It’s a good question. The answer? Different. And in some ways, more important than ever before.
Camp is known for the personal challenges it can offer, the activities that build grit, resilience, and character. That said, I’ve been speaking with camp directors about what they expect for the year ahead, and one commented that this might not be the year to push the skills and the growth. Developing one’s swimming skills or learning a musical instrument, says long-time director and leader, Sol Birenbaum, will be less important to parents than it was a year ago.
He makes a good point. When camp resumes, kids will have come off an experience unlike any other. They’ll be entering social situations again, bringing with them all the anxieties that have arisen throughout the past year. For some, it’s safe to say the past year has been nothing short of traumatic. If they prefer to take a pass on the canoe trip, maybe that’s okay. I asked a girl, who missed her CIT year because of the shutdown, what she is most looking forward to this coming summer, which will be her first summer on staff. She said, “seeing people be together again. Going back and seeing others being able to go back to camp, too. Just being there, with others.” It’s not the trips, or the thrills of whitewater, or the talent show. It’s just going. Being there. That, for her and many others, will make this summer more exciting than any in memory. I suspect that will be true for very many campers. If camps are able to operate at full capacity, it will be campers’ first experience in many, many months that is something even close to what they think of as normal.
It will also be an opportunity to heal. “The worst part of the pandemic, without a doubt, is that people are getting sick,” says Birenbaum when we spoke in December. “But there are other damages, including those to which children are particularly prone. They’re hearing about people getting sick. It’s on the news every day, and has been for many months now. They are living in a world in which safety doesn’t always seem assured.” It’s a time of great stress for everyone, though children are feeling it more acutely than adults do, with even less of a sense of power over how they respond to it.
This is why the upcoming year will be so important. In addition to skill building, if not exclusively in place of it, will be the support, the feeling of being together, the move back toward those close, positive relationships with peers and mentors. Whether they’re able to articulate it, that will be what kids will take from camp this year, be it a day session in the city, an overnight session in the north, or something in between. For the first time in a long time they’ll be able to sit side-by-side and enjoy being together. This won’t be the year of personal growth, at least not in the way we typically think. It will be the year of reconnection, of finding the space and the time to heal, to have a sense of home.