Could It Be Magic?

Camp Puh’tok (Provided)
Camp Puh’tok (Provided)

Renowned child psychologist Michael Thompson, author of “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow,” has written that there are three reasons that the residential camp experience remains so magical: being away from one’s parents; the relationship between campers and counselors; and inhabiting a camp’s “private world with its own rules and rituals and magic.”

That has certainly been the case for the children of Reistertown’s Marci Phillips and Joseph Kontoff, whose two children attend Capital Camps in Waynesboro, Pa.

“I never went to sleepaway camp or ever had any interest in it,” said Phillips. “I am not a camp person.”

But when daughter Sophie was 8, she heard her friends talking about going to Capital Camps and told Phillips and Kontoff she wanted to go there too. Now, going into her fifth year there, she absolutely loves it, which was evident from an unconventional letter home.

“Her camp self wrote a letter to her home self,” said Phillips. “It was basically like, ‘Dear Sophie, I’m so sorry that you are not me because I am at camp having fun and you are at home waiting for school to start. Sucks to be you. Love, Sophie.’

“We were dying when we opened it,” said Phillips. “She really has this perception that Camp Sophie is this person who’s in this camp bubble doing all this fun stuff while Home Sophie is at home. It was super weird and metaphysical, but we got a kick out of it.”

Capital Camps (Provided)
Capital Camps (Provided)

“We noticed the first summer back [from Capital Camps] we saw an increase in maturity in her,” Phillips recalled of Sophie at 8. “She was more willing to do chores around the house with less complaint; she had more self-confidence.”

Her brother too came to love the camp experience.

Marty Rochlin, the director of Camp Airy in Thurmont, said, “We work with other camps during the off-season and what we all agree on is that the chance to have a safe place to grow up and figure things out on your own is one of the greatest things camp has to offer. Take those risks, try those things, meet those people — you can’t do that at home, it’s a unique experience.”

Studies have consistently shown that camp sessions of one week or more have a beneficial impact on autonomy, social skills and physical activity, among other attributes. And depending on the camp’s orientation, children also gain a lot of knowledge from specialized programs.

“That’s the other important aspect for me as a parent,” said Ruti Kadish, whose 13-year-old son, Segev, attends Habonim Dror Camp Moshava in Street, Md. “My kid comes home and tells me about the social justice issues they talked about: food insecurity or immigration or social justice in Israel or climate. Their activities during the day are about those issues in the most fun, creative, crazy ways. He’ll come home and something will come up on the radio, and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, we talked about that at camp and here’s what I think …’”

Of the more than 14,000 summer camps in the U.S., 8,400 are resident camps, many of which target specific activities. Maryland, which is host to both lush natural settings and dynamic urban environments, has dozens of camps that offer a stunning variety of approaches. There are camps for budding chefs, for the wannabe astronaut, for kids with cancer, for aspiring marine biologists. There are camps geared toward computer game software and camps that teach etiquette. There are baseball camps and debate camps; there are city camps and rural camps and camps in the suburbs.

“One of the greatest gifts you can give a child is a sense of success and achievement,” said Alexi K. Grote, director of Camp Puh’tok, which was founded in 1942 in Northern Baltimore County. “An empowering camp experience provides children with an opportunity to learn powerful lessons in community, critical thinking, character building, skill development and healthy living.”

Jennifer Braveman Silber, executive director of Camp Moshava, said, “Being away from home for an extended period of time at an overnight camp promotes the development of self-confidence, problem solving and social skills in children. … Campers advocate for themselves and for each other, they learn to take action if they see a problem, and they have room to make mistakes and grow from those mistakes. Overnight camp provides a safe and supportive environment for kids to learn about who they are as a person, separate from parents and guardians.”

More than the pragmatic effects, it’s the holistic transformation of sleepaway camp that has such power.

“Camp transcends ZIP codes and schools and neighborhoods,” said Rochlin. “It comes across as cheesy to outsiders, but your camp friends become your best friends — your roommates and bridesmaids and best men. You go away from home to learn about yourself, and camp becomes your home as well.”

When Don Webb founded Nature Camps 43 years ago, conjuring magic within the context of exposing children to the natural world was definitely on the agenda. And it worked — not only for campers, but for the broader NC community as well.

“Imagine 200-plus (children, parents, guests and counselors) gathered together in a circle, sharing a vegetarian dinner at the campsite, followed by a similar eager circle of everyone playing all family games, followed by a meaningful sharing/ talking circle — followed by a marvelous Concert-in-the-Woods,” said Webb, trying to summon up a vision of some of the most transcendent NC moments. “This is followed by night hikes, singing around the campfire, magic wish boats in the pool, tie-dying, pottery and carving soapstone necklaces and figurines. It’s an enchanted, peaceful family time for everyone to soak up the joy of one another.”

Daniel Nozick contributed to this report.

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