It’s that time of year again – when parents glance at the calendar and realize that there are only a few more months left of school and they need to figure out how their children are going to spend the summer. Whether you’re a working parent who needs full-time care or a stay-at-home parent who realizes that 10 straight weeks with your child might be a long time, there’s a pretty good chance you’re taking a look at summer camp options.

According to the American Camp Association, more than 14 million children (and adults!) head off to one form of summer camp or another each year in the United States. They attend one of the more than 14,000 summer camp programs that exist in the US, from town-based recreation programs to sport-specific training camps to fancy overnight camps in beautiful natural locations. They also join academically-oriented camps, camps for kids with specific challenges (such as illnesses or learning difficulties), camps that specialize in engaging inner-city youth, and camps that are divided by gender.   

For many of us, economics dictate our choices – we look first at what we can afford and then choose among those options. But even the most elite camps have made efforts to make their programs affordable and accessible for all children through scholarships and sliding fees.

If cost is a concern to you, you may also be asking, “What will my child gain from going to camp?”

Turns out, children can gain quite a lot from a summer camp experience.

General Benefits of Summer Camp

The American Camp Association conducted a study of over 5000 families between 2001 and 2004 to measure the impacts of a camp experience on children. They found significant positive impacts on confidence and self-esteem, social skills and making friends, independence and leadership qualities, willingness to try and adventurousness, and spiritual growth (especially at camps focused on spirituality).

Their findings have been confirmed by other academic studies. For example, a 2007 national study of parent perspectives on children’s development through camp found that parents believe that their children gain everything from an increased sense of adventure/exploration to independence, new friendships, and a positive sense of identity.  They also reported a longitudinal positive impact (measured six months later) on leadership skills. A 2006 study of over 3000 children who attended at least one week of summer camp found positive impacts (as evaluated by parents, children, and camp staff) on positive identity, social skills, physical and thinking skills, and positive values and spirituality.

Interestingly, all three of these studies suggest that these improvements are not necessarily linked to specific types of camps or activities within camp, but can be generalized to the simple act of attending a camp for at least one week.

Benefits of Specialized Summer Camps

Gender-specific summer camps can provide time for children to be in a supportive environment where gender norms are challenged and role models provide an opportunity for children to learn to be responsible men or women, aware of their gender roles and challenges. For example, a 2017 study of women who attended all-female camps found that these women reported positive social and career development impacts of their summer camp experience, including increased resiliency and self-esteem.

Summer camp can also serve as a strategy to level the playing field for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. A 2005 study of a camp in the Pocono Mountains designed for low-income children from New York City reported that exposure to nature and engagement with supportive camp counselors led to increased self-esteem among a diverse group of children ages six through 12. Summer camps can also address the “summer slide,” the decline in learning that can happen when children are away from school for 10 to 12 weeks over the course of the summer. The American Camp Association has even implemented a reading initiative aimed to address children’s literacy during the summer; the research conducted on this initiative demonstrated a positive impact on children’s enjoyment of, and interest in, reading.

Likewise, a multitude of studies has demonstrated the capacity for summer camps to address physical or psychological challenges that children face, such as weight issues or chronic illnesses. See this study on summer camp for youth with visual impairments, this 2004 study that pointed to the potential of summer camp to increase children’s physical activity, or this 2012 study which demonstrated increases in hope and goal-directed activities among children with chronic illness. These summer camps provide a safe space for children dealing with these challenges to be in a supportive environment with others who share their experience.

Personally, I’m also intrigued by summer camps that foster self-directed learning, nature-based free play, and include children in making choices about how they’ll spend their time. Timbernook, for example, is a camp designed to enhance children’s sensory experiences. Created by occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, this camp is entirely outdoors and entirely kid-directed. Read my interview with Angela to learn more about this camp and the importance of free play and healthy movement for kids.

The Take-home

The long and short of it is that summer camp gives children the opportunity to engage with other children and supportive adults in an environment that can greatly enhance what we sometimes refer to as “soft skills” – the personal and social skills that complement academic learning and help to foster healthy development. The good news is that you don’t have to shell out millions of dollars or send your kids away for the entire summer to reap some of these benefits – even a short-term experience can have positive long-term effects.

So dig out that summer camp catalog and take a look at your options. The return on investment definitely seems worth it.