The Simple Pleasures of Summer Camp

Written by Guest Columnist: Debbie Leibold, JACF Trustee

As this school year comes to a close, I’m a little more sentimental than usual. You see, my youngest son just graduated from high school. It seems like yesterday that I was taking him for the first time to Cheley Colorado Camps for four weeks of fun and adventure. That was back in 2011. After I dropped him off at camp, I spent some time reflecting and wrote an article called “The Simple Pleasures of Summer Camp.” I rediscovered that article recently and it holds even more weight for me now as I think about my son heading off to college in just a couple of months.


He is well prepared and eager for this next chapter in his life, and I am excited for everything that awaits him. As much as I want to hang on, I know that his four years at camp taught him how to be away from home, how to deal with homesickness, how to live with others, how to work together, how to build community, how to face challenges and how to deal with adversity. For my son (and for me many years ago), those camp experiences fueled his love of the outdoors and a great respect for the simple moments—those powerful times of connection and sincerity that only occur when distractions are limited and stresses are gone.

Little did my son know when he was 11 years old that he was preparing himself for this moment… the chance to face new challenges and opportunities, meet a new community of people, further develop his character and independence, build resilience, and discover his own path as he heads off to college.

I think I’m the one who will be “kid-sick,” but I know that he’s ready to spread his wings and soar, thanks in part to the wonderful experiences he had at camp.


The Simple Pleasures of Summer Camp

I took my son to sleep-away camp for the first time this week.  He will be gone for a month at a traditional summer camp in Colorado.  I attended this camp as a child and worked there during my college summers, but it’s still a little nerve-wracking to leave your ten-year-old in the hands of a bunch of young “twenty-somethings” you’ve never met before.  Even though I used to be one of those “twenty-somethings” with whom parents left their children, for some reason, it feels a little different when it is your own child you are leaving. 

I was comforted by knowing my son would be enjoying the simple pleasures of living in the great outdoors, cooking over a campfire, riding horses, climbing mountains, encountering wild animals, experiencing Mother Nature’s unpredictability, and basically having the time of his life.  I have read lately that many traditional summer camps are going by the wayside, as parents see “more value” in a specialty camp that emphasizes one highly intensive program.  That “value” parents seek includes more tangible takeaways for campers, like awards, improved targeted skills, higher competition levels, increased academic achievement, and even experiences and honors to bolster a college application resume.  I am looking for just the opposite for my son.

My son spends the entire school year being pushed to achieve at a higher level.  He plays competitive sports, takes music lessons, and works hard to get good grades.  His older brother does all of those things too, but is already thinking about adding community service projects, part-time jobs, or other leadership roles so that he has something to feature on his college application . . . and he’s only thirteen.  Today’s children are constantly bombarded with messages that they must get better grades, earn higher test scores, play on a more competitive team, get into a more prestigious university, and just do more with less time to do it.  My children don’t need a summer camp to reinforce all of those messages. 

The technology-driven and competitive world our children live in is forcing them to grow up too fast.  Unstructured playtime and “exploring” have been replaced by tutoring sessions, professional coaching sessions, community service projects, standardized test preparation classes, extensive homework, and increasing family responsibilities. Unfortunately, that fast-paced world is a reality; however, those children who are lucky enough to “take the summer off” and go to a traditional sleep-away camp, will undoubtedly return to school, their families, and their increasingly pressure-filled world better equipped to manage the challenges that await them. 

A traditional summer camp provides all kinds of opportunities that demonstrate “fun with a purpose,” not just more drills or training in one particular activity, like the sports practices and coaching sessions many children (including my son) attend at home.  When children are offered chances to try challenging activities they’ve never done before, live with others they’ve never met before, or play in ways they’ve never played before, they become people they’ve never been before.  They learn how to build relationships, become more self-reliant, and explore their leadership potential.  They learn to set goals and work hard to achieve them.  They value a strong sense of community and learn to be compassionate toward others.  They also discover that honesty, loyalty, patience, and perseverance will help them through any situation.

I learned those lessons at camp in the 1980’s and watched my campers discover the same lessons when I was a camp counselor in the early 1990’s.  I can’t wait to hear stories about my son’s adventures, the camp food, and his new friends.  More importantly, I look forward to witnessing the changes in his character.  Of course, he’ll be the same boy I know and love, but he’ll also have a better-defined sense of self.  He’ll feel more confident when he faces challenges and will know that he can achieve anything with some hard work and dedication.

As adults, we would do ourselves a favor if we could just go back in time and remember how it felt to sit around the campfire with our closest friends, singing songs, and roasting marshmallows.  Nothing else in the world mattered except what we were doing at that very moment.  The pressures and worries all disappeared and we were completely free to be ourselves and truly enjoy the company of others.  In such a complicated world, I am refreshed by that simple vision.  I am also personally challenged to live in the moment and make the most of my opportunities.  But perhaps more than anything else, I feel inspired to create more “camp-like” times for my son when he returns home next month.  Rather than racing to the next activity, driving through the fast food window, rushing through the homework, and going to bed way too late, maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a camp moment of our own.  We’ll take the time to listen to one another as we share our stories.  We’ll laugh out loud.  We’ll celebrate the sunset.  We’ll talk about our dreams.  We’ll value our time together.  We’ll throw another log on the fire and roast another s’more – for it is often the little moments that make the greatest difference.

Debbie Leibold, Trustee, John Austin Cheley Foundation


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