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Children find happiness at summer camps

31 May 2012 | Chris Green

Summer camps 1

"Thank you for the happiest 118 days of my childhood" wrote a hospital nurse in her forties recently remembering the two summer camps or so a year she attended between the ages of nine and sixteen. Her comment is typical of hundreds made by adults like her looking back, or equally by children, their parents, or young leaders when they have just experienced a summer camp.

"I don't think I have ever seen so many happy, happy people in one place enjoying each other's company before" said a 20 year-old leader when she got home a couple of years ago. A parent attending a performance at a recent drama camp said "The spontaneous singing at the end is a treasured memory which will stay with me forever. The sight of so many young people enjoying themselves brought tears to my eyes. For my daughter to be so uninhibited and just enjoying the moment without concern was amazing."  

A summer camp brings together 30 to 70 young people aged 9 to 15 from all parts of Britain, all kinds of schools, and all social backgrounds, to spend a week or ten days in a country mansion or adventure centre (often a boarding school hired for the holidays), away from the world of TV, computers and commercial pressures. They will never have met their fellow campers, or often anyone like them. This disparate group of youngsters grows quickly into a group of friends, and by the end of the camp it has become a family like community of people who really enjoy each other's company. The programme of activities, which can range over games of all kinds, exploring, arts and crafts, singing, tracking games, swimming, outdoor activities of all kinds, acting and singing, stories round the fire at night, and the odd day out, acts as a kind of group dynamic to get everyone talking and working together in a very short time.

Summer camps are staffed largely by 18 to 25 year-olds, often students, mostly volunteers, each of whom looks after a group of 8 or 10 youngsters within the camp. There are also more experienced people working as directors in overall charge, also assistant directors, caterers and matrons. All staff have been carefully trained for their particular role, and usually they enjoy the experience every bit as much as the children. It adds significantly to the children's sense of security and their enjoyment to have an older brother / older sister figure devoting all his or her time to looking after their welfare and organising their activities.

Anyone wanting to find ways of making our society and in particular our children happier would be well advised to come and take a look at summer camps. They will see young people living together in a kind of bubble away from many aspects of their life outside, and having a truly happy experience. However, when they ask just why and how this situation brings so much fun and enjoyment, there will probably be a reflective silence followed by a wide variety of answers. The absence of TV and computers gives no alternative but to talk and relate to each other. The enthusiasm of the young staff rubs off on the children. Youngsters are excited to find they can get on with others not like them who they had not met a few days earlier. Doing things together in a green and peaceful setting is a new experience of fun. The camp allows them to live some "real childhood" and enjoy playing in the fields, flying kites, looking for clues in the woods or relaxing round a camp fire, opportunities they do not get in the modern world as much as they should. The camp keeps children safe both physically and emotionally.

The Campaign for Summer Camps exists to push for many more British children to experience summer camps. A major PR campaign to change hearts and minds will have to be involved, since the possibility of going to camp is not something most children or parents consider (less than 2% of our child population ever experience any kind of summer camp, as against 70% in the USA and 40% in France.) If we could get to a situation where going to summer camp became a part of most children's lives, and the infrastructure and staff training was in place to support this, it would have a massive impact for the better on many aspects of our national life. Above all it would create a lot of happiness for a lot of people.

Teachers regularly comment on the more positive attitudes shown by pupils who have been to summer camp. An appreciative parent once wrote to say "when our children come back from camp they have a kind of glow." Youngsters have had a lovely time, they know they have made a worthwhile contribution to a happy community, they have made new friends and discovered new things they can do. They feel the peace and joy that comes from having been part of something good. If, as is probably true, there are many different kinds of happiness, I feel sure that those children's "kind of glow" must be among the very best of them. To strive to offer it to many more young people must be an endeavour worth persistence and hard work.

Summer camps 2

About the author

Chris Green MBE runs the Campaign for Summer Camps. He is a retired teacher and has been involved in summer camps for over 30 years. He believes passionately that summer camps can be a truly life-changing positive experience for youngsters from both well-off and disadvantaged families. He was awarded the MBE in 2011 for services to education through summer camps.

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