, after a year of pandemic-induced social isolation, children need camp more than ever this summer. 

Andy Pritikin, director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Bordentown, N.J., says, “Years before COVID-19, there existed a worldwide outbreak amongst our youth in technology addiction, social skill deficiency, indoors isolation, and over-parenting. And now, since March 2020, our kids have been living an increasingly bizarre, unnatural life of screens and quarantines, hybrid schooling (if they’re lucky), and enough fear and disappointment to last them into adulthood. Zoom and remote learning have saved us in so many ways. But there’s no substitute for real human connection. Making and strengthening relationships while being guided by loving people is what camp is all about. The essence of camp is in the friendships we forge, something we are all lacking and craving these days.”

“The camp experience is distinct because camp is a place where children and adults come together to form their own community,” says Laurie Browne, PhD, Director of Research for ACA. “They work together to build a unique culture that reflects the character and values of camp and the people who are part of it. It’s in these unique settings where children make friends with people from different backgrounds, build trust in themselves and others, and where they cultivate communication and social skills. Camp is a considerable learning environment because it engages the child’s whole self.”

According to ACA’s research, camps excel at promoting SEL because they work hard to create inclusive environments that allow children to thrive. For example:

  • Camp staff intentionally monitor group dynamics to ensure that no child is left out.
  • Many camps have structured programs to recognize and reward positive SEL behaviors, such as demonstrating kindness or being a good friend. 
  • Camp staff are typically trained to help children practice conflict resolution and team problem-solving.
  • Camp communities celebrate both the strengths of individual campers at their own levels and their group connections. 
  • Camp enables children to unplug and engage with their peers in a safe and supervised space, with diverse opportunities to navigate new social situations.

Pritikin ran a safe and successful summer day camp at Liberty Lake for more than 1,000 children in 2020. Although he and his 250 staff members followed strict safety guidelines and modified the program where necessary, he says the fundamental essence of camp remained intact. “Kids, playing together, mentored by caring staff, and in most cases outdoors. According to the campers, parents, and staff at camps that ran last summer, it was by far their most meaningful camp experience ever, as well as an impactful life event.”

“Our kids need to be out of our homes, playing with other kids, and camps have proven that it can be done safely, even under the most challenging circumstances,” adds Pritikin. “We had a depressed young camper last summer who hadn’t left his apartment nor gotten fully dressed in months. By his third day of camp, his parents thanked us for ‘returning his childhood to him.’ For many kids, camp is a more important social-emotional antidote than the actual vaccine.”

Learn more about ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study at acacamps.org. Ellen Warren is Coordinator of the Bucks Camp Expo.


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