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Learning Life Skills at Camp

Characteristics your child will develop at sleepaway camp


Growing up, Maggie* was a shy and quiet girl. During her first summer at a wilderness camp, all of that changed. At a fork in the trail, the group gathered around a map. Maggie thought they should take the trail one way and she said so, but the leader disagreed. Never before, says Maggie, would she have dreamed of contradicting someone, but she didn’t want to spend the day going the wrong way. She spoke up and explained her reasoning. The group agreed, and that pivotal experience was Maggie’s first step toward becoming the woman she is now—an experienced and confident leader.

There are some life lessons that simply must be learned through experience—no amount of reading or research will take the place of hands-on training. For instance, you cannot master the fundamentals of leadership without actually assuming responsibility for a group. Neither can you appreciate the value of teamwork without first becoming part of a team.

Opportunities for experiential learning are increasingly difficult to come by. Since so many elementary and secondary schools lack the time and resources to venture beyond the required curriculum, parents are left searching for supplemental learning opportunities for their children. To fill this need, more and more summer programs feature an attractive buffet of character-building experiences.

Camps have a distinct advantage in the area of experiential learning, because each child can participate to a greater degree. Summer camps also provide students with an opportunity to reinvent themselves, to adopt new attitudes, and to try new things, often allowing them to shed cumbersome reputations, anxiety, and inhibitions. 

The following are skills and characteristics nurtured at some of the best camps. 

Responsibility and Independence
For students to learn independence and self-confidence, they need to discover themselves outside the home environment. And while first-time campers are often delighted by the idea of total independence, they will learn very quickly the amount of responsibility independent living requires. Your child will learn—through experience—that he must do laundry before he runs out of clean underwear. And he will learn, very quickly, that staying up late at night simply isn’t worth it. 

It is widely believed that some people are “natural leaders” and others are not. However, experts contend that the potential for leadership exists in everyone. It is possible to bring out the leader in every child, given the right circumstances and plenty of encouragement. The best camps provide these opportunities.

You could think of teamwork as the flip-side of leadership, but you’d be wrong. The two are closely intertwined. Few things are more important to future success than the ability to work well with others. Sports leagues and sports camps have a well-deserved reputation for teaching the importance of cooperation. Good coaches stress teamwork over individual accomplishments and value cooperative strategy over hot-shot plays. 

Conflict Resolution
This is a skill vital to the success of every team and every leader. Without it, communication eventually ceases. Conflict resolution is not the same thing as conflict avoidance, which eliminates differences of opinion and stifles creativity and individuality. It is more effective to learn to manage conflict and to create an environment in which all sides can be heard without hostility. Many summer programs now help campers learn to handle difficult situations by teaching practical skills in conflict resolution, cross-cultural communication, intergroup relations, leadership, and non-violent communication.

Tolerance and Community
Summer camps, even local programs, tend to attract students with widely diverse backgrounds. For many campers, it may be the first time they’ve lived with anyone other than their family. Learning to live with other people’s habits and beliefs can be a difficult experience, but it can also be richly rewarding. When a camper forges a close friendship with someone from a very different background, he learns to appreciate other viewpoints and customs. 


Cathy Ashby is a former summer camp counselor and administrator. 

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