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  • Writer's pictureMatt Pines

Not Just Another Pretty Space - "A space apart from their parents, to learn to be with their peers"

The roots of organized camping run deep in the rocky soils of Maine. For over 125 years now, young people have packed trunks and bags, summoned courage sufficient to overcome homesickness, and headed off to summer camp set among the trees, along the lakeshore, that become their second home. For most, these spaces become something of a spiritual home too, the place they return to physically and mentally when the rest of the world becomes too much.

One of the primary motivations for the initial founding of organized camps, and a consistent thread ever since, was the recognition among parents that their kids would benefit from a well-organized, supervised and supportive community of peers. Not only is this still true today, I believe it is more true today than at any point in the history of camping.

(I will talk about the role technology plays in these dynamics in a later blog post, but for now will say that technology complicates the assessment).

I say this for a few reasons. Perhaps the most obvious, and most important, is that there are far fewer spaces for kids to be with their peers than ever used to be the case. Jay Griffiths calls this the “loss of the commons”. In-fill development, concerns about liability, an ever-expanding transportation infrastructure and other trends have all pushed kids out of the shared spaces that they formerly were free to play and connect in. Added to this trend is popular misconceptions about the level of danger posed to kids outside of the house. Less spaces for kids to be outside, and less tolerance for kids being outside, leads to fewer kids being outside…

This leads to many kids and teens struggling with a crisis of “availability”. Often, there simply are not peers widely available for them to associate with outside of school. In addition to the factors mentioned previously, add in scheduling too. Scheduling of out-of-school activities is a very real issue in many communities. Even if there are spaces to go and parents willing to let kids play outside, there might not be free time.

There is a paradox here. If all the kids are scheduled into after school activities, aren’t they still interacting with each other? While it is true that after school and out of school activities offer tremendous enrichment opportunities for kids, those opportunities are usually adult directed, frequently quite rigid and tightly scheduled in turn. There is value in this, but there is a cost, namely the loss of unstructured time with peers.

Why does availability of child directed time with peers matter? Because this is the time where kids (and teens) learn how to navigate the social waters they swim in. This is when they learn how to make independent decisions, how to assess the authenticity of friendships, how to make good decisions in the face of peer pressure. Beyond that, they need this time to make friends (one of my favorite journal articles of the last few years suggests that for friendships to form, people need to spend between 40-60 hours together within 3 weeks of meeting).

And, as much as it pains us as parents to admit it, kids need time without us to learn how to do this when we aren’t there. Which, if all goes well, is the plan. Our role as parents is to prepare our kids to go out into the world. We want them to be well prepped to take full advantage of the opportunities and openings that lie ahead of them. In order to do so, they need to be prepared BEFORE those opportunities arise.

The most obvious example is a young person heading off to college. Of course, the college “experience” is only partly an academic one (for some of us, partly is being generous…). There is a great deal of networking, connection building, friendship making that happens at college. Indeed, lack of success socially can lead to dropping out, while success making those connections can make a positive impact for decades to come. For many, this is the true value of an undergraduate degree. But making those connections is not a given. It requires work and skill. Skills that are learned and require practice. Being prepared for college (or the military, a career, an apprenticeship, or travel) means more than being prepared academically.

Finally, I’ll mention a concept here that is worth keeping in mind when thinking about camp broadly. Windows of development. Some things matter more at particular times in a kid’s development than at others. Some of the habits or skills picked up (or not picked up) during childhood and adolescence will essentially be with that individual well into adulthood. We often think of this with things like music or language learning (for any adult who has struggled to learn a second language, watching a kid learn one is like watching a magic trick…”impossible!”), or the development of bad habits (people exposed to nicotine or alcohol during adolescence are at significantly higher risk of developing dependency in later life). We don’t think enough about windows of development when considering technology use habits, affinity for nature, social skill development, inclination towards exercise or a number of other learned skills. Given that the teen years are such a rich window of development, it is critical that adolescents are periodically given the opportunity to concentrate on these various skills.

For these reasons, and others, the role that camp plays in providing a space for learning how to be with peers is an essential one. In 2024, summer camps often represent the only space outside of school that is specifically designed for young people. While adults have whole industries designed to accommodate them (bars and restaurants, clubs, trade organizations etc.), spaces for kids and teens are often sparse or entirely lacking. To have a space that is well supervised, yet allows room for unstructured time with peers, away from the expectations of parents (more about telling your own story later), with peers who are available and undistracted, is depressingly rare. Camps represent such a valuable space. Our role as camp directors and administrators is not to do the hard work of skill development for the kids. Our role is to continue to hold this space as sacred and give them opportunity to do that work for themselves.

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