Andy_Elbow_Bump

Andy Pritikin, right, gives a camper a COVID-conscious elbow bump during last summer’s camp session.

For two decades, I’ve been heralding the importance of summer camp to families who have never attended. Years before COVID-19, there existed a world-wide outbreak amongst our youth in technology addiction, social skill deficiency, indoors isolation, and over-parenting. And now, since March, 2020, our kids have been living an increasingly bizarre, unnatural life of screens and quarantines, hybrid schooling (if they’re lucky), and enough fear and disappointment to last them into adulthood. However, in the midst of the insanity, we learned that summer camp can become a beacon of hope, a lifeline towing them back to their normal selves.

More than 1,000 lucky children, and 250 staff attended Liberty Lake Day Camp in summer, 2020. While strict safety guidelines and a modified program were necessary, the fundamental essence of camp remained intact: Kids, playing together, mentored by caring staff, and in most cases — outdoors. According to the campers, parents, and staff at camps that ran last summer, it was by far their most meaningful camp experience ever, as well as an impactful life event. And think about it, that was after only FOUR months of screens and quarantines — imagine what it’s going to be like in 2021? Wowza!

In 2020, 70 percent of camps didn’t open, many due to government restrictions, others by choice. The camps that did open showed great resiliency and creativity in adapting and flourishing within their new parameters, doing it better than most schools. While some families and staff chose to postpone their camp attendance until 2021 — most didn’t want to miss out, even in the midst of a pandemic, despite apprehensions. What were these people, crazy? Absolutely not. They strongly believed that the benefits outweighed the perceived risk. This June, after two compromised school years and everything that’s gone along with it, our children’s need for the benefits of summer camp will be crucially important:

1. Real Human Connection. Zoom and remote learning have saved us in so many ways. But there’s NO substitute for real human connection. Making and strengthening relationships while being guided by loving people is what camp is all about. The essence of camp is in the friendships we forge, something we are all lacking and craving these days.

2. Reacquainting Ourselves with Nature. While society has been trapped indoors for the past year, most of the world is OUTDOORS, and it is amazingly beautiful, and fills our soul with joy. From picture perfect days, to “liquid sunshine” washouts — it’s REAL living — the way our ancestors lived for thousands of years, until the advent of central air, video screens, and the internet. Our bodies yearn for the outdoors, and that’s where most summer camps happen.

3. Resiliency. Our kids are certainly developing it; experiencing disappointments that will make them stronger. Learning to be brave and confronting challenges and fears are also important facets of resiliency. It’s easier to stay at home and stare at screens — but we want our kids to grow up with the kind of courage and “can-do” attitude that our health care, essential workers, and superhero school-teachers have learned and cultivated.

4. Mental Health. While summer camp is widely known for its physical health benefits, according to the CDC, “Children’s mental health during public health emergencies can have both short and long term consequences to their overall health and well-being,” so it’s no surprise that hospital visits related to mental health have risen dramatically for school age children and adolescents. Kids are resilient and can bounce back quickly. But a year and a half of stress and anxiety is bound to leave a mark. Extroverted kids are suffering, missing the energy of their peers. Introverted kids may seem to enjoy sitting in their homes, away from life’s normal pressures — but they need social interaction just as much.

We had a depressed young camper last summer who hadn’t left his apartment nor gotten fully dressed in months. By his third day of camp, his parents thanked us for “returning his childhood to him.” For many kids, camp is a more important social-emotional antidote than the actual vaccine.

Why can summer camps be successful during a pandemic?

Good camps breed creative adaptability, and get things done — we always have. How do you get a group of third grade boys to listen? What do we do about the incoming storm? The bus is running late, animals got into the supplies, no electricity in the kitchen, kid pooped in the pool… Camp people don’t complain — WE FIGURE IT OUT, and make it happen. Last summer, we were able to facilitate 99 percent of what we normally do at camp — including lunches, bussing, instructional swimming, and assemblies. Were they a little different than usual? Sure, but all were accomplished, with smiles and appreciation.

Camp offers kids the unique opportunity to step back into a simpler time, with no internet connection or mute button needed. A place where a small community can have faith in the human spirit and support from one another without judgment, simply because it’s the right thing to do. Our kids need to be out of our homes, playing with other kids, and camps have proven that it can be done safely, even under the most challenging circumstances.

To find an excellent camp for your kids this summer, use: www.searchforacamp.org

Andy Pritikin is past president of the American Camp Association and owner, founder, and director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Mansfield Township.