- Merck Forest & Farmland Center
It's a tough time to be a kid. In December, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a warning about the mental health crisis facing youth across the country. "Even before the pandemic," he said, "an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade.
"The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating," he continued. "The future well-being of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation."
Parents didn't need an official reminder — we're seeing this up close with our kids. I've lost count of the number of times friends and relatives have told me that their kids are feeling anxious or depressed; they won't get up to go to school; they feel cut off from friends and activities; they're feeling discouraged and mourning missed opportunities.
A colleague of mine reflected on this recently and pointed out that probably the best thing parents can do for their kids this winter is to sign them up for summer camp. She had life-changing experiences as a kid at a camp in the Adirondacks in the '60s and '70s. A city girl, she spent weeks in the woods, climbed mountains and developed a sense of self-reliance that has carried her through tough times as an adult. She made new friends, too, many with whom she's still in touch today.
I think she's probably right. I didn't go to overnight camp every summer growing up, but my own kids, now teenagers, started attending sleepaway camps when they were 7 or 8. When both of their camps canceled the 2020 season, they were crushed. It was the pandemic loss they felt the most.
Fortunately, their camps held sessions last summer and are gearing up for this year. Now that kids 5 and up can get vaccinated against COVID-19, camp directors on the whole seem to be looking forward to a mostly normal summer, according to Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association. His organization accredits summer programs and provides camp staff and parents with resources.
A former camp director, Rosenberg is well versed in the opportunities that summer sessions offer. "It's an opportunity for kids to connect with their peers and slow down a little bit," he says. "To have time to think and play and move their bodies."
- Community Sailing Center campers in Burlington
He thinks young people are experiencing a social-emotional health crisis, as well. Kids have been isolated from each other. Camp intentionally brings them together. Campers often have to express their feelings, regulate their emotions and be part of a group, whether that's a collection of cabinmates or computer coding partners. "They're learning to live with people who are different than themselves," he says. They're learning how to argue in a healthy way, "to have positive feelings, and not so positive feelings ... They become more adept at expressing themselves, and I think that helps their self-confidence level and their self-esteem."
Jon Hammond, director of Hosmer Point Camp in Craftsbury, points out that camp social life is "so different" from what kids experience in other areas of their lives. His traditional overnight camp is designed for kids in grades 4 through 9. The older kids help the younger ones adjust. That means a 15-year-old will often sit with a 10-year-old to eat breakfast in the dining room. "That never happens in a school setting," he says.
Overnight and day camps also help kids learn to take risks of all kinds — social, physical, academic — away from their parents and school friends. "Camp is a safe place to fail," Hammond says.
Another crucial component: Most camps don't allow digital devices. "Your face is not in a phone," Hammond says.
And once they get to camp, most kids aren't actually clamoring for more screen time, Rosenberg notes. "In 2020, the most common thing I heard from camp directors, day and overnight, was: 'These kids really want to talk,'" he says. "They just want to talk with each other. They've been alone for too long."
He says some camps have adapted their schedules to allow more opportunities for campers to talk with each other. Some programs have also built in time for yoga, mindfulness and stretching, to help those who have missed out on physical activity. "These are still things that kids need more than ever," he says.
How to Pay for Camp
All these programs sound great, but they can be pretty pricey. Tuition at some overnight summer programs can cost as much as multiple mortgage payments. If you’ve started researching camps and are feeling a little sticker shock, you’re not alone. And you’ve got options.
Some camps, like Hosmer Point, offer sliding-scale tuition that allows families that earn less to pay less. Many camps also offer scholarships. Start your search by finding out what’s available from camps that interest your child.
Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, estimates that more than 90 percent of ACA-accredited programs offer financial assistance. “The trick here is, you need to start working on it now,” he says.
The ACA website also includes tips on paying for camp. “If the camper’s parent(s) or grandparent(s) served or are serving in the military, there may be funds available,” it advises. Churches, synagogues, civic organizations, foundations, clubs, sororities and fraternities might be able to help, too. For example, the Chauncey B. Warner foundation offers assistance to Franklin county families. Find out more at warnerhomeforlittlewanderers. org.
Hosmer Point director Jon Hammond recommends asking the guidance counselors at your child’s school for suggestions. “And it never hurts to ask a director or owner of the camp,” he says.
Depending on the type of program, you may also qualify for a tax credit.
Find more information and tips at acacamps.org.