A Culture of Safety
Earlier this year, the American Camp Association Magazine “Camping” ran an excellent article by well-known psychologist and adolescent therapist, Stephen Gray Wallace, “How to Run a Teen Program at a Summer Camp Wary of Teenagers”. The article is excellent in that it gets so much of what makes summer camp essential for teens, but it’s what the article doesn’t get right, or simply doesn’t include that drew my attention.
The article isn’t too dry or academic, even though the author dives right into the research around WHY camp is so important for adolescents. Gray Wallace takes the time to lay out some of the theoretical groundings for several of the key facets of the camp experience, and why these matter more so in adolescent populations than they might in younger populations.
Identity formation is the first, and perhaps most important realm of growth opportunity that camp affords. Laying out the theoretical work of Erikson and others, Gray Wallace then links this with the recent observational research that confirms that theory in action in the summer camp setting. Summer camp, simply put, allows teenagers to “explore who they are and how they want to be viewed by others”. At Maine Teen Camp we call this “telling your own story” and feel this sense of authenticity is encompassed in the camp motto “Free to Be. Free to Become”.
Camp not only allows its community to explore, but it promotes a safe place for teenagers to thrive.
Next, Gray Wallace talks about the research into independence, although not in as great a depth. It is obvious, perhaps more so in 2023 than ever, that having opportunities to practice decision-making, (especially in an environment where the universe of choices has been narrowed to good choices with low stakes), is critical for teenagers who will soon be facing a world in which there are many choices to make. Many of those choices will be quite high-stakes, and many of those potential choices won’t be good. Having opportunities to practice making decisions, in a somewhat complex social environment, stands campers in good stead for later decision-making.
Finally, Gray Wallace talks about peer relationships, from a camp perspective. Camps offer a wonderful opportunity to practice social skills, to problem-solve in a group setting, and to demonstrate leadership and teamwork. Camp gives campers a richness of opportunities to practice peer relational skills, as well as an abundance of excellent role models and mentors to praise and correct as appropriate.
One thing Gray Wallace doesn’t mention is that the importance of peer selection, support, and influence on teenagers can not be overstated. Camp provides an abundance of opportunities to develop authentic, caring relationships based on mutual respect and shared experiences and opportunities to build social capital with a diverse and exceptional group of peers. Both of these factors are hugely important for success long after the summer ends, and both are highly valued at MTC.
Gray Wallace could probably have paid a lot more attention to the role of technology in teenagers' lives, and the importance of camp as a device-free space, as well as camps representing an opportunity to live close to nature. Both of these factors have huge implications for adolescent development and well-being, which I wrote extensively about in a 2019 Camping Magazine article.
When we combine our individual stories to create meaning in a particular space, it becomes a place. When we do this, that place then belongs to us, and we belong to it. In an increasingly placeless age (internet, global community) finding such a place to which you belong is vitally important for happiness and social-emotional health.
However, the biggest omission from the article that jumped out to me was the author's (understandable) attempt to argue for the inclusion of teenage programming at camps that, to put it bluntly, don’t like teenagers. Not only is that likely to result in poor outcomes – generally speaking we shouldn’t push camp professionals who don’t trust/like/appreciate teenagers to pretend otherwise – but it misses a fundamental aspect of the joy of a teenage summer camp. Simply put, when you attend a camp that is JUST for teens, you aren’t navigating social relationships that are several years old. When new camper attends an “all ages” camp that is trying to expand its teenage programming, they are faced with the daunting prospect of making friends in a group that has established friendships going back for several years. When a returning camper attends a program like that, they are no longer free to “tell their own story”. Their story is already known, written for them. They are subject to the expectations of friends and staff who have known them since they were 7 or 8 years old. This is not vastly different from the expectations placed by family and diminishes the opportunity to explore who you are and how you want to be perceived. To truly benefit from that experience, sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and go somewhere new. All the benefits of summer camp, but with the opportunities teenagers are developmentally needing.
To put a bow on all this, at Maine Teen Camp we not only think teenagers are great, we think they deserve a place set aside just for them. Adolescence is widely recognized as being fundamentally different from childhood. So a summer camp serving adolescents should be fundamentally different from a camp serving children. Stephen Gray Wallace is right in his assessment of all the ways camp can benefit teenagers, but we know an all-teenage setting like Maine Teen Camp is the right format, rather than “a camp wary of teens”…
Matt, from New South Wales, Australia, is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy & Educational Leadership at USM, with a research interest in the educational benefits of outdoor experience, serves as a board member of Maine Summer Camps (www.mainecamps.org), and is serving a three-year term on the Falmouth School Board. He has also served on the Education Investment Committee at the United Way of Greater Portland.