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The Long-term Value of Maintaining Off-Season Summer Relationships

The late fall and early winter frequently mark the time of year that camps begin holding organized reunions or get-togethers for current campers. Among the lifelong benefits of attending overnight camps or teen programs are the incredible friendships that children and teens are able to make. Summer relationships are unique due to the circumstances of a camp or program – kids and teens are in extremely close proximity, living and spending almost all waking hours together. These relationships also develop exceptionally quickly – oftentimes kids and teens show up as total strangers, and within days feel like best friends. And while these friendships are oftentimes a staple of a successful summer, that doesn’t mean they need to be limited to the summer season – and placing a priority on these outside of summer will ultimately serve your children or teens well in the long run.

The Short-Term Benefits of Summer Friends

For campers, attending camp reunions and get-togethers can help ease the transition back to camp each summer. Kids return with confidence knowing that they’ve had positive interactions with camp friends since last summer, and this reduces any anxiety your returning camper might have about fitting in at camp. It also gives a shared experience that campers can fall back on early in the summer when they are re-navigating the social waters. And for children and teens of all ages, there is real value to having a group of friends who are completely separated from school and home life –it broadens a child or teen’s perspective to have summer-friends who may come from all over the country or the world, and these friends can provide meaningful support to a child or teen who needs a break from the school-year social world they inhabit.

While teen programs are less likely to organize formal reunions, the benefits of maintaining summer relationships are widespread and tangible for teens. Once a student has outgrown camp, they will not be able to return to the formal structure of a daily summer network of “camp friends” that they have grown up with – but there is still value in spending time away from home friends. Camp and teen program alumni who maintain these friendships have a built-in network of people they can reach out to if they want to go on another program with a friend who they don’t go to school with. These friends make the perfect program or travel companions, because teens are already used to living with them in the close quarters of a camp or teen program, and have had success in this situation before. And while some students are comfortable attending a program alone, others will feel more comfortable – and thus will be able to be more socially successful – if they attend with a friend.

College and Beyond

Summer friends also make great college roommates, especially freshman year. If you’re going to a school where you don’t know anyone – or you want to ensure that you don’t have the exact same friends in college as you did in high-school – then reaching out to a friend from camp or a teen program is a great way to ensure you’ll have a roommate you like, without relying on somebody you know from home. Given how well they know you, summer friends can also recommend a great roommate or friend who will be attending your school. Once again, the close proximity that you experienced in camp or on a teen program will likely provide a good foundation for your relationship as college roommates – after all sharing a dorm-room is nothing compared to sharing a camp cabin or tent. And not only does this provide you with a friendly roommate – it can open your social sphere to any other friends your roommate has at school.

And this idea of a broadening network inevitably extends beyond school, and will help your child in the long run. As your children and teens grow, their friendships will also contribute to their professional networks, and the unique shared experience of a summer at camp or on a teen program is a wonderful foundation for a connection. Whether your child or teen grows into an entrepreneur looking for a start-up partner, or a hopeful job-applicant looking for a current employee’s recommendation – by maintaining and strengthening relationships with their friends from camps and teen programs, your child will set themselves up to have valuable friendships grow into vital professional relationships.

When selecting a camp or pre-college program for your child or teen, you are hopefully placing them in an environment where they will be able to make deep, meaningful, lifelong friendships. In order to maximize these friendships – by staying close with summer friends beyond the summer season – it is valuable for your child or teen to maintain communications. So encourage them to share e-mail addresses and phone numbers and stay in contact with their summer friends – you never know when life will bring you together again.

Learning To Lose: Life Lessons Learned At Camp

Growing up as a camper, there were always multiple day-long athletic intercamps scheduled with our “rival” camp throughout the course of the summer. If we were visiting – we would board the bus after breakfast, play a few games, share lunch with our opponents, and play a few more sports in the afternoon. And if we were hosting, we were simply spared a bus ride, and had the opportunity to eat in the comfort of our dining hall. And throughout my years of camp, it seemed that almost every time we played, and in almost every sport, we would eventually emerge victorious.

Until, of course, we didn’t.

One inevitable lesson any long term camper will learn, is that they simply aren’t going to win every time. I poured my heart and soul into every Color War growing up, and on more than one occasion it simply wasn’t enough. When we played our rival camp in basketball or lacrosse – my favorite sports in my adolescent and teen years – we always entered with the confidence that we would win the game. But on more than one occasion, we ultimately had to reconcile ourselves with the fact that this confidence was misplaced. I even vividly recall being eliminated from a game of Risk that I played over the course of many rest hours, after an alliance of mine broke down and I found myself spread too thin.

And while it may seem cliché, each of these losses taught me something. I learned that no matter how confident you are, when it comes time to perform you need to put your best effort forth. And I learned that sometimes, your best effort isn’t enough, and this is okay too. I learned that you can compete ferociously against someone in the morning, and buddy up with them during Free Swim in the afternoon. I’ve learned that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that you can ultimately be forgiven by your teammates even when you slip up. I’ve learned that it’s worthwhile to invest hours of time and brainpower into a game with friends, even if you ultimately fall short.

And I learned plenty about resilience. I learned that there is always another game or another season. I learned that there is a place for disappointment, and also a place for getting back to practice. I learned about being gracious in defeat – and I learned how good it feels to rebound with a hard-earned victory.

I truly belief this resilience is a life skill, and one that many children and teens today are lacking. In the “participation trophy” culture of youth, I feel that it’s important to note that many of my most strident memories of camp came in defeat – and that these have shaped me as a person as much as my memories of victory (if not more). At camp, I learned to lose – and ultimately, that was one of the greatest victories I won.

Summarizing Your Summer: Avoiding College Essay Clichés

“On the volunteer trip I took, I realized that not everybody is as fortunate as me. The local people we met didn’t have many of the things we take for granted, but they were still so happy. It was an inspirational experience that totally changed my perspective.”

Have you heard this story before? It is among the most common of Common App responses.

This year, like every year, thousands of admissions officers across the country will read thousands of essays about the volunteering trip a given prospective applicant took to South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, or Africa. They will also read about how camp taught a given student about leadership, and how winning their final Color War was emblematic of their growth over time. These students, like generations of applicants before them, had incredible summer experiences that they want to write about. Unfortunately, they are not alone, and many of the essays that feel most compelling to an individual can come across as trite or clichéd to a committee that has to process thousands of applications – especially when they’ve just read several very similar submissions that happen to take place in slightly different settings.

Summer is an incredible time for having the experiences you will ultimately write about in your college essays. During summer, students try new things and learn new skills. They explore new places and meet new friends. Summer is when interests evolve into passions, and when new passions are born. And when children and teens hopefully challenge themselves. There is a vital aspect to the story above – for many students, it is entirely true. There is a reason this essay topic has become a cliché – for many students, age-appropriate teen programs represent the first exposure to life outside of their bubble. These students did have a transformative experience – this developed perspective is one of the major benefits of attending a teen program of this type. Similarly, camp does help kids grow and mature, develop community, and ultimately take on leadership roles – after all, there is a reason parents send their kids to camp summer after summer.

The issue, however, is that when a student describes these shared experiences in a college essay, they do so in a way that causes them to blend into, rather than stand out from, the rest of the application pool – and if they leave an impression, it very well might be negative. Of course, this doesn’t mean that students should avoid writing about their summer experiences – summer can provide incredible fodder for essays. In fact, I wrote my own Common App essay on an experience I had on a teen program. However, your approach must be crafted to avoid the pitfalls of cliché, and to focus on a student’s unique experience, and a student’s unique development. So what can you do to avoid a clichéd essay?

In short, you must tell your own story – and the emphasis should be on yourself, not your program. It’s not about the building project you worked on with twenty, thirty, or forty other teens – but about the one real relationship you forged with someone who was scheduled to move in once construction was completed. Not about the class you taught in English, but about how you earned a nickname from the students. Not about the coursework you did, but about the street food you sampled. Your story may not have an entirely unique arc or trajectory, but it is still a unique story. You need to use your essay to highlight the aspects that make it unique.

And, if you want your words to stand out, then back them up. Did teaching children open up your eyes about the need to give back? Then sign-up for one of the many child-centric volunteering opportunities that are available. Did you have an incredible, transformative experience growing up at camp? Perhaps you can work as a CIT, or get involved in a Campership program. Did that street food expose you to the variance in global cuisine? Maybe it’s time to start a food blog. Your college essay is an opportunity to write about something meaningful – and if your summer experience was truly meaningful to you, it won’t be limited solely to one summer.

There is nothing wrong about wanting to write about your camp or summer program in your college essay – these are oftentimes powerful experiences that really do reflect the individual a student has grown into. However, be careful when composing your essay that you deal in the truths and details of your story, rather than falling into the trap of relying on broad clichés regarding personal growth and development. You have a story to tell – make sure it’s about you, and that it’s one worth reading.

The Power of Summer’s Reflection

Each fall, we debrief with families to talk about summer successes and challenges, and it’s always wonderful to hear the stories of increased independence and maturity that kids developed at camp, or the confidence a teen developed at an enrichment or immersive program. What’s perhaps most important with regards to these conversations, is they provide a space for reflection and opportunities to discuss future growth. Summer programs are oftentimes, at their core, social and emotional experiences. As a result, in the days and weeks after a program concludes, the emotions a child or teen is feeling – missing friends and activities while re-acclimating to life at home – can make it hard to make sense of the summer. Your child or teen may mentally still be away, even if they are home.

At this point, however, enough time has passed that their school-year routine should be pretty thoroughly established. School is already in full-swing, and between full days of classes, extracurricular activities, homework and studying, your child or teen will have readjusted to life at home. Since some time has passed, now is a good time to think about what was accomplished over the summer, and how your child or teen can build on that. Perhaps your child started developing more social agency over the summer – can they start making their own playdates, or corresponding with camp friends who live out of state? Your teen may have discovered an area of interest while away on a program – as a result, can they join a related school club – or better yet, form one?

By thinking about specific areas of growth, and then making concerted efforts to aid your child or teen’s continued development in these areas, you maximize the impact a summer can have. Utilizing the momentum that was created during the summer – as well as, hopefully, the positive associations your child or teen has with their summer experience – you can motivate your child or teen to continue developing their sense of maturity, independence, curiosity, and confidence.

And, of course, by reflecting on the past summer, you will inevitably set yourself up well to make informed decisions when planning for next summer. After a period of reflection, you will be able to more readily determine what your priorities are when thinking ahead, which you can communicate to a camp or summer program. For example – even if you have already decided to re-enroll your child at camp – you may want to be sure that they will be taking more activities outside of their comfort zone, or want to inquire if they will be able to live in a cabin with their closest friend, or have more opportunities to waterski. You might decide that your child has outgrown day camp and is ready for sleepaway camp. Similarly, your teen might think about applying for more competitive specialized programs as they get older, which will allow them to continue pursuing the passion they developed on this past summer’s trip.

By allowing some time to pass before having these conversations, you give your child or teen a little bit of time to distance themselves from the experience they just had. Immediately after finishing a summer at camp or on a teen program, the thought of any other program may feel like a betrayal. For example, a student may return home having already decided to go on a similar trip with the following year with the friends they made. However, after a short period of time adjusting to school life, and becoming more invested in their academic work, extracurriculars, and the pre-college process, this student might come to appreciate the past summer as a building block, and instead look for another program on which they can continue developing. In this way, reflecting on a summer gone by can help students to harness the positives of their experience and continue moving forward.

Beating Bullying: How Camps & Teen Programs Curate the Social Dynamic

One of the hardest lessons we all have to learn at some point or another is also one of the simplest: people can be mean. For many of us, adolescence and the teenage years served as the crux of this experience – pranks and meanspirited jokes abounded, and exclusion ran rampant. I certainly remember many instances during these times when I felt picked on – and I also remember other occasions where I was the bully in a given interaction, relishing another’s discomfort. For many years, these types of interactions simply seemed par for the course. However, even though exclusionary or bullying behavior may be normalized among adolescents, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have lasting impact – and just because something appears to be accepted, that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be altered.

At many summer camps, there is particular emphasis placed on creating an environment free from meanness and bullying. Camps see themselves not just as organizations that run activities for children, but as inclusive communities that truly foster the development of independence, confidence, and social maturity – and in many cases, they are able to achieve these lofty goals. A huge component of creating an environment in which kids can thrive and develop stems from imbuing camps with a culture that simply does not tolerate meanness or bullying. Yes, there will be instances when campers may be mean to one another – kids are kids, and some sort of friction and negativity is oftentimes inevitable. However, by and large, many camps do a great job of creating safe communities in which bullying and social exclusion simply cannot thrive.

More nurturing camps combat bullying by staying attuned to when this behavior takes place and by addressing it appropriately. Counselors are trained to identify bullying behavior, and are attuned to the very subtle forms that exclusion and meanspiritedness may take (and, particularly among girls, bullying can be incredibly subtle). At well run camps, this behavior will not go unacknowledged – initially, a counselor may facilitate a conversation between a camper who feels they are getting picked on, and the camper they see as a bully. If the bullying behavior continues, a director or camper’s parents may need to become involved. If a child simply cannot coexist with other campers without putting them down, they may simply be asked to leave camp, or not invited back for the following summer. While this may seem a harsh response to “kids being kids”, it is often times a vital and necessary step that helps preserve camp as a safe space in the minds of all campers, which will thus allow them to continue developing in those crucial ways that are unique to a summer at camp.

Teen programs also do a great deal to foster the all-important “group dynamic”, and strive to create a positive social environment for all participants. On many programs, students will have an initial conversation with the group to discuss group expectations, which will include social expectations for how participants will treat one another. This strategy invests students in their social behavior from the onset of the program, delineating clear expectations and creating an environment that is already focused on fostering a positive social atmosphere. On smaller programs, particularly some travel and/or service programs, students will have regular group check-ins with their faculty members, which serves to continue reinforcing the cohesive group dynamic that leaders are so focused on building. Leaders are trained to navigate the complicated relationship between giving teens the social autonomy they need, and providing the supervision that ensures a positive group dynamic. And much like with camps, if someone is unable to adhere to the expectations placed on the group, they may be simply sent home from the program.

When I was in high school and participated on a teen program, I experienced the benefit first-hand of a well-curated social environment. From the onset of the program, we played games and had structured activities that were designed to allow us to create initial bonds. Roommate dynamics were managed to ensure (to the greatest degree possible) that cliques did not form, and we ultimately had a very cohesive group of students. As a result, I found myself more willing to try new things – exploring activities, such as improv, that I had always been interested in but never felt comfortable doing. As I have chronicled before on this blog, this started a chain of events that ultimately led me to discover a passion that I had otherwise completely ignored – and I still do improv to this day!

Childhood, adolescence, and the teenage years are times of vital social development, but at times they can certainly be socially trying. However, just because kids can be mean, this does not mean that meanness will always be tolerated. Camps and teen programs pay acute attention to the social dynamics that exist over the summers, taking actions to curate a positive and inclusive atmosphere, and taking steps to eliminate and eradicate any bullying or meanspirited behavior. At the right camp or teen program, your child can be put in a social situation where they are able to feel good about themselves – and this will only help them as they continue to develop and mature.

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