Spring is here! Well, technically spring is here, and I’m sure for much of the country it even feels this way. As for the great state of Maine…we will get there. Spring will come and go, and summer will be here before we know it.
With spring upon us, for many families of teenagers, it’s now crunch time in deciding what to do this summer. While many teenagers might like to get a job or simply hang out for the summer, these are often not viable options – jobs can be difficult to find or have strict age limits and demand specific qualifications. “Hanging out” is great in small doses but is not always an ideal plan for an entire summer. This leads many families to think about a summer camp, trip, or “program”. Today, we’ll consider some of the main differences between a summer at a real camp, like Maine Teen Camp, versus a summer program on a college campus or similar.
Obviously, the primary difference between a summer camp and a college campus-based program is – the campus! A more traditional summer camp, like most of those found in Maine, is going to involve cabins, lakes, woods, playing fields and communal spaces like dining halls, or lodges. While many college campuses may have some or many of these elements, they are going to have dormitories, lecture halls/classrooms etc.
We are most concerned with the impact of the switch from cabins to dorms. Cabin life is a defining feature of the camp experience, and for most of us, one of our favorite aspects of camp. Cabin life is communal and requires a period of adjustment for the majority of campers – sharing a living space and a bathroom is often novel for them. Learning to live in a cabin is really learning how to be with other people, with each concerned for the other. It is an intensely social experience, a crash course in interpersonal skill building, yet one that teaches each of us so much about ourselves. And for a group of teenagers who will be heading off to college in the next 2-5 years, it is helping build essential skills. Being able to get along with people who are initially strangers, rapidly interpreting the group dynamics, understanding how to be part of the group, when to lead, when to follow, and when to stay out of it, are critical skills for a successful college experience. The simplest things - like learning how to wait, or plan, for a hot shower - are best learned when the stakes are low.
As essential to the summer camp experience is the proximity of nature. Summer camps are stereotypically nestled under tall trees, close to lakes, at a remove from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. Unlike college, most college campuses, which are either in towns or resemble towns themselves, summer camp is removed from the urban noises & sights that create stress. We are hardwired to respond positively to natural scenes – the light & shadow of trees in the woods, the movement of small waves on a pond, the patterns in the clouds in the late afternoon. Being indoors for classes during the summer, or being outdoors by a busy road, or large buildings, robs us of these benefits.
Which brings us to the nature of the programming. When a summer program is held in an academic setting, it speaks loudly to the reason for being there. Indeed, many of the programs hosted on college campuses in the summer are explicitly academic, or at the very least, career or resume focused. Unfortunately, there is a critical cost to this focus, and it is not just the $$ amount of tuition (unbelievably, most college-based programs exceed the weekly cost of summer camp). Summer, or at least some dedicated part of it, must be put aside for a respite from the pressure of the school year. We cannot emphasize this enough. So much of the root cause of stress and anxiety among adolescents and young adults can be traced directly to academic pressure. Taking time away from academics, EVEN if the student enjoys the subject matter and is strongly self-motivated, is essential for long term success. It is a well-recognized paradox that time away from an area of learning and endeavor can result in a refreshed appreciation, greater creativity and less chance of burn out. For students who are not internally motivated, more of the same can be downright destructive. Just as adults don’t vacation in their office building or workshop, likewise, teenagers should not vacation in a classroom.
Campers at a true summer camp like Maine Teen Camp get an additional, wildly underappreciated benefit. They are not pigeon holed. An academic/campus-based program is going to be very intentionally narrow in focus. We recognize that by the time kids are teenagers, they have been given strong messages that they must specialize, and only do the things they excel in, for many years. Despite a parent’s best efforts to the contrary, these messages are pervasive, coming at kids in the classroom, music room, sports field, dance studio, art studio, etc. By the time they come to MTC, many of our campers have internalized a message that has them saying, “Well, I can’t do that…I won’t try…I’ll just fail...” It takes a bit of work, lots of support from staff, a great deal of fun and role modeling, and an occasional, “What are you talking about?! Of course, you can!”, but we always manage to get campers pushing their comfort zones to explore a little deeper. Working outside a known area of expertise is essential for building resilience and self confidence in teens.
Unfortunately, a narrowly focused college campus-based experience is simply not equipped to supply the range and depth of alternate experiences, nor does it have the open invite and support network needed to convince a reluctant teenager that no one is going to make fun of their first attempt at a new skill.
There are plenty of other benefits that a camp offers that are hard or impossible for a campus program to mimic – being device-free is really hard when everyone has their own dorm room and pervasive wi-fi; keeping campers away from strangers/substances can be tremendously difficult when they are on a campus with college students, other programs, and close to major transport; and feeling like you are in a unique place that is out of the mainstream of the real world is hard when you are surrounded by cafeterias full of TV screens, metro busses, and convenience stores. Stuff we can do at camp, like lighting a camp fire, under the stars, listening to loon calls, and each other’s stories, is often not possible on campus, or in the city.
Summers, especially those few allotted before the adult world of work and obligation arrive, are fleeting. Spending them at a summer camp, though, can make memories that last much longer and are far more valuable.