What We Learn From Camp


2013ftv_sadovnikNoah came home from camp this week and told us he had been fishing in the lake without a pole. When asked to clarify, he told me they just walked into the shallow water and tried to catch them with their hands. I asked him how that worked out. He told us, “Not very well.” I asked him if his sturdy waterproof sandals were at least helpful with his endeavor. He agreed they were and told me that if he had not had them, he would have gone in barefoot like the other kids. My husband gave an audible gasp.

My husband isn’t a “camp person.”

It’s not that he doesn’t like camp activities; he just doesn’t understand them the way I do, because he didn’t grow up with a steady diet of camp. When I say things such as, “Go to the Dollar Store and get necklaces for Luau Day,” he tilts his head and looks at me like I asked for an elephant.

I, on the other hand, boarded my first bus to Camp Wonderland four full months before my 4th birthday. I stood at the bus stop on that hot summer morning with my tote bag, filled with a swimsuit, towel and a PB&J lunch. I kissed my mom goodbye and away I went. Six years later, my parents dropped me off at Camp Louise. In high school, I took on Outward Bound twice, and then I became a counselor at Camp Milldale.

Much like my permanent Teva tan from those sunny summer days, camp identity doesn’t seem to fade. In the past few weeks, both “This American Life” on NPR and NBC’s new campy (pun intended) dramedy “Camp” took on classic characters of “camp people.” Both attempt to illustrate for the uninitiated the idiosyncrasies of those who live for and love camp.

As a parent, I look at camp as the eight weeks when my son grows up at a faster rate than the rest of the year. He spends time with teenagers who haven’t earned a bachelor’s degree in child development. They aren’t imposing learning theories and curricula on him. They are having fun and trying new things in fresh air. If my son told me what he wanted to do, he would research and draw trains all day long, but if I remind him that he would lose lake, nature and Gaga, he’s all about camp.

Kurt Hahn, one of the founders of Outward Bound, recognized the importance of both intellectual and character growth in children and lived by the mantra, “There is more in you than you think.”

That’s camp.

Camp is a place where we take away the rigid structures and protections we keep in place at home and throughout the year. We create situations with manageable risk and perceived danger that help our kids become more resilient, more capable, and, in a world where we frequently isolate through technology, better at interacting with people. Further, they do it without air conditioning.

Once a child was bored in my bunk during free time, so I told him I had lost a quarter in a large field. I watched him as he searched for less than 10 minutes. He came back with $1.15 in change. He was delighted.

Autumn Sadovnik is the director of lifelong learning at the Edward A. Myerberg Center.

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