I wasn’t afraid of spiders as a little girl, but my older sister loathed them. They terrified her. So “spider patrol” was my charge when we went away to camp in the summer. I was responsible for checking every musty nook and cobwebby cranny in the cabin for errant hairy beasts or cowering fragile daddy longlegs. My sister would scan the scary zones with her flashlight—like a floodlight on Rikers Island—and I would go investigate and neutralize the enemy. It was only after this nighttime rite that she felt secure enough to end her search and sleep.
We sold Thin Mints and Samoas to rack up points to reduce the cost of our week at camp. (Okay, really, my dad would bring the order form to his office, and his fellow Ma Bell employees would happily sign up for a stash of these delightful calorie bombs.) In the 1970s you couldn’t go online like you can today and “Meet the Cookies” at the official Girl Scout Website. Now there’s a “Girl Scout Cookie Finder App”, and enterprising scouts in San Francisco sell hundreds of boxes in just a few hours in front of medical marijuana dispensaries. But when we sold our cookies, there was genuine pent up demand bred from the deadly combination of scarcity and craving. The cycle of shortage and supply meant that we could help fund our sleep-away camp experience.
Back when we had a middle class—and working class wages that could actually support a family—my sister and I attended camp with a really diverse set of kids. Of course, I didn’t think of it as “diverse” at the time. But I did have an awareness that many of the girls at my upstate NY scout camp were from parts of Albany, Schenectady and Troy that I’d never visited. Our modest neighborhood of shoebox houses and postage stamp lawns was entirely populated by Caucasians. Not so my camp neighbors and bunkmates. The patter and banter that accompanied the unpacking of duffle bags and the arranging of bedrolls revealed so much about where we’d all come from. Moments of disconnection or miscommunication, although certainly sometimes awkward, almost always receded as we dove into some camp challenge together.
One summer evening a skunk wandered into our platform tent in search of the fudge someone had hidden in her trunk. She’d ignored the counselor’s repeated warnings about animals smelling sweets in our belongings. We couldn’t really be angry; we’d all made the same risky calculation. And now the bill was coming due. As we held our breath and tracked its path around our cots, we exhorted the most daring among us to sneak out and go wake a counselor. We all waited eagerly for the sage advice from our fearless (and as it turns out, feckless) leaders. “What did she say?” we cried. “Um. She said, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ and ‘Don’t startle it or it will spray.’” We groaned and then resigned ourselves to settling in while the jubilant skunk hit the jackpot and grazed on sweets until fully satiated. It was a long night. That skunk was in no hurry.
Skunks and spiders aside, numerous studies have shown that quality camp programs offer children an emotional and psychological boost. According to a 2007 study published in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence, children who attended even one week of day camp or sleep away camp experienced an increase in self-esteem, independence, sense of adventure, and leadership. They also improved their friendship skills and peer relationships. Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and one of the study’s authors, explains that the benefits of camp are still felt by children and parents months after camp ends and increase as kids integrate new camp skills into their school environments.
Another study led by Stanford University psychologist Paul O’Keefe published in 2012 in the journal Motivation and Emotion concurs: Improvements in attitude and motivation remain long after the summer program ends. O’Keefe and his team tracked a group of 8th, 9th and 10th graders during and after a summer enrichment program. They discovered that youth who participated in summer enrichment programs demonstrated a greater “mastery orientation” which has been linked to increased levels of motivation and engagement. These teens exhibited less “performance orientation”, which has been tied to increased anxiety and diminished resilience when experiencing failure. They were less likely to agree with statements such as “One of my goals is to show others that I am good at…” And they were more likely to concur that “It’s important to me that I learn a lot of new ideas.”
Of course, not all children get to attend camp or summer programs. The cost prevents so many parents from sending their children to camp, which is why we are so lucky to have such a variety of affordable summer camp programs available in our area. We have farm camps, nature camps, science camps, music camps and drama camps. Nearly all have scholarships. The Brattleboro Rec Center also puts together an impressive selection of quality, reasonably priced programs for area families. These are not just safe, fun places for children to be in the summer while working families scramble for childcare. These programs provide healthy environments for risk taking, exploration and self-discovery.
My camp experiences as a child shaped my sense of self to such an extent that for years I worked at camps in between academic years. As a camp director in Plymouth, VT I was often called upon to deal with spiders, bats and mice. By then “spider patrol” was just who I was. Thanks, sis.