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Camp Friendships are Unique Experiences for Kids

Connections forged at summer camp can be some of the best relationships children have, giving more insight into themselves – and the bigger world

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Camp friendships have a strong hold on children. Not only do they meet new people who set the tone for the friendships they make later in life, the unfamiliar atmosphere of camp also lets them break out of stereotypes, develop new confidence and meet kids they might never otherwise know.

According to exit surveys of campers by the American Camp Association, an accrediting body for summer camps, more than 90 percent of kids say camp helped them make new friends, 93 percent said camp helped them get to know kids who are different from them, and 92 percent said the people at camp made them feel good about themselves.

Building friendship skills

For some kids, making friends is as easy as introducing themselves to anyone around them. For others, it's a little tougher to come out of their shells and form connections. Parents of those shyer kids might be most uncomfortable about sending their kids off on their own for a week – but it's those kids who can most benefit from the supportive environment at camp.

"If kids have a hard time with friendships and they go to camp and become good friends with two or three other kids, they can go back to school with the knowledge that 'this works for me' – that they like having friendships," says David Long, who's served as chair of the Michigan section of the American Camp Association's Council of Leaders and director of Wildwood Ranch camp in Howell. "They're not going to retreat into their shell so much, because they had that positive experience."

Campers do most of their activities with their cabin mates, generally small groups of 12-15 kids, so they begin to feel a sense of teamwork and togetherness that helps foster friendships.

"Our whole goal is to work together in developing community," says Suzanne Bates, director of Camp Westminster in Higgins Lake. "When they first get here on Sunday in their small groups, we do a lot of activities to get them to know each other right away, and they decide what they are going to do during the week together."

Counselors are trained to help break the ice between kids and draw out children who are less socially adept. "We work on those skills at camp, about how to reach out to others and what appropriate behavior is," says Douglas Grimm, vice president of camping services for the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit. "We work with them even to the point of doing small group work, where we talk about favorite interests" – and connect kids who share them.

Getting out of the box

Kids tend to carry a lot of labels in their day-to-day lives: the nerd, the jock, the troublemaker, the brainiac. Teachers, other kids – even parents – too often view young people by these narrow definitions. That can make it hard for kids to define themselves, or branch out and develop new interests. Maybe the nerd really wants to try a sport but is afraid he'll be laughed off before he even tries, or the troublemaker is hiding a sensitive side.

Camp lets kids break out of those stereotypes and discover new things about themselves. Everyone begins label-free. Kids become friends with people they might never speak to in their normal environments – and discover new sides of themselves they might not have considered.

"That's always been true at camp," says Grimm. "Every kid gets a fresh start because they all have labels, but at camp they just don't have those – and we work at not developing those."

The new environment makes a huge difference to kids who may really struggle with others' perceptions of them at school or in their neighborhoods, Bates says. "When kids get here, they're in a whole different environment. They can let go of the preconceptions and things at school."

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