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The importance of outdoor education

Camps can be key for kids and young adults developmentally because they help facilitate social-emotional learning, perspective-taking and healthy family separation. 

This piece originally appeared on the Good Notes blog.  

As an engineering undergraduate, I worked as a science diver, assisting with experiments and servicing monitoring equipment in the Great Lakes. After graduation, I supervised dives for field schools. We took students out to study marine geology, archeology and biology. They learned to map shipwrecks off Bermuda, take core samples off the Atlantic coast and measure coral growth in the Florida Keys. When asked what they had learned at the end of these courses, the students rarely talked about science. Instead, they discussed what they had learned about themselves.

This experience sparked my curiosity about personal growth through outdoor education. After completing a Ph.D. at Indiana University, I joined the University of Utah in 2001. Since then, my research has focused on youth in recreation settings, including summer programs and camps. Throughout the course of my research, I’ve learned that camps can be key for kids and young adults developmentally because they help facilitate social-emotional learning, perspective-taking and healthy family separation.

Changing perspective for kids and parents

When kids go to camp for a week or two—or even all summer—several things happen. One is that they step away from normal life and support structures. There’s a lot of power in that separation. It often provides a perspective that lets them see the world in a different way. For some kids, they learn they can survive without their parents. And parents learn that while their kids might not brush their teeth every night—and come back a little dirtier—they’re still alive and happy.

Campers also learn about small-group dynamics. They see the effects of their behavior on other people in the group. Kids can’t avoid each other like they might at school. If there’s conflict, it must be confronted. If someone is in a bad mood, they see how it puts others in a bad mood. Or, if someone is in a good mood, they see how it can energize the group.

Kids at specialty camps—for a medical condition or for LGBTQ+ identifying youth—enter a space where they can experience belonging, normalcy and camaraderie. The camp environment reduces the emphasis on what might make kids feel different. It provides a sense of solidarity. Campers get to experiment with who they are in other dimensions of their lives.

Parents use camps for different reasons

Childcare: Summer Activities

Early on, parents see camps as a safe, developmentally appropriate childcare option. But as kids get older, day camps gravitate toward self-development and skill-building. They become interest-driven. As a recreation person, I’m very aligned with the idea of including programming that kids want to do because it is fun.

Perhaps one of the best things camps do is expose kids to a lot of different positive things like sports, creative arts, science, engineering, writing and the natural environment. Parents may know little about the things that interest their children. Camps can help identify ways to support their curiosity through these different pathways while realizing we will have to trust others to show them the way. This is where youth programs are critical.

Not all camps are created equal

More established programs generally have greater safety and supervision. Smaller programs may still be high quality, but very few checks and balances exist in the industry. Accreditation is voluntary and can vary by program. If unsure, parents can talk to the camp directors or other camp parents.

There’s a camp for almost everything, from general to highly specialized. Parents often find out about them through their networks or communities tied to their children.

Camp cost can be a major factor for many families. Prices run from more than $2,000 a week to sliding-scale camps that might cost $30 a week. It’s hard to judge quality by price because you don’t know what’s driving the price. For example, programs offered by public parks and recreation departments get government support. Nonprofits compete for grants, as these programs provide childcare and youth education in local communities. If a camp is expensive, look at the experiences they’re delivering.

When possible, it’s best to find and book camps early. Though not comprehensive, the American Camp Association (ACA) website has a Find-A-Camp feature where parents can search geographically and by interest.

Encourage new experiences

Childcare: Summer Activities

All of that said, a summer camp may not be for everyone. When asked what kids should be doing during the summer, my short answer is to encourage experiences. It’s worthwhile for kids to try new things or do activities that push them. It might be getting out of the house for a job or meeting friends for an activity.

When planning summer vacations, do things that make it harder for kids to be on their devices, like river rafting or camping. It creates a sense of a break, includes some learning, and fosters a sense of community.

Last summer, one of my kids built a skateboard ramp. They watched all the videos on YouTube and made a list of supplies. I took them to buy what they needed. The whole process took almost a week, and they drove it. Though they used technology, they weren’t just aimlessly scrolling TikTok.

Parents are the stewards of their children’s summer. In many ways, summer is a gift because it provides this volitional control. Unfortunately, some parents don’t have the resources or the capacity, and then it becomes more of a burden. As a society, we need to be aware of that and advocate for a good youth program policy statewide or nationwide.

Dependent care resources

Supporting the dependent care needs of our employees remains an urgent priority and critically important to the core missions of our institution. Family and childcare resources can be found on Pulse and through the Center for Childcare and Family Resources. Our campus-wide partnership continues to explore new and enhanced dependent care resources for all university employees.