For generations, summer camp has been giving children the opportunity to form strong friendships, gain confidence by trying new things and learn how to do things without the help of mom and dad. Nothing has changed at camp but when COVID disrupted our lives, the importance of summer camp and what camp can do for children became more apparent than ever.

Davina Angus, executive director of the American Camp Association, NY and NJ, says camp has always been a place where children make true connections, gain independence and feel like part of a community. “COVID has just underscored all that camp has to offer children and has shown so many people who didn’t necessarily understand camp what the real value of the experience can be.”

A Different Kind of Learning

Camp is a different environment than school. Kids learn skills that are hard to practice at school but happen easily at camp. “School is about learning subject matter. Camp is about kids growing socially and a place where kids can release energy, use interpersonal skills that you can’t get through a screen and learn how to work together in groups,” explains Carla Rudow, director of Camp Veritans, a day camp in Haledon.

Many camp directors reported seeing kids coming into camp last summer with more anxiety than in the past. “Children were coming to camp after not being around a lot of people and suddenly, they are surrounded by people 24/7,” says Dani Suchow, director of Pocono Springs Camp, a co-ed overnight camp in Pennsylvania. “They had to relearn how to navigate social situations and how to make friends face-to-face which they hadn’t done in a long time. It was really great to see the connections being made and watching the anxieties dissipate as the days and weeks went on.”

“Kids weren’t sure what to do. For the past year, they had to follow so many rules that by the time they came to camp, they were nervous and scared,” Rudow adds. “We found that the youngest campers had been with their parents for so long that they had separation anxiety. But as summer progressed, we watched them go from nervous and anxious to talking with other kids and enjoying activities. It was a warming feeling to hear the noise and the laughter. There is nothing that can replace camp—it’s a priceless opportunity whether during COVID or not.”

Connecting Within a Community

Suchow explains that children were so burdened with COVID leading up to the summer that camp gave them a relief from all the stresses the pandemic had caused. “They had this sense that their main responsibility at camp was to just have fun and be kids. They were so hungry to be part of a community and the whole camp had this unified feeling that they were in this together. The traditions of camp from the dinner song to inside jokes that happen at the Cove allowed them to bond so closely. Camp is really a unique microcosm of life that campers feel a part of.”

One of the biggest benefits of camp for children is the tech-free environment it provides. Both day and overnight camps don’t allow phones, iPads or anything with WiFi, preferring children to focus on relationships and activities over social media and texting. “We are all so connected to our phones and screens so to be in an environment where it’s not an option is actually a relief for our campers. They don’t feel the pressure to be part of that world,” says Suchow.

Lauren Brown’s two sons attended Spring Lake Day Camp in Ringwood last summer and loved that they got to just be kids at camp. “Camp gave my boys the chance to interact with campers within their age group, socialize face-to-face and participate in all the activities offered at camp that they missed the previous summer. After enduring constant change during the school year, they thrived being on the camp’s structured schedule.” After two-plus years of pandemic stress, sending children to summer camp will allow them to just be kids again.

Jess Michaels is the director of communications for the American Camp Association (ACA), NY and NJ.