Camp vs. Cash

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Summer camp might not be the first item on a family’s list of budget necessities during the economic slump. But many experts believe that camp is crucial for a child’s educational and social development, arguing that parents should think twice before cutting back.

“Parents do a disservice to their children when they think that camp is fun and school is learning,” said Scott Brody, owner and director of Camps Kenwood and Evergreen, brother-sister resident camps in New Hampshire. “What kids learn in camp is complementary to what they learn in school.”

Camps can have a positive effect on values and habits. A 2007 survey conducted by Teen Research Unlimited found that those who attend camp are less likely to indulge in drugs, alcohol, promiscuity and unhealthy diets, and are more likely to volunteer, join the military and care about politics and religion than non-campers. Experts say children develop leadership, teamwork and compassion more readily at camp than in the classroom. Most agree that campers also gain a sense of self, free of parental pressures, by making decisions largely on their own.

“That development of autonomy in a child is critical to his or her well-being,” said Ben Michaelis, a child and adolescent psychologist.

Marla Coleman, a director at Coleman Country Day Camp and former president of the American Camp Association, refers to school and camp, respectively, as the yin and yang of education. At Coleman’s Long Island camp, children ages 3 to 13 can learn aquatics, athletics, adventure and arts during four-, six- or eight-week sessions.

“Because camp doesn’t teach to a standardized test,” Coleman said, “children are free to go at their own pace.”

Camp is a sanctuary from technology in an era when digital media increasingly displaces children’s face-to-face relationships. And Michaelis says that the experience can nurture kids’ creative sides.

“Exposure to creativity can change the dynamics of an upcoming school year,” he said. “It’s a tremendous bump in the child’s self-esteem.”

Many camps fear that President Obama’s wish to extend the academic year into the summer might interfere with children’s holistic growth.

“The teacher-centric mode of instruction isn’t favorable for encouraging human connections,” Coleman said.

A longer school year could also lend itself to a more sedentary lifestyle that could foster obesity.

Many camps offer time for unstructured play, which provides a respite from the hectic extracurricular activities of today’s over-scheduled children. Brody, the camp director, explained that camp helps counteract the 21st-century trend of helicopter parenting by nurturing self-reliance in children and adolescents.

“The natural impulse to protect your child is noble, but it can go too far,” he said.

Excessive media use and classroom time can also curtail students’ outdoor activities. Writer Richard Louv spearheaded “no child left inside” initiatives around the country following his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Children and teens also gain a stronger appreciation of the environment at camp, which can make them more eco-friendly.

“Kids need to catch tadpoles in the creek, wander among the trees and feel the sun on their faces to understand the importance of those things,” said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association.

Parents can save on tuition by registering early, having their children attend shorter sessions or sending more than one child to the same camp. Or, if a family is struggling financially, camp directors sometimes lower tuition or give extra time for payment. Loyalty can also cut expenses—at Elmwood Day camp, for example, all returning families automatically receive a 10 percent discount when they enroll early.

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