How Being Home Reminds Me What Is So Important About Summer Camp

Distilling what I learned, I came up with a kind of ultrasimple coda: Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.”
― Florence Williams, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

A Natural Love Story

I love my life. Whether it’s the bustle of holding down a full-time job as a director of an all-girls summer camp while raising three boys in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley, including hustling around to school, sports practices, Cub Scouts, and family activities during the school year, or being at that all-girls camp during the summertime — either way, I’m decidedly happy! I love my hubby, my kiddos, my family, my friends, where I live, what I do, and God’s glorious creation.

But that doesn’t mean I’m nothing but Pollyanna about everything. I mean, I do recognize when I like one thing more than another, or feel better doing one thing versus another. Or just the little differences in life and how it affects me and mine.

And right now, directly post-camp, after spending over 10 weeks living deeply into the Allegheny Mountains, waking to bird song and falling asleep to cricket chirps and twinkly stars unobstructed by city lights, of breathing deeply in the fresh mountain air, of walking in the morning in the crisp and cool dawn, of walking almost everywhere with the waft of clover on the breeze and the kiss of sunshine on my nose, and of watching my still young boys run and roll and get dirty and get exhausted and find one natural and simple thing after another to ignite their imaginations and pull them along, I have to say I…am noticing a big difference between that and cars.

That and overhead indoor light.

That and screens.

That and alarm clocks.

That and just being indoors, All. The. Time.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I love the so-called “off-season” of camp (I say so-called because every September to June is working on the next on-season), and I love the variety that being back home brings to my overall life. I miss my girl friends here. I enjoy my gym time. Hey, big one, I actually get to see my husband Matt every day instead of weekends only! And same goes for my boys — I see them at camp of course, but during the off-season I actually have more time to settle in with them. I have SO MUCH to be grateful and happy for — and I am!

So it’s not all about camp versus non-camp and how non-camp doesn’t measure up.

What it is about is that there are some things that are so noticeably different at home that I need to get them off my chest or I think I’ll burst! And I’ll bet that many of you — campers, staff, Mini Camp counselors, Admin Team members, ordinary folks — feel the same.

Inside Out and Upside Down

The truth is that my kids and I have been pretty down since coming home from camp, even though there’s a lot we’re excited for, and a lot to be happy about.

It’s gotten me thinking about just the nature of being outside. I have this feeling that we’re all a little “low” since now all of a sudden we’re inside exponentially more than we were at camp. I also never ever drive anywhere while at camp, and now I’m just back into the same old routine of driving everywhere, ALL. THE. TIME.

And it’s a little bit of culture shock. (Below is a gallery of the boys back in their school-time routine. It’s wonderful, but there are some drawbacks…)

Historical Perspective

Humans basically have about 10,000 years or so of civilized history where people walked essentially everywhere or carts and horses moved people in what was called a “four-mile-per-hour world.”

Even by sail people traveled slowly because sometimes the wind was at your back and sometimes you were in the doldrums and going nowhere. But at least in all cases you were surrounded by nature. Not to be too nostalgic about it — sure, year-round you were cold or wet or stuck in one place — but in all honesty, it did call out the whole person, head, heart, and hands to get anywhere or do anything.

For only about 100 years have people been zooming around everywhere in cars and only another 75 years before that were trains coming along and ramping up.

Basically moving around slowly, by one’s own feet, and outside was the norm for all of human history until our era. So when we feel and experience that same thing today — walking, being outside, rarely experiencing much modernity — it strikes a deep chord within. And for me that chord is time at camp.

Being outside energizes people. We feel noticeably better when we’re outside on a regular basis. Last year I blogged about a book I read which is quoted from in this blog, The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. But now I am actually experiencing the things I read about so deeply and so personally and I can put words to it when I’m talking to family, friends, and you, dear readers.

“Here are some of the essential take-homes: we all need nearby nature: we benefit cognitively and psychologically from having trees, bodies of water, and green spaces just to look at; we should be smarter about landscaping our schools, hospitals, workplaces, and neighborhoods so everyone gains.

We need quick incursions to natural areas that engage our senses. Everyone needs access to clean, quiet and safe natural refuges in a city.

Short exposures to nature can make us less aggressive, more creative, more civic minded, and healthier overall. For warding off depression, let’s go with the Finnish recommendation of five hours a month in nature, minimum.

But as the poets, neuroscientists, and river runners have shown us, we also at times need longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces to recover from severe distress, to imagine our futures, and to be our best civilized selves.”

― Florence Williams, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

From There to Here

At camp, my work hours are LONG and BUSY, all day, every day. We’re talking up at 6am, in bed after 11pm. For 10 solid weeks. People ask how in the world I do it, and I too marvel at my (and really all of us who work there) ability to sustain this kind of schedule, and to be active, present, focused, energized, problem-solving….

To be sure, there are some tired days when I just know I need to take care of myself and turn in early. But for the most part I am go, go, go without stopping, and am productive and energized.

I really feel my best self when I’m at camp. I’m mentally and physically alive and functioning at top performance. I think, of course, much of this can be attributed to how passionate I am about my work, and also just the sheer adrenaline of the many facets of camp when its functioning on all cylinders, right? There’s a lot to do in a short amount of time, a lot of people to make happy, a lot of events to pull off… I go into autopilot with it. But I enjoy it!

And then I come home to Staunton for the off-season and I crash. I’m exhausted by nine at night, no energy to do much around the house, and to vex me further, my FitBit step count drastically drops!

I just feel BLAH.

I’m unmotivated, tired, slow, and well, just down!

Now let’s be real — all that seems like a natural crash after such an eventful couple of months. Totally. And I’m used to it by now.

But this time I noticed it in my kids! (Below is a gallery of my boys at camp and some with their grandpa, my dad, who is at camp all summer, and some with their dad Matt who joins us on the weekends during camp and comes for Family Camp.)

We’ve always noticed a bit of a rough transition with the boys after camp, but more from a routine perspective, and sometimes the sheer amount of attention they get at camp from campers/counselors/etc. drops so much.

But this year I noticed more of that “down” feeling. My 2-year old Noah spent the whole first full day back at home asking me over and over again if he could just go sit in his crib. I finally caved in, and he just lay there for a couple chunks of the day. I was like, “What is going on here?”

That’s when I started to think about how much time we spend outside at camp, versus at home. And I honestly think that has such a huge effect on our mood, energy-levels, productivity, and more.

At home I’m just naturally inside more… and not to mention how much DRIVING I do! I so seldomly drive at camp, not even once-a-week do I get in my car. I have everything I need inside camp and no reason to go anywhere else unless I’m taking a little time off.

I think people just function better outside, it’s how we evolved as humans, and our brains are wired to function best outside. From our eyes taking in the sunlight, to the fresh, open air… it all sounds cheesy but there is research to prove it.

Over recent decades we have come from dwelling in another world in which the living works of nature either predominated or were near at hand, to dwelling in an environment dominated by a technology which is wondrously powerful and yet nonetheless dead.”

― Florence Williams, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

Fighting for Nature, Fighting For Us

I keep wanting Mason’s school to consider an outdoor classroom. I feel mainstream culture looks at something like that as “distracting” when in reality it helps with focus and emotional well-being.

In the end, I just feel like people in general need to be outside rather than inside, but I don’t even know how to remedy that in my own life since modern American culture has so much indoor time and tech built into the “system.” I have to cook, do laundry, answer e-mails, shuttle kids, help with homework, clean up  — all my main tasks, including off-season camp work, happen inside, which is so different from at camp itself.

So I don’t really know if there is an answer. Yet.

But I do know there is a question: Can we, together, do more, to bring nature back to the center of human existence in all that we do? Back to American culture? Back to American daily habits from cradle to grave? And if we do, don’t you think we’ll be better for it?

I now know that that the sudden absence of nature is one reason why campers may also feel so sad or down when they leave camp. This is, in addition, of course, to missing those super close friends and friendships. It’s also in part attributable to 3-6 weeks screen free.

Recently I’ve been saying that camp (an outdoor one) in itself is so healing for people — that if you JUST had the outdoor setting and no screens, with sub-par counselors and programming (which is OBVIOUSLY not what we have!) and a lack of intentionality, campers would still thrive and benefit from that! Just simply from being outside and away from screens. Of course, we throw in some phenomenal counselors and very intentional programming to make it even more stellar, but you get my point:

We need you Mother Nature. We need you!

— Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls

If you want to learn more about the merits of sleepaway summer camp, download my FREE e-book, 3 Reasons to Begin Your Child’s Sleepaway Summer Camp Experience Early. It’s a great resource to share with friends, or if you are a first-time camp family and you wonder what sleepaway camp would be like for your child.