This blog post was written by year-round camp office staff member, Jenny Swerdlow, who spent nine summers at Timber Tops. Families new to the overnight camp world may find this very comforting!
A Lost World of Family Time
While pursuing a Master’s degree in Developmental Psychology, I often found myself thinking about meaningful moments in my development. What factors in my upbringing led to me to become the woman I am today? More often than not, my mind jumped to my nine summers at Camp Timber Tops. What is it about overnight camp that makes it so impactful for a developing child? I challenge you to consider the perspective of psychologist and author of Homesick and Happy, Michael Thompson.
Thompson compares camp to an earlier era – in his words, “a lost world.” This is a world where electronics don’t exist, every meal is eaten as a family and every child has an older sibling to admire and a younger sibling for whom to be a role model. Campers are constantly surrounded by multiple generations, partake in numerous daily rituals and become accustomed to slowing down during down time and without the temptation of the internet.
A world without electronics?
Who would have thought! Overnight camps are one of the last places that are electronic free – and for a good reason. At camp, we notice old-fashioned human behaviors like eye contact, spontaneous running and jumping, interactions with nature and simple wandering. Children are forced to live in the moment and get lost in their thoughts and imaginations. Though it’s natural to have reservations about being unplugged after having such a dependence on technology at home, children tend to welcome to opportunity once they get to camp. They even report a relief from the constant pressure of staying up-to-date on their social media feeds at home! At camp, they are aware of what is going on in their friends’ lives because they are seeing them multiple times a day. Text messages become face-to-face conversations and talk about YouTube videos becomes talk about the delicious meal Cherokee made on their camping trip, or the canoe that a group of campers got to build and take out on the lake.
We’re all guilty of it. The baseball game is on in the background, the son is texting his friends under the table, the daughter is posting photos of her dinner on Instagram and the parents are taking phone calls. It all seems too familiar. At camp, time is taken to dine and savor all of the home cooked meals and, most importantly, everyone is engaging in face-to-face interaction. As Thompson pointed out, the TV-free traditional camp meals evoke an era that predates even most parents and grandparents today. Bunkmates are enthusiastically setting and cleaning up the tables. Every meal at camp has the extended family, communal experience of Thanksgiving dinner or a Seder. Campers and counselors master each other’s favorite and least favorite foods, as well as one another’s food allergies. Campers learn to share, they try new foods and they clean up after themselves.
A unique thing about camp is the sense of family that comes from the relationships between older and younger campers. Where else do nine-year-olds, sixteen-year-olds and twenty-one-year-olds have so much interaction? In schools, age groups are separated. The potential role models, teachers and coaches, cannot connect with children the same way a twenty-year-old can nor do they live with their students. As a camper, I wanted to be just like my counselor, Emily. In her 3 years as my counselor, she became a sister figure to me and I admired her as such. I still keep in touch with her today. Additionally, I still remember the names of all of the older girls who took me under their wings my first few years at camp, as this made such an impact on my overall experience. I made sure to do the same for younger campers each and every summer. Our camp siblings are always there for us. They put their arms around us when we are homesick and they encourage us try something outside our comfort levels, cheering us on as we successfully do so.
Surrounded by four generations
At camp, the mixture of age groups makes it feel like we’re surrounded by four different generations. First, there are the little kids and the big kids (Tents and counselors). Next, the middle-aged folks (the directors, the nurses) and fourth, the grandparental generation, which is singing the same songs, eating the same food and doing the same cheers as the little kids. From generation to generation, everyone holds on to the rope that is the pride of Lake Owego.
Is this not the best part of camp?! From the moment we arrive at camp, there are ways of doing things that we have all become accustomed to – how to line up before breakfast, what safety measures need to be taken before getting in a canoe or using the adventure course, how to clean the bunk – but what is most meaningful to campers is the other layer of rules and traditions at camp. This includes Polar Bears, Air Raid, the Frontier Week rope burn, Friday night campfires, the 100-miler canoe trip, the Rat Ceremony and countless other rituals. In a very short time, these rituals assume a huge importance in the campers’ lives and they so rarely forget them. Children crave ritual and camp fills that unspoken need. They open the channels of feeling in children. Rituals like campfires encourage a sense of belonging that is rarely experienced as strongly in a family tradition that is perhaps becoming stale or that is complicated by expectations, worry and disappointment too complex for a child to unravel.
At home, this usually means time spent watching TV or surfing the web. At camp, time slows down to a crawl and children appear to be moving in slow motion. Camp offers a profound change of pace that isn’t found at school. After breakfast, this time is used to clean the bunk in preparation for inspection. During rest hour, this time may be used to play knock hockey, listen to music or write letters. At camp, children have the unique opportunity to use their down time to truly take a deep breath and get to know themselves.
To further explore how time away from parents can help a child grow, I highly recommend Michael Thompson’s book, Homesick and Happy.