Kids today are undergoing a subtle, generational identity crisis. It seems that as recently as 15 years ago kids were, first and foremost, kids. They had the freedom to do everything, and so they had the freedom to be anything. Kids played baseball during baseball season, and soccer during soccer season. They played chess one day and trombone the next. They tried different activities, and participated even if they didn’t like them. And because kids could be anything, they saw themselves as having endless potential – it was downright plausible to feel you would grow up to be the world’s first professional basketball player/ president / veterinarian. Because, for many years, childhood was defined by multiplicity – kids did everything.
So, what has changed, and fueled the identity crisis mentioned above? Specialization. Today’s kids are not athletes, they are soccer players. They are not singers, but mezzo-sopranos. And they certainly aren’t both. Today, childhood has become something of an arms race – kids are growing up in high-stakes, high-pressure environments where making the middle school swim team requires the type of training that used to be reserved for Olympians. The fault does not necessarily lie with parents – after all, expectations of kids have changed, and year-round dedication in any area is oftentimes a necessary evil. However, it has drastically changed what it means to be a kid, adding unparalleled stress on adolescent minds and bodies.
And this is why, more than ever, traditional overnight camp is such a haven – not just for kids, but for childhood. Camp provides, in many ways, the version of growing up that has been all but lost. At camp, kids try different things – they remember what it’s like to be new to something, to try, to fail, and to persevere. They can play in a basketball game and a tennis match, throw a pot on the wheel, and perform in a musical – and they can do it all between lunch and lights out.
The benefits of this have long-reaching impact, and tie into the self-identity and confidence kids form as they grow up. Today’s children grow up with a narrow sense of identify – the earlier a child specializes, the more closely they are going to identify with that area of specialization (and the less curious and motivated they will be to try something new). If a child sees themselves as a soccer player and only a soccer player, if they have grown up with this perception and cannot remember a time when they were anything else, they are going to struggle with the stress of maintaining that identify. And what happens if they don’t make the high-school team, or they aren’t recruited for college? What happens when they continue their pursuits at the expense of their own happiness – not because they want to, but because they don’t know anything else?
Allowing children, the freedom to try different things provides them with an invaluable safeguard. Low-stakes exploration, the ability to try new and different activities without fear of judgement, gives kids the opportunity to form an identify around who they are, and not what they do. Well-run camps prioritize this aspect of child-development. Yes, they may be able to arrange additional tennis lessons or vocal coaching, but more importantly, they teach children to value what it means to be a good friend or an impactful member of the community. They teach kids that it’s okay to enjoy something because it’s fun, even if they aren’t the best at it. In short, camps provide a unique environment where kids can be kids – and when kids can be kids, kids can be anything.