Established in 1984, Maine Teen Camp has done something no other summer camp has ever done; providing over three decades of life changing camp experiences exclusively for teens.
And while outwardly much has changed about teenagers and the world they inhabit over this time, the fundamentals of teen development and the core of what they need to thrive have remained constant.
Our experience in getting to meet, understand, observe playing, and learning with and from thousands of teenagers has helped us to establish a set of key factors that are fundamental to our camper’s success at in and out of camp, along with a set of lifelong outcomes that measure this success.
Parents have asked us how the Maine Teen Camp experience is different and why it is important, especially in a modern hyper-competitive, digitally saturated world.
Here we will share what we have learned about what the essential parts of a true summer camp experience are.
We will also review what positive outcomes look like, and along the way, point out what a more specialized teen-appropriate summer experience looks like, and how they related to your teenage daughter or son, whether they go to camp or not.
The role of the Individual within the community is a key part of self-expression, helps provide meaning, and provides the social training ground for future success.
A good community for adolescents needs to:
Published research validated by our experience on the ground at Maine Teen Camp clearly indicate four (4) major stressors are fundamentally preventing teens from exercising their full mental and emotional capacities:
Add them up and all of these exacerbate issues surrounding anxiety, social disorders and attention deficits to clinical levels.
We will explore the major benefits which flow to teens in the “bubble,” who go device free along with the importance of downtime away from competitive and chronic stressors, a return to nature, and the exploration of new activities.
The mere act of attending a camp without a bunch of friends is a huge risk. Additional managed risks at camp provide valuable chances to test limits and learn how to continue operating even under stress/anxiety. Camp is removed from the dual pressures of parents/school and social media, allowing teens the opportunity to try something that they may well fail at, free of the fear of long term academic or social consequences. The unhealthy obsession with perfection can be safely challenged by a camp’s relaxed, “come as you are” atmosphere
The importance of the natural world on human well-being has been seriously undermined. Camp gives kids and an opportunity to gain first-hand experience of the benefits of being in green places and around bodies of water; it helps them feel comfortable and welcome in nature; and it ideally creates or strengthens a bond with the outdoors that inspires teenagers to protect natural spaces.
The roof over the whole structure of camp is the institutional commitment to Fun!, and that having fun and engaging in favorite activities is an essential part of a healthy life. We believe that forgetting how to have fun leads to unhappiness that can manifest itself in a host of unhealthy behaviors and leads to the production of a bunch of unhappy adults later in life who struggle with adversity and have trouble with the day to day challenges in front of them.
One of the key job of and a major goal of adolescence, is to answer the question. “Who Am I?” At camp, the activities, friends, mentors, and physical setting all play a role, as does the core community value of just “being yourself”, or as it is written so boldly on display in our main lodge, “free to be, free to become.” The role camp plays in a healthy and productive adolescence varies by individual, but is inevitably positive and productive for each and every young person.
It is widely understood, from the middle of the 20th century onwards, that for an individual to have a happy, productive life, they must find purpose in that life. This is maybe even more important for adolescents, as they develop the capacity for moral reasoning to find meaning in their own lives. By linking individuals to community, and showing them a path towards living a life reflective of the values they hold, camp helps teenagers build meaning for themselves.
A well organized, intentional, summer camp exists for many reasons, but the ultimate goal is to help campers become healthier, happier, and therefore more effective. By combining the inherent benefits of time spent in the Maine woods in the summer, with well-designed programming and community building, MTC allows campers to hone the skills and mindsets they need to unlock their potential.
Read on to learn more how all these come together to create a transformational experience for today’s teenagers.
The defining element that really sets camp apart from other ways one could spend a summer is Community. When a camper chooses a summer camp like Maine Teen Camp, they are literally choosing an extended family, a culture, a set of people, experiences, and values they will share in camp and take with them throughout their lives.
Other types of summer programs can provide novel experiences, or opportunities to learn, but outstanding communities are near impossible to build or maintain when the participants are transient, or sequestered away in dorm rooms, constantly shuttled from place to place or constantly focused on academic learning or competition.
Of course, communities are two-way streets. In one sense, they both envelope the individual and foster positive development, and at the same time they also require the individual to contribute to the community in their own unique way.
At MTC, we have developed several core understandings of what a good community for teenagers can look like, in order to allow for growth of the camper as well as for the organic continuation of a healthy community.
At the top of the list, a camp community should be open and welcoming. This is of vital importance to teens finding a new camp, or finding camp for the first time. To know that the social group will be immediately accepting, that there will not be any period of initiation, is essential. It is vital that a camp community that wants to reach teens feel like it is open, growing, and dynamic.
In a traditional camp (and school) context, some relationships have forged over a number of years, since the campers were tots. Newcomers at worst, feel unwelcome and at a minimum feel awkward and outside the group, at least for a while. We find that an insular community cannot flourish from one generation of campers to the next unless the playing field is level for all.
So while recognizing that part of what makes camp so special is its unique traditions, rituals, “in jokes”, and “you’d have to be there’s”, it also needs to feel inclusive and accepting of newcomers.
It also needs be open to all, that is, regardless of background, of nationality, of race, of gender expression, of religion. Understanding that a commitment to diversity sends a message of inclusion to all campers is one of the pillars of MTC. By standing against intolerance to anyone, all campers can feel like they are safe to simply be themselves.
One truth of the teenage experience in the real world is that there is enormous pressure on them to conform, from their peers and the wider community. However, adolescents also need to be true to themselves. A camp community then, should embrace individuality, not suppress it. It should look, feel, and think diversely if it wants to encourage each camper to just relax and be themselves.
Of course, the staff needs to embrace and live these same values. By providing a variety of role models and mentors, camp reflects back to campers a model of diversity and excellence.
An additional benefit of a diverse camp is the simple fact that it will prepare campers for the rich diversity of the wider world. A camper who has spent significant and meaningful time with kids who are different from the kids they go to school with, is going to feel more comfortable and empathize and work more effectively with a diversity of colleagues in a college or work environment.
Becoming friends with someone who thinks a bit differently, or has grown up in a different culture, can open a young person’s eyes to new ways of looking at the world, and also allows them to appreciate the benefits and resources they have themselves in a new light.
Next, community should help foster a sense of meaning and purpose for teenagers. By helping create and support a culture of acceptance, cooperation, and joy, campers are taking ownership for the small corner of the world that they influence.
Also of high importance to most teenagers is the feeling of belonging. When they feel like they belong to a community that accepts them for who they are, they also own and take personal responsibility for that community.
One of the collective goals of camp is to make the “real world” a little bit more like camp. While this may sound a little trite, it is very real for everyone in camp. Staff and campers understand that they are learning a model of how people can interact and help each other, they then feel they have a responsibility to carry on outside of the summer. In that sense, it is no different from anything else we do – teaching and refining skills that can lead to lifelong friendships, hobbies, habits of mind. It can be said that one way of making the world a little better is by extending the values of camp and is one of the ways in which a camp experience becomes a meaningful one.
Nature is also as much a part of the camp community as the humans.
To give you an idea of what we mean, during the summer of 2016, a family of Barred Owls showed up around camp. Over the course of the summer, campers and staff got to see the fledglings grow from clumsy, fuzzy mouths with wings to sleek, beautiful birds.
Many campers report that they see a shooting star at camp for the first time. They see different types of woodpeckers, squirrels, and turtles as they go about their days at camp. This way campers begin to understand and appreciate the way camp life is shaped by the natural world. They begin to understand how the natural world shapes them as well. It then becomes obvious that we humans need a close relationship with the natural world and nature no longer feels like a separate place it is so often turned into. We aim to help campers grow to an understanding that they are a part of nature, that nature is them, and that achieving an understanding of our role in the natural world and it's role in us is a key to long term well being.
The role of the Individual within the community is a key part of self-expression. It helps provide meaning and provides the social training ground for future success. In turn, the individual campers maintain the community by making its values their own, and modelling those values for others. In this way the community both serves and is served by its members.
This is a key insight into integrating the camp experience for new campers. In the final analysis camp is a participatory experience, not a spectator sport. Fortunately a good camp community values openness and accessibility, affording new campers the opportunity to join with the only requirements being an open mind, authenticity, and a sense of fun and adventure.
There are many great analogies to describe the somewhat timeless nature of summer camp. A lovely one is the idea of an eddy current, off to the side of the mainstream, in which a young person can take a break from the headlong rush to observe and recover. The most common though, applied to any number of great summer camps over the years, is the idea of the “bubble.” The bubble is a useful shorthand for the space, both physical and temporal, that is what camp is all about.
At Maine Teen Camp we know one of our most important roles in maintaining the space and keeping it free from pressures and changes that can alter the camper experience in a negative way. A very pertinent, ubiquitous and pervasive example is the smartphone, (see Digital Detox also) and below we'll briefly explain why smartphones have no place in a well run summer camp.
Here we’ll briefly outline the four (4) most widely recognized issues with them, and what a developmentally conscious camp does about each one.
Digital devices clearly interfere with both the quantity and quality of sleep. When used in the evening hours before bed, a phone provides both stimuli and wavelengths of blue light (that only occur naturally during daylight). Our brains interpret this light as daylight, and our circadian rhythms are disrupted as a result.
Excessive stimuli, either in the form of content or message alerts keep the brain from achieving the relaxed, decelerated state needed to get to sleep “on time”.
All the research we see indicates that teenagers need an average of nine (9) hours sleep per night. Less than 9 hours of sleep and studies show serious degradation in critical executive functions (emotional regulation, attention, task prioritization, creativity, memory retention, and learning) leading directly to less effectiveness as a learner, and feelings of stress and anxiety.
Our camp facilitates better sleep hygiene, allowing campers (and staff!) to get their nine hours of sleep a night without smart phone interference.
We all have stories about how phones inhibit sociability, even among old friends. Whether it’s a group who get together to watch a TV show, only to spend ad breaks checking social media sites, or parents at the playground reading or texting instead of watching their kids and talking to neighbors, phones can and do have a distinctly chilling effect on social interaction.
We made the conscious choice at MTC to strengthen the Bubble by repositioning social human interactions back to their position of priority.
Adolescent brains are really good at avoiding being “bored.” They need and seek new stimuli relentlessly. Teens in fact are masters at this. The only thing they are better at is being kind of lazy and taking shortcuts.
Phones very effectively exploit these tendencies, by providing an infinite supply of new stimuli just a few finger swipes away. At first it is tempting, soon it is addicting, so when a lull in conversation occurs, or a free moment is upon us, we just reach for the phone. Unfortunately few of us have any real control over our device addictions, by design. Whole fields of study (persuasive technology, behavioral design) have been created to exploit the understandings of psychology in order to advance marketing and app designs. The game is rigged, against us, the user.
As a result,
By removing devices from the scene, camp gives the brain back its breathing space, its downtime free of digital stimulants. It returns the community to a more natural rhythm in which having a few free minutes doesn’t feel awkward but rather relaxing and loaded with possibility.
These “spaces” motivates teens to strike up a conversation, or initiate a game. It prioritizes unstructured pursuits they need like simply daydreaming, cloud-watching, or even stone skipping.
And it is here in these bubbles, these small spaces without distraction, that creativity flourishes. The brain is free to then find the various ends of the threads that, if tied together, can be an original idea.
This process needs to be isolated from insistent stimuli that can tear it apart, like a Frisbee through a spider web, a camp metaphor if ever there were one.
If you need confirmation, ask if you are one of those people whose “best ideas happen in the shower”? Surely this is a space where you are free to just let go, with no pressure, no distractions, and no media. This is a key element to the creative process itself, and the ability to tolerate boredom is actually a skill where being able to sit with oneself, and be okay with it, is cool. So many kids today aren’t used to this, because there’s always the smartphone or other digital distraction.
But what happens when you are in a place where could create your own entertainment, or, allow yourself to be happy just daydreaming? Creativity flourishes. Devices would invade this space, pop our bubbles and rob us of these moments.
One last and perhaps most troubling invasion to our spaces is the underappreciated impact that smartphones to feeling exposed and at risk. For many adolescents, social media and devices have fostered a sense in our young people a nagging sense that the whole world is watching them, and waiting for them to do something awkward.
Ego-centrism is a developmentally appropriate teen trait, but it does not lend itself to trying new things, and learning new skills. There is a tendency towards fear of failure, and an unrealistic pursuit of perfection, which often becomes an excuse for not attempting something challenging.
This is widely recognized in the “real world” and is seen as a consequence of both the intensely competitive world teenagers inhabit and a pervasive concern that their failures are going to be recorded and shared for all the world to see as humorous at best.
While camp can create a culture that is cooperative instead of competitive, we can’t guarantee that a camper won’t goof up and do something awkward. But by being device free, we can promise these key outcomes:
By removing devices and the potential for “shaming” in the Bubble, campers feel more welcome to just simply try something new and the possibility to fail, and in doing so expand their horizons and have fun at the same time.
Keeping camp smartphone-free is just one way of maintaining the special nature of the time and place that is a summer at camp.
Besides being device free, The Bubble that camp provides has many additional elements including:
These additional elements are explored in depth elsewhere on our website and blog.
By definition, the mere act of a young person attending a camp without a bunch of old friends is a huge risk. Add to that the wide variety of different activities and opportunities to safely step outside their comfort zones and test limits while learning how to continue operating even under stress or anxiety. At camp challenges and risks abound… managed risk.
Camp is removed from the dual pressures of parents/school and social media, allowing teens the opportunity to try something that they may well fail at, free of the fear of long term academic or social consequences. At camp, a teen’s obsession with perfection can be safely challenged by its relaxed, ‘come as you are’ atmosphere.
Of all the stereotypes associated with teenagers, one that is most favored by authors, musicians, and TV producers is the allure of risky behaviors, the more negative and potentially damaging, the better. This depiction in pop culture makes a lot of sense – it is a shared experience by the viewing public and can make for an exciting story and be very entertaining.
Plus everyone was a teenager once, and it is “fun” for adults to observe these behaviors from a distance, and of course miss the bigger picture entirely.
As it turns out, risk taking is an essential development pathway for children and adolescents. It is through risk taking that we (adults included) test the limits of our capabilities, and then learn to how expand and extend them. Think about it… a young child swinging across the monkey bars for the first time, or the high school student raising their hand to speak in front of a new class. There is simply no substitute to the experience that is gained when you do something you’ve never done before, even if you fail at first.
Whether it is physical or cognitive abilities, the limits change as we develop and grow, along with need for constant assessment - because without this ongoing assessment, a child or adolescent literally cannot achieve their potential. They need it.
There is another, intriguing theory of the importance of risk (in the context of play) in the healthy development of kids and adolescents.
Peter Grey has researched extensively on the links between risky play in childhood and the development of anxiety disorders. Simply put, the concept goes like this: When kids engage in risky play a number of things happen, they:
Here’s an example of how it plays out…A child climbing a tree too high feels the stress response kick in. At the same time they also understand that they can’t freeze up, and they need to continue climbing to get to back to safety even though they feel scared. So too for taking social risks later in life, or professional risks. The path to achieving our goals is not always comfortable. Being able to recognize that discomfort, acknowledge and understand it, AND THEN MOVE FORWARD is a fundamentally important skill.
This earned knowledge through experience – I can feel scared AND I can keep moving forward – is an essential life tool we need to have when faced with anxiety or stress. The individual who can recognize that their feelings associated with fear or stress do not require they stop everything, has learned to control those feelings. Grey makes a convincing argument that the loss of free play is directly linked to the rise in anxiety related disorders, attention disorders, and more because free play is where children get this learning experience.
When kids and teenagers have the chance to push their limits in the taking of managed risks, they learn to become better risk assessors, and come to understand the risk/reward ratio that they will need as they move through the high school years, into college and beyond, where the risks become greater and the management of those risks becomes internalized.
Time and time again we see that the teenagers who have learned to fully understand and trust their own capabilities, will be best suited to gain the most reward from taking appropriate risks that they have learned to manage properly. To get there, they need to practice first, and gain experience in acceptable versus unacceptable risk taking.
As the types of risks teenagers have access to have changed, so have the consequences. Teenagers today are told that the worst of consequences are those that effect grades, college applications, and job offers. This is indeed true… to a degree, and the intentions behind it are sound. Again and again today’s teenagers are told…
Unfortunately, the underlying message that is received many children and teens is not quite what the well-intended adults had in mind. It is not a huge stretch to go from, “don’t do anything stupid that will impact your grades” to “don’t do anything you’re not already good at that will impact your grades”.
There may not be a name for this phenomenon yet, but for now we can call it perfectionism.
At camp we see it fairly frequently in campers and younger staff, who are all incredibly bright, high achievers from great families. Yet, they are incredibly reluctant to try new things that they are not certain they will excel. The perceived risks are simply too great for them to overcome.
There are reasons why the time spent at camp becomes so valuable.
Understanding why teenagers fear getting bad grades is not hard. They know how important academic grades are to their future success, because everyone tells them so. The records we keep at camp are a bit more forgiving, and often far more valuable.
Understanding the effect that parents’ expectations have on teenagers is a bit more subtle. We can’t begin to count conversations over the years that essentially go like this:
Parent: “What is my son/daughter taking for activities this week?”
Camp Director: “Mountain biking, songwriting, ropes, skiing, theater.”
Parent: “Oh, you’ve got the wrong kid – my son/daughter doesn’t like getting sweaty or singing.”
Camp Director: “Um….,well, yeah, I have the activity card here in front of me and that’s what he/she has signed up for this week. ”
Parent: “…(the sound of silence)…”
An old adage in the camping community is that "camp gives children a space apart from their parents to learn to be with their peers". It is truest for adolescents.
At camp, campers are free to “write” their own stories, often for the first time. Part of that might be trying activities that they’ve been interested in, but a little fearful of trying in case they aren’t any good, and either disappointing their parents, or “wasting” their parents time/money.
Peter Grey, a prominent Boston child and researcher evolutionary psychologist and researcher, argues that the loss of risky, child directed play, is directly linked to the rise in anxiety disorders among children and adults. The mechanism, as Grey argues, is direct and simple: “Less time spent inducing a degree of fear during play robs kids of the practice of continuing operating with those feelings.”
By the way, this effect is similar for friends from home too. Most of our campers come to camp not knowing anyone else in their first summer, and this is part of the allure.
A more modern, and more pernicious problem is the impact of social media on the willingness of teenagers to risk embarrassment in front of their peers. Most teenagers feel like the world is watching them anyway, and many would rather just sit to the side than risk doing something and appearing foolish. This feeling is amplified when exposure via social media means that the whole world could be watching.
This is often manifest by comments made online that often are far crueler than in real life, and can follow a kid anywhere, anytime. For many, they feel it is simply better to not risk doing something that could be recorded.
Again, this is one of those fears that starts from a sensible place – teenagers are rightly admonished not to put things online that might come back to haunt them – and swiftly moves to become less useful and more problematic. So much of the teenage act of being “cool” is a defense mechanism – a set of rules that if followed, will prevent embarrassing things from happening and being used against them.
By the simple act of making camp device-free, much of this apprehension is removed, often shockingly so. Suddenly the risk of doing something peers might perceive as goofy or silly becomes much less so, especially when the friends you have at camp are new friends, who are in the same situation as you.
Then, when the camp culture encourages doing goofy, silly things, and actively discourages acting “cool” (for the most part, this cultural norm is established by staff role modeling fun, random, goofiness), campers start relaxing and engaging, and being up in front of the group starts feeling less like a risk, and more like an opportunity.
Turning the focus away from negative motivations (fear of failure, fear of embarrassment) to the positive, brings us to maybe the most powerful lesson camp has to offer. When teenagers come to camp as they are - without pretense - they get to be their authentic selves. In this instance, asking campers to be authentic, is an act of faith, a real risk.
Our promise to our teenagers is to offer them a space that is safe and welcoming where they can and will learn to trust in themselves and take this risk, right off the bat.
This is not an accident and a requires a consistent effort by the staff to make sure this safe zone is maintained for all our campers. When campers relax and just be themselves, they are happy, confident, friendly, polite, and calm. The work required is demanding, but the reward is immense. Teenagers who know who they are, and accept and embrace that sense of self.
This acceptance sometimes feels unfamiliar to many campers, but once they figure it out, they embrace it fully and the benefits flow. Campers wind up understanding themselves better and have friends who understand them too. Campers tell us all the time that after camp, though the real world may not have changed, the school environment they return to may not have changed… but they have. And that makes all the difference. Knowing a bit more about who they are, and embracing that person, changes the equation in their favor.
Teenagers need to take risks. It’s natural and necessary to their development. When campers leave, they have the experience of successfully managing risk, understanding risks, and knowing the consequences and outcomes of those risks and the choices they make, can all be managed.
The importance of the natural world on human well-being has been seriously undermined. Camp gives kids and an opportunity to gain first-hand experience of the benefits of being in green places and around bodies of water; helps them feel comfortable and welcome in nature; and ideally creates or strengthens a bond with the outdoors that inspires teenagers to protect natural spaces.
“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”. – E.O. Wilson
Summer Camp… it is an evocative term even those who have never had the good fortune to attend one isn’t it?
When most people think of summer camp, they picture a lake, trees with cabins tucked in beneath them, rising hills, camp fires under a million stars…(and maybe some bugs and a critter or two). The setting of summer camp has appealed to generations, and still dominates popular culture depictions.
This “sense” of what camp is, is not an accident.
Creating a setting close to nature was THE driving factor behind the founding of the very first summer camps generations ago. Pretty much since the development of reliable, safe, long distance transportation, city dwellers have been sending their children into nature for the summer. The reasons why have not really changed, though they are much better understood today than they were in 1920, and they are more relevant today than they were 100+ years ago.
To begin to understand the critical importance of kids spending time in nature, we must first appreciate how much time children and teens used to spend in nature, and how little they do now.
It should be noted that this is not just about young people either. Adults also suffer from chronically low doses of nature also. Worldwide, more than half the population now live in cities. In North America, it is closer to 80%.
Compare this to the 1940’s and 50’s, when only half of Americans lived in cities.
Another aspect is unstructured activities which are essential to human development, and the concept of “radius of play”. Radius of play reflects the average child was free to play, unsupervised, in an area bounded by a radius of a certain distance.
As recently as 1980, the average child’s “radius of play” was approximately one (1) mile. This might be the distance between a child’s home and the school, a neighborhood park, or a friend’s house.
Today, that radius is measured in feet, and not a lot of them, perhaps 200 feet.
This contraction is also reflected in the dramatic decline of time spent outdoors. Think about this. Today’s kids spend, on average, one third or less of the time outdoors than their own mothers did. This holds true for boys and girls, rural and urban.
The reasons why both the radius of play and time spent outdoors have shrunk are numerous, but the biggest are the loss of open spaces to development, the loss of neighborhood schools that allow kids to walk or bike, parental fears and anxieties and more.
This shift from rural landscapes and the associated open spaces, access to woods and water, familiarity with animals, and ability to find quiet and solitude has also seen a dramatic rise in stress and anxiety disorders, as well as a stunning rise in childhood allergies and attention disorder diagnoses.
A leader in the kids in nature movement, Richard Louv, coined the term NDD (Nature Deficit Disorder) to describe the phenomenon of kids spending less time in the woods and water, and suggested that this lack was linked to the rise in ADD diagnoses that affects too many teens today
The correlation was evident that chart time spent outdoors, particularly in more wild spaces -- investigating rock pools, or playing “Cops & Robbers” in the woods – versus other activities.
This is something camp directors have known for years.
Again and again, campers who come from a school setting where they struggle to keep up with peers while being asked to sit for 6+ hours per day, or that find themselves on the wrong side of overworked teachers, suddenly find themselves flourishing when they are in a natural camp environment
As Florence Williams so accurately puts it, “how can you bounce off the walls when there are no walls?”
These kids experience an educational environment that allows them to choose to play to their strengths, and to their intelligence; a less restrictive environment.
And now it appears that there is a scientific observable, causal explanation for why the link between declining outdoor time and ADD is so strong.
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) holds that directed attention is a finite resource that we draw down when we attend to a cognitive task. As we use it up, we tend towards irritability, distraction, and inefficiency. Whereas time in nature, with its patterns, sounds, and textures that effortlessly hold our attention, and actually recharges and even focused our cognitive minds.
Of particular fascination are the very things we instinctively reach for when looking to relax – clouds moving across the sky, the sound of wind in the trees, water moving along a stream or up a beach.
These natural land and sound-scapes are naturally restorative to both the attention systems and stress coping mechanisms, because our brains are wired to need them (related to the notion called biophilia). (Consider the irony that many of the most popular screen savers/background images for earlier versions of the Windows OS were indeed images of these very scenes - green rolling hills, fall leaves floating on water, ripples in sand, clouds in a blue sky. Did the developers know, or did they just intuit that users needed this imagery?).
And it’s not just anxiety and attention disorders that have increased as kids time outdoors has declined.
Witness the deeply troubling rise in rates of childhood obesity, asthma, allergies, and even rickets (a disease caused by lack of calcium in the diet, or a lack of vitamin D, manufactured by the body when it’s exposed to sunlight).
While the causes of these maladies are complex and varied, there is a broad consensus that a prime non-medical intervention, one whose side effects are well known and actively sought after, is time outdoors.
For example, Obesity. Brought on largely by a combination of diet and lifestyle, obesity rates are found to be lower in kids who spend more time outdoors. Why? When kids are in green spaces, they run around. They run around a lot!
The More Nature the Better
What’s even more intriguing is the notion that time in nature, has a dose effect - a little bit is good, but more is better.
Williams, in her book, “The Nature Fix”, describes a range of doses and the impacts that they have, from 5-minute breaks looking out a window at trees, to a short walk in the woods or by a river, to a day hike, to a week-long wilderness trip.
All these “doses” of nature are good, but the longer the dose, the greater the benefit.
We also need to consider that not only is time in nature beneficial, but so is time away from screens and the stresses of the world. Screen time, whether for work, school, or “leisure” is widely recognized as a stressor of multiple cognitive and physical systems, and newer research is showing potentially serious developmental concerns for kids who have excessive access to screens – video games and internet use in particular. (“Glow Kids”, by Nicholas Kardaras, goes into this topic in considerable depth).
So when teens are in nature, not only are they accruing the benefits of being outside, but they are also avoiding the damaging effects of the ubiquitous screens that have come to define modern life. This net effect is considerable, and as evident to anyone who spends a day hiking, or week camping, very real.
One last point on the kid/nature relationship. The relationship many modern kids have with the natural world is somewhat strained. Too many kids are totally unfamiliar with wild spaces, with nature’s chaotic charms. They are scared of critters and bugs, so much so that a loon’s nighttime calls seem terrifying, or a caterpillar revolting.
This is not just a problem for the individual, who may never fully experience the joys of being outdoors, but this is a problem for all of us.
If we raise a generation of young people who are disconnected from the natural world, who can’t get past unreasonable doubts or fears to a place where they can relax and appreciate it, we will have raised a generation of kids who don’t love nature, and you won’t protect what you don’t love.
Natural spaces and endangered species are going to need people to fight for them and continue to fight for them, people who realize that there is no nature and us. It's all the same. We are nature, nature is us. If we don’t instill a love of nature now, today’s kids may not fight as hard as they will need to when they are the adults in charge.
So how does camp fits into this picture?
Camp… Back to Where We Once Belonged
Simply put, camp is close to nature. Maine Teen Camp it itself surrounded on three (3) sides by bodies of water, shaded by towering trees and filled with growing, flowering plants, gardens, and open spaces, is as much an outdoor living space as an indoor one.
While we take an organic approach to pest control – tick traps, a small flock of chickens, keeping grasses and weeds trimmed and mowed – we carefully manage our relationship with our resident critters. A few snakes around camp keep chipmunks and squirrels in check, as do the resident barred owls. The lake water is monitored for cleanliness and algal growths, not just because we want campers to be swimming in the cleanest waters in New England, but because the lake is home to a family of loons, countless turtles, and many species of fish that Bald Eagles come to feed on.
This way campers get to experience many of the “therapeutic” benefits of being amongst nature just by going about their daily schedule: guitar lessons happen outdoors, fitness classes take place on a beach, our tennis courts have a view to the western sky over forested hills and pristine lakes.
And because our camp is device free by intent, all campers are free from the distractions that might otherwise prevent them from appreciating, even subconsciously, the natural wonders around them. After all, it's really hard to look up and see the sunset or the stars, when your staring down at a 5" screen all the time.
Campers are also incredibly active at camp. It’s not uncommon to hear camper grumblings of being treated for muscle soreness at the health center in the first week of camp. This indicates that they are simply adjusting to a new level of activity than they typically have at home.
And again, there is the dose effect. Kids and teens are often able to get outdoors and into nature during the summer. However, in all too many instances, they are rarely exposed to nature for many hours per day, for weeks at a time. Camp is a force multiplier in this regard by intent.
We’ve always known camp is good for kids, but this dosage effect of time spent in nature is proof that actually, as the American Camp Association touts in their motto “camp does kids a world of good”.
A final note, a quote directly from Williams, who summed up what she knows about the benefits of nature, but who could well have been talking about Maine Teen Camp – “Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe."
The roof over the whole structure of camp is the institutional commitment to Fun!, and that having fun and engaging in favorite activities is an essential part of a healthy life. We believe that forgetting how to have fun leads to a profound unhappiness that can manifest itself in a host of unhealthy behaviors and with the end product being a bunch of unhappy adults later in life who struggle with adversity and have trouble with the day to day challenges in front of them.
At camp, we talk about fun, and happiness as a natural result of fun, a lot. We talk about it in many different ways from plain silliness, playfulness or joy, or just being at camp. No matter how we talk about it though, we are talking about a state in which we find enjoyment from activity and interaction.
Here is where the context of camp is important, because when we talk about fun, or it’s physical manifestation play, we most frequently talk about it in a social/group setting.
Psychologists have known for several decades that lack of play as a child can lead to serious psychological disorders, inability to adapt to stress, poor relational skills and lower creativity as an adult. More recently, psychologists have determined that the higher function skills (aka executive skills) are acquired during play – particularly self-control (also known as impulse control, delay of gratification), empathy, and negotiation skills.
As we highlighted earlier, Boston Psychologist Peter Grey’s work linking play, and the taking of risks during play, to improved abilities to cope with anxiety and stress. For the most part our high schools are producing large numbers of graduates who are well equipped for the academic rigors of college. At the same time many of these young women and men are not well equipped with are the coping skills needed to manage stress, social interactions, work load, and independence. In an era when many schools are eliminating recess as early as 4th grade, we are seeing a clear cause and effect this regard.
Fun as a pathway to…
Today we know that stress and anxiety inhibit learning, the links are profound and well established. Striving for fun then, is both an indicator, as well as an end in itself. What this means is that learning and anxiety are mutually exclusive: stress inhibits the higher function areas of the brain that go to work when new information is sorted and stored, and conversely, when an individual is having fun, they are motivated to engage with the subject matter at hand, their brain is primed with the neurotransmitters linked to memory and attention.
We remember and lean on our own experiences as learners and know that knowledge gained and skills learned in a fun, engaging environment stay with us. So, when trying new activities at camp, the lessons learned are more likely to stick. Camp is a great place to pick up guitar, or work on your tennis.
Playing, and having fun, is the clay from which many of our closest friendships are molded. When we take the time to engage with others and interact in a way that is connected enough to the present situation and that the mood of those around us is such that we end up having fun, we are sending the message to these people that they matter, and vice versa.
Our memory of those people becomes infused with positive emotion, so we seek them out to replicate that good feeling, the memories formed are stronger (as a result of the same neurotransmitters previously mentioned) and will last longer as a result.
Over time, the knowledge that there is mutual appreciation, a good association, and a set of positive shared experiences with someone equates to a friendship. It is the element of fun that helps cement the friendship for the long term reflected by a saying many of our former campers and staff have:“ No new friends, just camp friends”. This indicates the depth of friendships formed at camp, and the difficulty replicating those friendships outside of camp.
Perhaps most importantly for teens, fun and play are essentially stress coping mechanisms. An adolescent who has forgotten how to have fun, or has not learned new ways of playing and relaxing that are healthy and appropriate, are far more prone to engage in risky or self-harmful behaviors as the stress in their lives increases each year.
All teens can and do benefit from a summer at camp, either to “update their skills” or engage in some “remedial play”. (We can think of plenty of adults who could benefit from this also).
Parents ask us all the time…Why should fun that happens at camp matter more than say, a day at Six Flags, or playing video games for 6 hours? These things are fun too, aren’t they?
Answer: Yes they are fun!!! We love Six Flags and we enjoy playing video games.
However camp, especially a camp that tunes in to the development and growth of its campers, comes into its own because it provides a fun experience within a community of meaning that most other options simply don’t offer.
In other words, camp is not just a place to visit for a day; but a home for the summer, for many summers, and as such it takes on a significance and power for individual growth and transformation that a theme park or game simply can’t and doesn’t provide.
Another question: What about sports camps? Or STEM or other “learning” camps? Don’t these offer great experiences for teens too?
Answer: No doubt these more specialty-oriented “camps” have their place. May of our campers actually take a session with us, then do a session at one of these camps to get up to speed in advance of the coming academic year and sports season.
Taking all the other benefits aside, these activity-based camps are connected back to the stress filled, competitive and goal-oriented activities they are in the rest of the year, where fun, if it exists in these environments, is singular and highly structured at best. Making the lacrosse or volleyball team, or the upcoming academic year, or an application for college admissions is THE POINT of these programs. It is naive to think the associated mental stress and anxiety that the average teen experiences when thinking about or engaging in these high stakes activities is not going to be present doing the same things during the summer. To put it more succinctly - the cure can not be more of the same thing causing the illness.
Final Fun Thoughts…
The community at camp provides the individual camper with a set of peers, role models, values and support. It fosters the growth of the individual while prioritizing the good of the group. This meaning, especially for adolescents and young adults, is profoundly important.
To us, if there is a choice between – something fun, or something fun that helps a teen find meaning? There is no comparison.
At its core, learning or re-learning how to have fun is about leading a good life. Dealing with stress, in an efficient, internalized, and replicable manner, is an essential life skill. It has proven time and again that stress can interfere with both productivity and health. It so happens that having friends is a wonderful way of dealing with stress, but so is having fun (with or without friends).
The simple knowledge that fun lies in the future can be a strong defense against stress and physical play allows for immediate and lasting stress reduction.
Understanding that there is an alternative to stress, that there is MORE to life than the stress of school or work can often be an antidote to stress.
The danger lies in forgetting how to play, how to have fun, how to do something enjoyable for its own sake.
An adult who has forgotten (or never learned!) how to have fun is much more prone to stress and the many ailments it is associated with. In this context, the ability to relax associated with play may be in fact be a life saver.
There is an explicit promise of fun in a natural, unplugged, summer camp experience, not so with summer school, or college prep programs, or summer internships. The question then becomes, If what ails many modern teenagers is burnout from over-competitive schooling, why would we want them to do more of it in the summer?
Since most of us as parents think of school as a teenager’s occupation, isn’t it a bit more than a little crazy to ask them to do that same occupation during their vacation? Adults wouldn’t do it, why should kids?
And if kids and teens are not given the time and space to have fun in their summers before their work lives begin, when will they learn how to truly have fun? Will they learn what makes them happy?
The habits formed in our youth guide our adult lives. Camp is about forming joyful, healthy, playful habits, which inevitably create joyful, healthy, happy adults….
Adolescents and teenagers are hungry for meaning, and as part of their natural development, they need to figure this out for themselves. And just like “leading horses to water,” as parents, caregivers and educators, we can’t drink for them, they have to do it themselves.
It has been recognized since the middle of the 20th century onwards, that for an individual to have a happy, productive life, they must find purpose in their life. This is maybe even more important for adolescents, as they seek to find meaning in their own lives. By linking individuals to community, and showing them a path towards developing the capacity for moral reasoning and living a life reflective of the values they hold, camp can help teenagers build meaning for themselves.
We can’t give meaning to our young folks, however we do have some tools at our disposal to allow them to find, and more importantly, create, meaning for themselves including:
The concept that a life should have meaning is of course, an ancient one. Fables, myths and many children’s stories follow a similar story line whereby the protagonist finds meaning in knowledge gained through a trial of some sort that they have to overcome or the meeting of a mentor/guide/friend who clues them into other perspectives on life.
It was not until the middle of the 20th Century, after the experiences of the horrors of World War 2 and the Holocaust, that the importance of meaning moved into the academic world. Author and Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl outlined the basis for his 3rd school of psychotherapy, “Logotherapy”, in his essential memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning”.
Frankl’s breakthrough was understanding that we are motivated not just by our primitive drives, the subconscious, and competing of the Id and Ego, but also by our goals and our dreams. Frankl was the first to methodically explore the link between happiness to the achievement of one’s own internal goals, and found that happiness was not a goal in and of itself, “…happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be ‘happy’.”
He identified that the essence of our humanity lay in committing ourselves to a cause, to a person or persons other than the self, and that meaning could be found in myriad settings, and that suffering was not a pre-requisite to finding meaning.
Frankl also noticed, in the post war period of prosperity in America, a loss of meaning amid growing physical comfort. This is the same loss of meaning that has been noted by numerous psychologists and sociologists since, as the connections to community, to nature and the land, and between work and prosperity faded.
So, for over 50 years, the importance of meaning – meaningful work, community connections, familial connections, personal interests – has been understood to be a vital ingredient in the recipe for a happy life.
Adults are free and able to pursue happiness, to greater and lesser degrees and make choices accordingly: career choices, family choices, and the community organizations they participate in – to create the foundation for meaning in their lives.
For adolescents though, the challenge is significantly harder. They generally have little choice over their “work” obligations. They have to go to school and study certain subjects, regardless of interest or ability. They are limited in terms of whom they can socialize with, or what organizations they can join based on proximity or parental control and ability to take them places… that is until they get their driver’s license.
And, famously, the teenage years are a time of testing independence from parents, a necessary but painful developmental stage that is part of forming an individual identity.
For all these reasons, teens deeply need to have a place of meaning, a time and a space where they feel that they matter.
Camp is very deliberately, such a space. There are many good reasons why camps are situated in beautiful natural spaces, close to woods and water. An urban or even college campus would not provide the same sense of being a such place which encourages reflective thinking and meaning.
Here are some of the elements we put together each summer to foster a sense of meaning in our campers:
Maine Teen Camp itself is home to approx. 300 individuals (campers and staff) each season. This size, not too small, not too large, allows each camper freedom of association with like-minded friends, while still allowing each member of the community to be known and familiar.
Staff are hired based on not just an ability to teach a particular class, but also based on a diversity of backgrounds, of being ambitious and accomplished, and because they also care deeply about the camp community.
When inclusion and diversity are core values of a place – everyone feels safe and welcome, everyone is free to be themselves. And when teenagers are themselves, meaning is more easily recognized by simply being… no pressure!
Activities are elective by design. Why? Because having choices and making decisions are key elements in the process of finding meaning.
Despite the ability to understand and apply all these pieces to create this experience we call “Camp,” and despite the intention behind all the decisions we make here at Maine Teen Camp about how to best create an environment specifically for teens, there is still that “magic something,” that sense of “wow” that happens every summer.
How can it be that so many campers form friendships to last a lifetime in the course of few short weeks? How do bonds forged with and within the community last many years and as we have found even decades? On the surface this doesn’t seem to make sense or be possible?
That “wow factor” is something the campers find themselves, consistently. We can’t and don’t do it for them, nor should we. For the meaning of a place is something each person decides for themselves.
We consciously do eliminate the barriers to meaningful experiences and create conditions in which meaning can be found.
And every summer, we end up saying, “Wow….”