The Boy in the Boat: Life Lessons Learned at Camp

by Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., and Ben Seifer

As summer gets closer, parents are arranging post-school plans for their children. Often, those schedules will include camp for a week, a month, or more. Some kids will attend day programs, others will enjoy overnight experiences. Their activities may be specialized, or include a little bit of most anything. Regardless of the exact ingredients, these children will learn the true meaning of what summer camp is all about.

Among other things, camp provides children with the opportunity to connect with nature, to participate in human-powered activities, and to benefit from personal relationships. Many young people who attend camp experience an increase in their self-esteem (independent research has found 92 percent of them say that the people at camp helped them feel good about themselves) and are able to establish a true sense of independence. Kids also say that because of camp … "I developed lasting friendships"... "I became a team player"... "I learned how to care."

One Boy's Journey Through Camp
Ben was the boy in the boat. A gregarious go-getter whose journey through camp was inextricably linked to sailboats on the water. The lessons he learned at camp originated from, or were reinforced by, the challenges he faced as a skipper, navigating the uncertain and constantly shifting conditions of wind, tide, crew, and competition. Learning lessons about self-reliance, self-confidence, exploration, and responsibility — all important metrics of a successful summer camp experience and harbingers of what follows.

Below, Ben and I take turns talking about what those metrics mean to each of us.

The Camp Director and the Kid

Self-Reliance
SW: Developmental dictates eventually steer young people away from dependence on their parents and toward independence and self-reliance. In psychological terms, it's called developing an "internal" as opposed to "external" locus of control — meaning that what formerly was other-directed ("Do this"; "Don't do that") is now self-directed ("I should do this" and "I shouldn't do that"). Shorn of long-established support systems, kids at camp must identify the resources that can help them meet personal and group goals, resolve conflicts, and find success.

BS: When my parents' SUV moved out of sight, I was, for the first time in my nine years of life, on my own. It didn't hit me right away that the next morning my mom wouldn't be there to wake me up, my dad to help me sail, or even that I wouldn't come home at the end of the day to find my bed nicely made. My camp counselors introduced me to something new: adults who would show me the way but not hold my hand the entire time. I did a lot of active learning. I would always try something the first time and if I couldn't figure it out on my own, my counselors would be there for guidance.

Self-Confidence
SW: For campers, becoming self-reliant is predicated on having the self-confidence to succeed educationally and socially. In turn, self-confidence is born of a positive sense of oneself: the experiences one has (and one's evaluation of those experiences) and how closely one's achievements match one's expectations. Campers gain self-confidence when they find meaningful, fulfilling educational and social experiences at camp, interpret those experiences correctly, and have reasonable, achievable expectations for success.

BS: At my summer camp, activity awards were handed out at assemblies.  Campers' names were read aloud as they walked onstage to the sound of applause. In retrospect, I realized this simple act served a much greater purpose than just handing out certificates. It is not always essential for campers to become the best at whatever they choose to do, but it is essential that they feel they've accomplished something. Publicly recognizing a camper for his or her accomplishments builds self-confidence.

Exploration
SW: Camp is, in short, about learning: learning about oneself, learning about others, and learning about new ways to approach the world. Self-confidence leads to learning through exploration of one's interests, abilities, and relationships. To maximize exploration, young people need to feel safe — free from fear of ridicule, sarcasm, or insult. Creating a community of caring where young people feel comfortable moving beyond their "comfort zone" to the "challenge zone" promotes exploration.

BS: My counselors were always pushing me. Pushing me during unit games, pushing me in the cabin towards new activities, pushing me to be a better sailor, and pushing me towards girls at dances. In their own ways they encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and take a risk. I developed a trust with them and in turn with the entire camp community. Whether I was on the water, on a field, or in my cabin, I always knew that my counselors and the camp would ‘have my back.'

Responsibility
SW: Beyond the buddies, baseballs, and bonfires lies the true value of the summer camp experience: a heightened sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of others. That "other orientation" manifests itself in many ways, including a strong sense of connectedness and a commitment to give of oneself. Indeed, research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) points out that young people who have attended summer camp are significantly more likely than those who have not to feel good about their relationships and to take positive risks, such as volunteering for community service.

BS: I met some of the greatest people in the world at camp. In fact, I made such real friendships that the time I spent at camp each summer was enough to make me feel good the entire year. One of many lifelong things I learned at camp is a conscious responsibility to always be there for my friends and for others. Away from camp, I have volunteered as a peer leader, facilitating discussions about alcohol and drug use with middle and high school students and their parents, and I have joined fellow athletes in performing community service.

Life Lessons Learned at Camp
The benefits to young people of a summer at camp have long been discussed and more recently evaluated. What are they? Simply put, they are opportunities. Opportunities not exclusive to camps but rather concentrated at camp, where under the direction, supervision, and influence of caring counselors, young adults can learn to become more independent, more confident, more self-aware, and more giving toward others. These are just some of the life lessons learned at camp.

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