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How Camps Build Leadership

Back around the turn of this century, a pervasive fear about our children’s readiness to succeed in the new millennium led to the emergence of initiatives like the Common Core State Standards and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). Now influencing education at every level, these related missions share one overarching goal: to prepare kids for success in college, career and citizenship.

Summer camp fits seamlessly into this philosophy, which reaches beyond classroom walls to promote skills kids need to thrive in a global economy: the so-called 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity), plus leadership, independence and confidence.

“The best camps are being much more intentional about teaching leadership, character and life skills to their campers,” says Andrew Pritikin, owner/director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Bordentown, NJ, and president of the American Camp Association NY/NJ. At Liberty Lake, “intentional” manifests itself as an age-segmented life-skills plan: “Star Point” begins by encouraging preschoolers to demonstrate bucket-filling kindness and ranges up to a formal Teen Leadership Program.

The Boy Scouts of America Del-Mar-Va Council develops leadership by challenging kids “in a natural setting that is different than their normal home or school buildings,” says J. Ray Teat, director of support services at both the Rodney Scout Reservation overnight camp in North East, MD, and Lum’s Pond Day Camp in Bear, DE. “Learning to live together as a team in remote locations reached only by canoe presents life-changing opportunities for success.” Newer concepts — geocaching, GPS orienteering, Leave No Trace camping — likewise “utilize today’s technology and stewardship principles as vehicles to teach timeless skills of leadership.”

At Camp Onas, a Bucks Co. sleepover camp based on Quaker principles, kids are encouraged to gain life skills by stretching their personal comfort zones, says director Holly Hecht: “Whether it’s participating in a stage performance, tasting a new food, trying one of our high-ropes elements or canoeing on the Delaware River, supervised risk-taking helps campers develop confidence and the understanding that everyone isn’t going to be successful every time — and that’s OK.” 

The games begin

Summer camps have long used the structure of games — think Capture the Flag, Color War, Olympics and scavenger hunts — to let kids practice leadership and the 4Cs. Often integrating arts, sports and academics, these traditional activities typically divide the camp in two or more teams for a healthy, multiday competition that gives every camper a role and a way to shine. Concluding ceremonies are designed to bring the camp back together. This creates a strong sense of unity and friendship, not to mention “a tremendous amount of sportsmanship, as campers practice winning and losing with grace and humility,” says Pritikin.

At Rodney Scout Reservation, weekly camp-wide games build leadership through team competitions, says Teat. Team captains are tasked with organizing their lineup to attain a timed goal like building a boat of all-natural materials and racing it across the pool. That concept is tweaked at Lum’s Pond, where campers race a toy sailboat down a water-filled rain gutter. Through such activities, scouts learn complex concepts like how the proportion of sail to boat length affects travel speed, all while having fun and working together to win a team prize.

“All-camp games are an important part of our program,” Hecht agrees. Frequent two-hour evening activities — during which the whole camp engages in events like Capture the Flag, Prisoners’ Base, flag tag, talent shows, scavenger hunts or lip-sync performances — are capped off by competitive theme weekends. “These activities build a sense of belonging because everyone belongs to a team and teams work together,” she explains. “There are defensive and offensive roles to play, as well as strategic roles.”

Games at Liberty Lake have a long-term effect, essentially becoming “a breeding ground for future leaders,” says Pritikin. Many of today’s “best counselors were once stand-out participants in Color War, leading songs, organizing their teams, encouraging peers, helping younger campers and newer staff.”

A place to thrive

In July 2014, the American Camp Association joined P21 to stress the fact that “The camp experience provides opportunities to learn and practice critical life skills and competencies, preparing young people to thrive in the 21st century,” noted then-CEO Peg Smith.

“Kids act differently at home than they do at school — and especially at camp,” says Pritikin, who cites child psychologist Michael Thompson’s belief that the most meaningful moments of a child’s life usually take place without their parents present. “Summer camp is the ultimate environment for teaching the skills that become leadership in our modern-day society, and parents can feel secure in knowing that their kids are experiencing these often challenging situations supported by a trained staff of positive-minded young people.”

Concurs Hecht, “The camping experience helps kids become more independent, learn to advocate for themselves, make friends more easily, be resilient, feel a part of a community and become better problem-solvers. These qualities and skills, now being discussed more in education and child development spheres, are outcomes that have long been a part of the camp experience.”

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association (ACA) Keystone Region serving Pennsylvania and Delaware. Learn more at Campparents.org.

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