If you thought summer camp was all about swimming and s’mores, you may be in for a surprise. Yes, having fun drives programming at most camps, but the underlying lessons are often about building interpersonal skills. Friendship is the very essence of summer camp.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most important work we can do — help each other communicate and be good people,” says Milisa Galazzi, former camp director and current adviser to the camp director at Brewster Day Camp on Cape Cod. “Friendship — making a friend or being a friend — is sort of shorthand for that.”
More than any other indicator — quitting smoking, exercising regularly, having low cholesterol, and so forth — maintaining rich and meaningful relationships is the best predictor of well-being as we age, according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which was conducted over the course of some 80 years. It stands to reason that parents should help their kids learn how to develop healthy friendships the same way we teach them about eating right.
Friends from school and the neighborhood are known quantities — parents typically are familiar with them, sometimes vet them, and almost always judge them. At summer camp, whether day or overnight, kids are freer to bond without parental intervention. And that’s good for their development.
“It’s special to have a friend that your mother doesn’t know, a friend you made by your choice,” says psychologist Michael Thompson, author of the book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, which looks at how spending time away from parents is beneficial to children.
Summer camp’s intensity is another magic ingredient. Spending days on end together playing, learning, sleeping in cabins, and having adventures — as well as experiencing hardships — at an age when so much is new develops independence, interdependence, and resilience in a setting with controlled risks. “That bonds you in a way that scary teachers and hard tests [at school] don’t,” says Thompson, who lives in Arlington and consults for multiple camps.
Children often have more time at camp to dedicate to friendships than they do during the school year. Thompson estimates that in a two-week sleepaway session, kids have 196 hours of “friend time,” compared with just 88 hours during a 30-week school year (assuming 35 minutes per school day). Camp friendships grow deep quickly because the environment fosters them.
Regardless of a camp’s theme, all of the camp professionals I spoke with emphasized that the true nature of the experience is building interpersonal skills. While the inside jokes and spontaneous moments that make friendships real can’t be manufactured, the best camps work behind the scenes to ensure that camaraderie blossoms.
“Nobody learns anything if they don’t feel connected,” says Audrey Monke, whose forthcoming book, Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults, is about applying lessons from camp to raising kids. At the camp she owns and directs in California and in seminars for professionals, she instructs kids on introducing themselves and beginning a conversation, and educates counselors on how to be “friendship coaches.”
“I tell counselors that within the first five minutes, [campers] should be fully bonded with an adult and have a new friend,” says Brewster Day Camp’s Galazzi, who has counselors practice shaking hands and making eye contact and asks them to teach campers to do the same. “Kids don’t necessarily know how to make a friend, so we kind of unpack that for them,” she says.
It helps that most camps — day and sleepaway — are anti-screen; most camp professionals agree that limited or no use of technology for social purposes is critical to the experience. (On the flip side, though, all that tech allows kids to stay in closer touch than ever when they’re away from camp.) Eye contact, smiles, and saying “good morning” have a significant effect on kids who otherwise may be used to chatting via text or using emoji to express themselves. Many camps teach basic social skills without making the instruction seem like an etiquette class.
“Being unplugged and off a screen is huge when you’re in the moment with people, but the more global thing is that they feel a sense of connection, belonging, and they can be themselves,” says Monke. “There’s a magic to that.”
There’s also science to it. Face-to-face contact makes us happier and healthier because it releases neurotransmitters like oxytocin that we don’t get via digital media, according to psychologist Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. In other words, eye contact, facial cues, high-fives, and so on not only are learning mechanisms that help us connect with other humans socially, they also help us combat stress.
“For many kids and staff, [camp] is the first time they learn really how to have friendships that are not digital reliant,” says Marcy Kornreich, co-director of Camp Young Judaea in Amherst, New Hampshire. “They have to look people in the eyes, have conversations, and take account of other people’s feelings and thoughts.”
The stripped-down world of camp also allows kids from different backgrounds to find common ground. Meg Reagan duPont, who spent 12 summers at the Episcopal Conference Center camp in Pascoag, Rhode Island, as a camper and counselor, cherishes the teamwork, community, and diversity she found there. “It was all the stuff you’d think of in a utopia,” she says. DuPont, who grew up partly in Providence, says her beloved camp-mates were other city kids, African immigrants, farmers’ children, and “blue-blood New Englanders,” among others, yet no socioeconomic hierarchy ever emerged. “You just treated people how you should be treating people,” she recalls.
Those lessons in service, equality, and diversity were major influences on duPont’s decision to pursue social work as an adult. After multiple relocations as a kid (“It didn’t matter if I was new at school, I always had camp,” she says) and as an adult, it was that kinship with her “camp family” that brought her back to Rhode Island from California, even though her blood relatives no longer lived in the region. Now one of her former counselors is her toddler son’s caregiver. “It feels like we have family in the state,” she says.
Bonding at camp is not only about making friends, but also about relying on others, practicing tolerance, and coping with friction. At Seeds of Peace in Otisfield, Maine, managing conflict is at the core of the programming. The innovative camp brings together teens from the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and across the United States to break down cultural and political barriers.
Built on a summer camp model — sailing, swimming, and s’mores are all on the docket — Seeds of Peace intentionally matches up teens with opposing views to bunk, eat, and attend dialogue sessions together. Though friendships are sometimes a byproduct of the program, relationships are carefully nurtured through activities that develop respect and trust before campers take “a deeper dive into heavier or more personal sharing,” says camp director Sarah Brajtbord.
Disagreement is inevitable, she says, but it doesn’t have to be a negative. “We teach kids to try to own conflict,” says Brajtbord. “Conflict itself is neutral; it’s how you react that matters. We talk about how to listen to understand, not listen to respond.”
Conflict naturally bubbles up in friendship-optimized settings, too. “When you’re 11 or 12 years old, you learn to live with [other campers] whether you like them or not,” says Heather Davenport, who attended Camp Waziyatah, a traditional coed summer camp in Maine, in the late ’80s. “You’re experiencing all this stuff for the first time. That middle school time is so, so trying and dramatic — you’re living together, but you’re kind of surviving together. There’s stuff that’s just indelible.”
Physical challenges and activities that push kids out of their comfort zones offer similar bonding opportunities. “If I take an 18-year-old kid who’s with us for six weeks on [a] long trip, that kid’s entire comfort of life depends on his or her interdependent associations with his or her section mates,” says Dick Lewis, a New Hampshire resident and president of Wabun, a canoe-tripping camp in Ontario, Canada. Sure, kids make lifelong friends at Wabun, but just as critically, they learn to rely on and help out fellow campers who may not be their best buddies, and to value their disparate skill sets.
Michael Thompson, the psychologist, compares the bonds that originate in challenging situations to those among soldiers in the trenches. Whether they’re white-water kayaking or navigating awkward mealtimes, campers frequently push their limits in unexpected ways. They learn to coach one another through their weakest moments and celebrate their proudest. “It’s the band of brothers, band of sisters thing,” says Thompson.
At Songadeewin in Salisbury, Vermont, girls can embark on multiday wilderness adventures in canoes. “Once you’ve done that as a 12- or 13-year-old girl, you feel like you can do anything,” says camp director Ellen Flight, who notes that teamwork is an elemental part of the accomplishment. “You’re sleeping cheek by jowl, laughing in the tent. . . . You know everybody’s foibles.” But, she adds, “Laughing so hard you pee your pants turns into reaching out when you’re needed.” That lesson frequently extends beyond camp, she points out.
It’s no surprise that shared experiences — for campers and staff alike — yield close relationships that thrive even after camp ends. Many adult camp veterans have stories about lifelong friends first made at camp. Some recount romantic tales spawned by a shared appreciation for the general camp experience. At Brewster Day Camp, remarkably, more than a dozen staff couples have tied the knot over the past 30 years.
Others fall in love when friendships rekindle later in life. Camp Waziyatah attendee Heather Davenport, for example, reconnected with fellow camper Chris Davenport when they were both 30, and sparks flew. At their wedding, camp friends made up the biggest cohort of guests. And when their son was born, they named him Harrison, after Waziyatah’s neighboring town. “It’s such a significant part of our story and our lives,” says Davenport.
Staff members and parents can also develop exceptional bonds. “In some ways, we can kind of co-parent,” says Songadeewin’s Flight, who helped one camper cope with a family member’s mental health crisis during the school year. Flight also became very close with Amy Kashchy, the mom of two multiyear campers, after their father died. Kashchy later purchased a home near Songadeewin, and the friends are considering retiring to the same community when the time comes. “That’s the reward of the long-term relationship,” says Flight.
Adherents of sleepaway camps like to say, “Camp friends are the best friends.” But kids don’t necessarily need to bunk together to develop the bonds and skills that can influence them for years to come. Whether three states away or right down the street, camp is a controlled but fun environment that’s purpose-built for making friends. When it comes to great camps, says Milisa Galazzi, “It’s not about the size of your property or the size of your pool, or how many boats you have on your waterfront. That’s all important stuff, but way above and beyond that, it’s about the values and the relationships and attention to the human interactions.”Meaghan O’Neill is a writer based in Newport, Rhode Island. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.