Director’s Commentary 2011: Camp Tenure

Determining the Right Length of Time for a Child to Spend at Camp

Today, we live in a world of time crunches, over-scheduling, helicopter parenting, and specialty programs – all of which conspire against the traditional camp concept of giving kids a legitimate foray from the nest. For some families, a five-day lacrosse clinic on a college campus will have to suffice as a “camping experience.” Furthermore, some school districts have stretched the academic calendar well into June while others have commenced autumn classes before Labor Day.

Consequently, most camps have been forced to condense their dates into the safer zones of midsummer, giving them less time than ever to achieve camping’s overarching mission of helping youngsters gain confidence and a sense of independence. During these precious few weeks, just about every tenure under the sun now is possible, including one week “rookie camps” and father-son weekends.  As you read this essay, you will learn that most traditional camp folks agree that simple tenure – the actual number of days spent away from home – is the key to an experience that has lasting value to a child.

Whenever camp people get together, they speak among themselves on how so many parents find it frightening when it comes to the question of separation experiences for their children. They want to know that their concerns are being validated, understood by directors, and that they are great parents for being so demanding of camps. Hear us out, and perhaps you will come away with much less separation anxiety once you begin to see how going off to camp might be an unbelievable, healthy, growing experience for your little child.

TWO WEEK SESSIONS

It is completely normal for parents and children to fear that first-time separation experience. The younger the child, the more sense a shorter stint makes. Kingswood’s view is that “mom knows best” (sorry dad) when her child is ready for any tenure away from home. This being said, there is some risk in opting for those short sessions.

All kids, regardless of their temperamental stripes, take several days to completely acclimate to being away from home. Most are a tad homesick and are likely to write sad letters to mom and dad. But, what the parents don’t get the opportunity to see, but we do, is that these very boys are often the first up the hill after dinner to join the after dinner soccer scrimmage or bolt towards the jam session in the music room. Maybe both. And, this is the same day he wrote the letter home or broke down upon hearing your voice over the phone! A small sparkle in his eye and skip of step have crept into his countenance. What’s happening here? Answer:  The process of acceptance has begun.

At Kingswood, we do not press boys to extend their stays because we believe kids view their camp session selections as formal contracts with their parents. Yet, our fear is that the two- week session might result in some boys getting plucked from the camp environment just as the prime value of the adventure is kicking into motion.  By the fourteenth day, most boys at Kingswood admit (we ask them) that their camp experience still is being somewhat colored by homesickness even though they are now comfortable at camp. But, now they know the rules, routines, personalities, and the possibilities to follow. Yes, some boys depart knowing, deep down, that homesickness can be overcome. Do they articulate this feeling?  No, but many boys comment that the countdown to next summer begins the moment they get home. For others, though, camp ends so soon that the real and lasting value of the experience goes relatively unnoticed.  We are left holding our breath that with the passage of a bit of time, these boys, too, will begin to realize that, in truth, they did flourish while away from home.

THREE WEEK SESSIONS

“The tipping point is three weeks,” argued a director at one morning administrative gathering. “So and so seemed a bit out of his comfort zone for almost two weeks – then, out of the blue, he was making friends and loving camp.” This paraphrased quote seems to apply to boy after boy whose tenure reaches three weeks and beyond. For most kids, becoming fully connected is the key element of their happiness. Once, on about his eighth day at camp, a chronically homesick camper scored the winning goal in the final moments of an intercamp soccer game. He was carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates and his homesickness evaporated on the spot.

Clearly, not every youngster will have such an obvious epiphany. In most cases, though, we have become convinced that a boy eventually wakes up one morning and at first consciousness acknowledges to himself that “everybody knows me here.” Furthermore, he knows everybody else, admires his counselors, gets all the camp jokes, and has become comfortable with the camp routine. In short, he no longer finds himself being swept along, but now is charting his own course.

We tell parents of struggling campers that it is only a matter of time before their child surrenders to the fun of camp. Every youngster has a personal tipping point, after which a wonderful camp experience ensues. While our study of the camp adjustment process is by no means scientific, years of experience tells us that by the end of week three, most kids are fully entrenched members of the camp community and loving it.

Thus we feel the three week choice is better than two weeks. There is a greater likelihood that a boy will depart camp fulfilled, recognized and well adapted to camp. As you read onward regarding the longer sessions, keep in mind that three weeks is sufficient for the positive attributes of camp to take hold.  Yes, twenty-one days is enough time for camp to become a child’s “home away from home” – a place and a people to whom he feels strongly connected. It is our hope that one day soon, everybody foreordained to a two week outlook will come to recognize the dramatic difference one week can make.

FOUR WEEK SESSIONS

Kingswood has always respected the filial value of a sojourn to grandmother’s, a clan reunion or a lengthy family trek to some exotic location. However, at Kingswood, two distinct sessions have remained our standard tenures, not solely in deference to a families’ needs to save large chunks of summer time for themselves, but also because we feel that twenty-eight days of camp is the optimal short-term stint.

Knowing, as we do, that by the end of the third week just about all campers are on a roll, the staff now is now in a position to use that fourth week to completely win boys over to the camp experience. Indeed, deep into every session, barring none, we find ourselves promising everyone that the upcoming week will be a great one for all of us, with full confidence that boys will be satisfied with the outcome simply because they want it that way. There is no stress – that weight of homesickness, that need to impress or perform, that burden of wondering how to connect. All of these issues are long forgotten as that last week flies by very quickly.

It can rain cats and dogs during week four and no one will care. Boys of differing makeup, who simply endured one another earlier in the session, now have become friends. Those defeated in the touch football tournament or of Bow & Arrow color war are disappointed for a grand total of ten minutes, after which it is time to head down to the waterfront. Legitimate character-building is now happening, and the value of the camp experience triples over that of the shorter tenures. These are the gravy days of camp.  And, they are gorgeous to behold.

FIVE WEEKS OF CAMP

Over the years, we have had a few second session regulars arrive during the latter part of the first session. Every one of them has hit the ground running, the reason being that camp is now going full throttle, most boys are adjusting nicely (see above paragraphs) and there is so much to do at Kingswood that four weeks simply is not quite enough camp time. What a great part of the summer to be at Kingswood. At this moment, the merry-go-round slows down just enough for newcomers to hop aboard.

Experience has shown us that five-weekers view the experience as “total,” meaning that camp takes on the characteristic of a beginning, a middle and an end. Returning campers see scads of familiar faces, recognizable camp traditions and that pattern of routine they find so comforting. Beyond that, these campers also get to experience a side of Kingswood they have never seen before, that “parallel Kingswood universe” of different veterans, legends and events. Everybody who has attended combined sessions has described the feeling as “awesome.” Thus, for those arriving at the prime time of week three, any feelings of awkwardness evaporate very quickly.

FULL SEVEN WEEK SUMMER

As camps go, Kingswood is not that regimented. Our schedule is fluid and we adapt it each day to conditions on the ground. The weather, boys’ moods, what counselors elect to sponsor – this is the backbone of our program, and it is our greatest strength. Yes, boys get options here all day long, but doing nothing is never one of them. We make sure of that. Furthermore, boys gravitate towards all activities that are well promoted or enjoy good reputations. The cumulative summers of the entire staff exceeds 700 years. This math is Kingswood’s ace of spades in many respects, one that suggests a pedal-to-the-metal schedule that ultimately fulfills the desires of everybody on the grounds. There is so much to do, and with each counselor having his favorite sponsorships, the boys are always faced with difficult but happy options.

Boys who stay for the full summer develop a swagger– a happy, completely contented, measurable attitude that has lasting effect on them. The full gamut of clinics, games, trips and other activities is a fabulous experience and is optimal for getting the full range of Kingswood. Go back and review the procession of values accrued as one moves from the two week start up stint to the seven week summer and the following becomes crystal clear: As tenure increases, so does the assimilated value of the camp experience. However, each of Kingswood’s session options is, for good reasons, a “Can do.”