The great outdoors can be a great experience for children only if they know how to live and play together in a cooperative and collegial manner.
—Anne (teacher and camp parent)
Why do campers and alumni frequently say that they consider their camp friends, many of whom live far away and they see for only a few weeks each summer, their closest friends? Most camp experiences are intentionally set up to foster friendships as one of the top priorities, if not the top, priorities. At schools, on sports teams, and in other settings, there are usually other goals for kids that supersede social growth and fostering friendships. But at summer camp, making friends is the overarching and most important goal, so we take it seriously.
Kids who are socially adept and good at making friends thrive at camp, just like they do in all their other social settings. But it is the kids for whom social interactions are more challenging, whose social life presents a daily challenge, who have benefited the most from their camp experiences. Because counselors view themselves as their campers’ “Friendship Coaches,” understand their important role in helping campers learn to form close relationships, and provide ample opportunities for practicing, campers often improve their social skills while at camp. Counselors assess kids’ skills, identify social strengths and deficits, and use proven coaching techniques to encourage campers to learn and practice important friendship skills. Conversations about friendship are prevalent at camp, friendships are celebrated, and continuing connection outside of camp is encouraged. Many kids report that their camp counselors are the first adults who ever talked with them about making friends and being a good friend.
Recently, I’ve been going through the many boxes of letters, photos, and memorabilia which I have collected over my first five decades. It’s been a time-consuming task, but I’m trying to organize into a smaller number of boxes what has been accumulated over the first half of my life. What has struck me most is the huge number of letters I amassed from my childhood, high school, and college friends. Until this week, I didn’t remember how much we corresponded, but I just finished going through hundreds of letters. I now have proof of the many friendships that were solidified over hours of writing to one another.
I mostly have the ones written to me, but I can assume from the “Thanks for your letter”s that I was writing at the same rate as my friends were. Maybe some of my letters are in a box out there somewhere?
Not only was there a huge volume of letters (see picture), some of the letters were ten pages long, with tiny writing. Others were short notes or fun greeting cards. Most of them were in beautiful, cursive writing, even some from boys! What an amazing thing to think about. Back then, without the distractions we all have today, we had TIME to write letters like that! Plus, we enjoyed it and we were good at it! We wrote letters because often long-distance phone calls were too expensive. Many of us traveled and studied overseas, so the letters chronicle our trips.
The process of trying to get rid of most of this paper required that I at least skim through each one. I pulled out many that I simply can’t bear to throw away. I found letters from my late grandparents, with their words of wisdom. I found letters my parents had written to me over the years. I also found letters from friends showing major teen angst, which is a good reminder now that I have teens of my own. We weren’t that different back then after all! It’s just that we didn’t splash our anger and sadness at each other on Facebook. We wrote each other heartfelt notes.
One thing I realized is that my kids will not have a big box of letters like mine. They don’t write letters like we did in the pre-computer, pre-email, pre-social networking, pre-cell phone era. But then I had a revelation! They DO still get to send and receive letters. It’s when they’re at camp! I have told parents how much campers enjoy getting “real” mail while at camp (the kind with a stamp), but now I have realized another benefit – they will have these letters as keepsakes and memories of their childhood. And you, as parents, most definitely should save all of the letters you get from your camper!
Among my box, I came across a postcard I sent to my parents in 1977, when I was a camper at Gold Arrow Camp. This is what it said:
My postcard home from camp, 1977.
I think it’s mean that you have to write a letter to get into dinner, but I’m glad to write a letter to you because I love you. It’s been raining since we got here. But we still went horseback riding. I wrote a letter to daddy this morning and sent it. Camp is so fun. I can’t wait to tell you. My counslers name is Liz. She’s nice.
Let me tell you, we have gotten some good laughs in our house over this postcard. Not just about how I spelled “counselor,” but about my comment about the “Mail Meal” (dinners on Wednesday and Sunday that you need to have a letter or postcard home as your ticket in). The dreaded “Mail Meal” has been a camp tradition for as long as anyone can remember, but I didn’t even remember thinking it was a bad thing. My adult view is much different than my ten-year-old one! I now understand how much parents need those letters. I hope most kids get beyond the “I have to write this letter” part, and share some of their feelings and memories of camp. The resulting memorabilia will be priceless.
So, here’s to another benefit of camp I’ve only this week realized. We have the chance for our kids to experience the (almost) lost art of writing and receiving handwritten letters. And you, as a parent, have a chance to write down words that your child will be able to read and keep long beyond any email you’ve sent them!
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