The Power of Summer Camp to Build Life Skills

Camps building life skills

It’s curious the intersection of parents and educators in the overall job of raising kids. It’s much bigger than we realize!

There’s even an old classic book of child rearing titled You Are Your Child’s First Teacher: Encouraging Your Child’s Natural Development from Birth to Age Six. And as parents we don’t question that — of course we’re their first teacher. Duh!

Less well understood is that our children’ formal teachers and coaches — in schools, homeschool collectives, clubs, sports, and camps — are ultimately partners with parents to do more than teach a particular subject, coach a season of sports, or offer a safe and nurturing camp environment.

Intuitively we parents know this. We obviously expect teachers and coaches and counselors to be superior role models, to behave with dignity and moral uprightness, to preach responsibility and demonstrate it through motivation and direction, and to follow through on their word. In broad ways it’s absolutely true that as a community around each child we really are all in this together.

So what does that look like in terms of the best possible goal for raising kids?


I found that Amy Carney, blog writer and author of the forthcoming Raising Kids Without Regret, put it best when she recently wrote a counterintuitive blog post titled  “Stop doing these 8 things for your Teen this School Year.” She wrote that what we all really want (or should want) for our kids is the goal, “to raise well functioning adults.”

And what are well-functioning adults but people with dignity, responsibility, self-motivation, and follow through?

Oh sure, there’s creativity and humor and intelligence and a host of individual talents in each person — but what’s behind all that is the ability to function in the world in an independent, stable, and consistent fashion. That’s what makes everything work together effectively!

In order to get there, kids needs methods and places and ways to build the growing muscles of their independence, self-responsibility, goal-setting, and achievement. And frankly, as Carney argues, this is strengthened when parents step away a little to give space for this to take root, grow, and flower.

Your Partner in Camp

As I’ve been writing for a while now, a strong, principled, well-positioned sleepaway summer camp offers one of the best places for these skills to be built. While some of a child’s needs are completely taken care of at camp — the food is largely cooked and served to campers, for example — much else is the child’s personal responsibility:

  • Up with the “alarm clock” Reveille.
  • Make your cot/clean your personal tent area for inspection.
  • Get to the bath house and take care of personal hygiene.
  • Get to assembly/breakfast/first activity on time.
  • Get to all other activities on time.
  • Manage any free time and rest time effectively to meet personal needs.
  • Make personal goals for the Term and work to achieve them.
  • Participate and get out of the program what you want/are capable of without parental intervention.
  • Answer and manage mail — or not — as desired/capable.
  • Work out issues with tent mates/other campers as needed (or seek intervention if it gets to that).
  • Manage separation from home or seek help if its really an issue (homesickness isn’t actually as much as parents fear).
  • Work from summer-to-summer on goals that grow (such as increasing targets in Rifle/Archery or land the lead in a Drama show, etc.)
  • Eat healthy meals/stay hydrated to sustain the body in the weather (yes, there are counselor reminders, but the camper has a personal role).
  • Get enough sleep to make it through the next day effectively.
  • Etc.

At camp, campers are apprised of schedules, quickly learn the rhythms of the days, and make choices about preferred activities and personal goals. Counselors and Administrative Team members help nurture and develop these things, but not in a micro-management type of way.

Letting them Fly

At camp, children try their wings, and stretch their wings, and, within a loving, safe, and encouraging environment “do their own thing” to a degree (within program parameters). Unmade cots, or lost personal items have consequences. None of it is devastating in such ordinary circumstances (I’m not discussing rare instances of severe behavioral issues here), but there are consequences.

If a tent is “docked” on Inspection points because one camper didn’t meet her personal responsibilities, there will be group disappointment, and some group reckoning, like an apology, or the drive to do better next time.

If a camper forgets her water bottle, while there are ways to get her some water, that process is disruptive, and she may lose activity teaching time while she gets the secondary water source. If she’s shivering because she forgot her sweat shirt at breakfast, she’s likely to remember it the next morning because a little bit of cold is a good teacher!

While Carney’s blog post focuses on teens, and the need to support younger children in their efforts is naturally greater, there are still elements that apply:

  • A 7-year-old can make a cot when she’s taught! (In fact most parents LOVE summer camp because kids come home with a new habit — regularly tidying up!)
  • A 7-year-old can learn to mind her belongings, and remember to bring any supplies needed to an activity, or lose out if she doesn’t, remembering next time much better.
  • A 7-year-old can learn to articulate a personal goal and understand the coaching that helps her get closer to it, while ultimately understanding that is it SHE who will either pursue that goal or not.

In This Together

The bottom line is that parents and kids need contexts outside of home life where a child’s ability to pursue life skills, to practice self-responsibility, and to develop personal aims can best flourish. Based on my own experience as a camper, and with almost two decades in the camp business in one role or another, I can confidently attest that camp is one of the singularly best partners in meeting your goal for your child’s successful growth into adulthood through the attainment of valuable life skills.

The earlier they can do this, and with lots of return summers, the better.

Then on top of all that, camp is just plain more fun that barrel of monkeys!

And for those of you with younger would-be campers, I invite you to download my e-book, “Three Reasons to Begin Your Child’s Sleepaway Summer Camp Journey Early.”

— Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls