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Beyond the Campfire: How summer camp helps kids reach important developmental milestones

IMG_7308Allowing kids the opportunity to develop independence can be a struggle for many parents who question the safety and security of their child’s learning environment. Yet, child psychologists believe children develop their sense of independence by being away from their parents’ meticulous, and sometimes extreme, safety net. Summer camp provides an incredible balance between ensuring kids are safe, comfortable, and happy while developing the sense of independence necessary for self-control and self-reliance.

How Camp Fosters Independence

Michael Thompson, clinical psychologist and author, believes the parental instinct to provide an extreme safety net for their children can actually damage their development. “Parents assume that their presence always adds value to a child’s growth. I disagree.”[1] Thompson conducted hundreds of interviews of campers and former campers for his book, Homesick and Happy, How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow. Kids said their camp experiences helped them see how strong and competent they really are. Thompson believes these experiences are exclusive to being away from home and out of their parents’ loving, yet sometimes overbearing, watchful eye. “When children are away from their parents, they do not have to view their own life and achievements through the lens of my-athlete-father-standing-on-the-sidelines-watching-me or my-mother-is-worried-that-I’ll fail. When a child is on his own, the experience is his alone, the satisfaction belongs only to him and he does not have to filter it through what his parents think and feel.”[2] At summer camp, kids are allowed to fail, to learn, and to succeed on their own terms by being engaged experientially in an expanded learning environment.

IMG_7343Children develop in profound ways when they leave their parents’ house and join a camp community. Thompson writes, “Living in a cabin 24/7 with kids you like and kids you hate builds self-control and empathy. Helping carry someone else’s backpack on a hike, making a fire and cooking together, cleaning pots in the lake, trying new foods and overcoming homesickness…well, that’s independence. And true independence is something your parents cannot give you. You have to live it on your own.”[3]

Some parents may feel that independence will come in time, when their child is in college, or decides to travel later on in life. But research studies are finding there is a critical age to develop independence. Kids have a natural inclination toward independence; they want to do things for themselves. If these innate passions go uncultivated, however, children become more dependent on others to do things for them and may lose the desire to become independent later in life. In a study comparing independence in age groups, nursery aged children were consistently more likely than the older children in the study to suggest they would try to resolve problems themselves before asking adults for help. By contrast, older children were more inclined to involve adults.[4] The intention to develop independent and self-reliant citizens of the future is going awry. Dr. Michael Ungar, family therapist and researcher, believes summer camp helps reverse the effects of dependency by making children more resilient to life stress and attachment.[5]

Furthermore, the increase in their self-belief, confidence, and esteem may carry students throughout their life.[6] A study funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development analyzes the connection between dependence and teen peer pressure. “Without opportunities to practice self-directed, independent decision making, teens might give in to their friends’ and partners’ decisions.”[7] One of the important benefits of summer camp is to foster independence at critical developmental stages to reduce the negative effects of peer-pressure during teen years.

How to Know if Your Child is Ready

Even parents who believe in the power of summer camp may question what time is the right time for kids to participate in overnight programs. While age can be arbitrary in determining child developmental stages, there are indicators for telling when kids are ready for a sleepaway camp. Camp directors agree that if kids do well on sleepovers with friends, then they are likely to feel comfortable bunking elsewhere. To reduce feelings of homesickness, tips include signing kids up for camp with a friend to help them feel comfortable away from home. “But it’s always a great idea to talk with your child personally,” says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. “Some kids want to reinvent themselves at camp and try out new social skills in a fresh setting, but others are just more comfortable knowing they’ll see a familiar face.”[8] Either way, it’s likely that with a packed schedule of fun activities kids won’t have time to start missing home. For other parent tips on preparing kids for camp and coping with letting go, check out awesome blogs like this or this.

IMG_7779SNJ Summer Camps

Sierra Nevada Journeys offers one week, outrageously fun overnight camps for 8-17 year olds. SNJ gets campers and families outside exploring the natural world through exciting, dynamic, hands on adventures and activities while providing campers with the opportunity to develop independence in a safe environment. (Psst, you don’t have to tell your kids, but we’ll keep you posted picture updates so you can see what your kids are up to without cramping their independence game!). And, as always, please contact us with any questions or concerns you might have about your child’s needs while participating in our summer programs! Our Camp registrar can be reached at 775-560-6218.

Click here to learn all about SNJ’s Summer Camp!


donielle stevensDonielle Stevens is a 4th generation Reno-ite raised by parents who understood the extensive educational and healing powers of the great outdoors.  She is currently the Communications Intern at Sierra Nevada Journeys working to cultivate environmental stewardship through hands-on, outdoor education. Donielle is graduating from UNR this May and hopes to pursue a career in content marketing for environmental non-profit organizations where she can inspire others to learn about, connect with, and be advocates for nature.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/07/14/should-kids-go-to-sleepaway-camp/kids-need-to-be-away-from-home

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-thompson-phd/sending-kids-to-summer-camp_b_1539726.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/07/14/should-kids-go-to-sleepaway-camp/kids-need-to-be-away-from-home

[4] https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=8&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CE4QFjAH&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.educ.cam.ac.uk%2Fresearch%2Fprojects%2Fcindle%2FEarlyYears_04.doc&ei=QSn_VIe1K4qEyQTwroIQ&usg=AFQjCNEIztk4a5qxGuZZoqYe8opct3DL9g&sig2=Wre0ADIXrYO7PxqL7Gx9PA

[5] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/nurturing-resilience/201202/summer-camps-make-kids-resilient

[6] http://www.dailymontessori.com/montessori-theory/

[7] http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-10/sfri-twp101614.php

[8] http://www.parents.com/kids/camp/summer/ready-for-sleepaway-camp/



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