Why Summer Camp SHOULD be Risky?

In today’s world American kid’s summers are filled with lacrosse camp, dance camp, art camp and other structured activities. These seem to be extensions of after school activities—with periods of x-box and iPads in between. Kids are pushed to excel in the particulars. We ask them to get good grades, become excellent athletes, and pursue music and art. These are all wonderful ways to learn and progress through childhood. But, with all that structure something’s seem to be missing from childhood today.

Nothing is wrong with those extensions, putting in that extra time, and seeing school friends during the summer. Yet, what about the old-school summer and the old-school summer camp?

I’m talking rope swings, bike rides, climbing through rivers and coming home having met five new friends and covered in dirt—maybe a bit of blood. I know we all have this ideal “childhood in the woods image,” but this is hard to attain in the modern world. You can’t really send your 8-year-old out in the morning and not look for them again until dusk. In reaction to the world around us we have become more controlled in order to protect, and this control has permeated into the way kids are playing today. We can’t change the world, but we can enter into an environment that allows for that old school summer. It is simply summer camp—not to help kids excel at their school life activities—but a time of unstructured play.

In this modern world, with technology booming and all our activities quantified, we may not see the value in the play—particularly risky play. The truth is that this risky play is what allows kids to experience action/reaction and make choices with tangible consequences. Play is such an important, and possibly overlooked, aspect of childhood and children’s development that it is listed in article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Take, for instance, the childhood mecca of the rope swing. This is a completely unstructured activity that can go badly if kids can’t assess the risk. For years it has been a symbol of freedom and fun. Now days, in our fear culture many kids may see a rope swing as dangerous and not allowed. This is the benefit of summer camp—learning to healthily judge risk. In a camp environment kids learn to first test the depth of the water, then to see how far the rope swings, and judge if they will land in deep water. Next it’s all about testing it out! Yes, they may slip too soon, but kids usually don’t. Rather than reacting with fear to a new challenge, kids need an environment where they can learn how to healthily assess risk.

This risky play is not simply for having fun outside, but allows a child the ability to look at something and recognize the risk involved, and that is one main characteristics of a healthy adult. A recent study finds that, “a risk deprived child is more prone to problems such as obesity, mental health concerns, lack of independence, and a decrease in learning, perception and judgment skills, created when risk is removed from play and restrictions are too high”

So how do you create healthy, safe, risky play for your child? This is the power of summer camp. Tom Clark, Director of Operations at Compass Outdoor Adventures, explains “I think more often than not families now are worried about taking their children out into the world and not letting them experience the risks associated in an appropriate manner. Kids understand something is different because mom and dad said not to do it, but they don’t know why. They don’t understand that risk verses fun factor. Our camps encourage a certain risk—a decided thought-out risk—which we hope kids will take that understanding of risk into their daily life as they grow older.”

Camp is the safe environment that allows kids to explore risky play and begin to break out of that fear culture. It also does so in a community that instigates teamwork and encourages support. In his article “Benefits of Camp” psychologist Dr. Scales says, “Camp is one of the few institutions where young people can experience and satisfy their need for physical activity, creative expression and true participation in a community environment. Most schools don’t satisfy all these needs.” The goal of summer camp is to push kids in a healthy way to try risky activities, learn how to creatively problem solve, and do so while working in a unique community.

Ultimately summer camp can be the conduit for children to gain independence. That risk assessment and community building all lead to striking out on your own and trusting who you are and what you decide. Another psychologist Stephen Fine explains, “At camp, children learn they have the capability to do things on their own…this type of experience starts to change a child’s whole self-concept and their sense of who they are and what they can do.” It is a place for children to test boundaries and embrace spontaneity.

Tom Clark goes on to say, “The other side of it is seeing kids develop and have the ability to converse with one another in a different way. As they are able to be more supportive and encouraging. Some will step up and take the leadership role while others take a more encouraging role. Each kid understands the benefits they can bring to the activity.”

So this summer think about your children and the idea of risky play. How do you want them learning to make challenging decisions? As humans we are holistic beings, and maybe it is time to let kids grow organically by just bombing a mountain bike through mud or building a fort in the woods with a new friend. Maybe this is the summer camp season to embrace risk, play, and new relationships.

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