The Health Benefits of Summer Camp
While it’s not a medical diagnosis, child-advocacy expert Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in 2005 to describe the wide range of problems that people, especially children, experience when they don’t spend much time outdoors. Additional research suggests that physical activity and exposure to nature contribute to good health. Many camp programmers have this concept in mind as they design camp experiences for kids.
“Health and wellness is one of the Girl Scouts’ main program areas,” says Maureen Maier, vice president of girl experience for the Girls Scouts of Eastern PA. “We try to teach these concepts using what the girls are interested in,” she adds.
“Camp gives kids the opportunity to break the routine,” says Anna Bilton, senior program director for YMCA Camp Mason in Hardwick, NJ. The camp schedule differs from the normal school-year routine, which happens mainly indoors and is mostly sedentary, she says. Camp also shakes up a normal summer routine because it breaks the all-too-common cycle of sitting around the house, spending too much time on electronic devices and snacking at will.
Many camps aim to teach campers healthy habits for a lifetime as kids increase their physical activity, practice mindful eating and spend more time outdoors.
Camps offer more exercise
The American Camp Association reports that 70 percent of summer camps target physical activity in their programming and philosophy.
“The best benefit for kids is the exercise,” says John Noel, director of auxiliary programs at the Tatnall School in Greenville, DE. “Sitting is not something you’ll experience here at camp,” he adds.
Some camps even have sports as their primary focus. “We always try to keep the kids moving,” says Todd Doran, tennis director at Cherry Hill Health & Racquet Club in Cherry Hill, NJ. The goal is to keep it upbeat to make it fun, he notes.
Some sleep-away camps encourage lots of walking by design. Campers might have to walk from their bunk to another building to brush their teeth and take a shower and then walk across camp to the dining hall to eat. Under these circumstances, campers can’t help but move more throughout the day, which creates another benefit. “After a full day at being at camp, you tend to have a really good night’s sleep,” says Gabrielle Ostroski, director at Camp Matollionequay in Medford, NJ.
Camps encourage better nutrition
While most camps offer kid favorites like pizza and fries, many camps do make a point to offer healthy alternatives, too.
Proper nutrition at meal times gives campers the energy to keep going, says Bilton. “We work really hard to make sure there are options like milk, fruit and a salad bar. We don’t offer candy. We try to offer healthier snacks,” she says.
“We find different ways to talk about these concepts with the kids and make it fun,” says Noel. “Campers build good habits, and those habits continue,” he says.
Kids at camp spend more time in the fresh air
While challenges arise to being outside in the summer — sunburn, dehydration and insects, to name a few — there’s a balance to being in the shade or the sun and dressing appropriately for the conditions, says Ostroski.
“There are a lot of benefits to being outside in the fresh air,” Ostroski continues. She points out that sunlight is a good source of vitamin D, which has many health benefits. In addition, being outside increases a person’s levels of melatonin and serotonin, which both improve mood.
“First and foremost, young people spend time playing outdoors” at camp, says Bilton. “I genuinely believe it is beneficial for them. Camp creates healthier kids.”
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.