by Kristi Runyan
Many of us fondly remember our magical summer camp experiences — sitting ‘round a campfire in the dark next to a new friend, learning a new skill, just reveling in the joy of being young.
But it’s more than just having fun; experts say the experience of summer camp can help children grow in beneficial ways.
“Having some structured playtime is important,” said Penny Snell, association director of childcare operations at YMCA Buffalo Niagara. Snell is also camp director for the YMCA’s many summer camps. “Having fun, building relationships and growing in experiences can make them a better person. New experiences help them become more well-rounded.”
In the Buffalo area, there are plenty of opportunities for kids of all ages to attend day camps or sleep-away camps. Camps also range from general interest to highly specialized. Today you can find camps that focus on inventing a new product; learning to sew and design clothing; or putting physics into practice.
Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve’s day camp, Kids in the Woods, is a more traditional day camp.
“Our camp focuses on getting kids outside and connecting them with nature. They play nature games, make crafts and go on hikes,” said Brittany Rowan, environmental educator at Reinstein Woods. “We think it’s very important to give kids a chance to use their imaginations and just play. It’s really vital. I love it when the kids get to explore and discover new things about the world, but also about themselves.”
The all-girls Buffalo Seminary high school in Elmwood Village hosts a day camp each summer for hundreds of girls entering grades 5 through 8. Erin Kelly, director of communications at Buffalo Seminary, said the camp is “pretty general interest,” with a variety of activities, but also the chance to pursue specific endeavors.
“We had a coding class last summer,” Kelly said. “Something that’s good for girls is technology. Girls are underrepresented in those fields, ultimately, and start dropping off in those classes in middle school.”
Other camps offer unique experiences, like at the Buffalo Zoo’s day camp. Christian Dobosiewicz, the zoo’s communications specialist, said campers learn about the animals as well as the interesting jobs of the zoo staff.
“It’s really important for us to educate children and the young generation about the importance of conservation and animal welfare,” Dobosiewicz said. “At camp, the kids get to interact with animals and it teaches them to be good stewards for the environment.”
Steve Szczepankiewicz, a chemistry professor at Canisius College, is also a director of the college’s Summer Science Camp for kids in grades 5 through 8. He said the camp offers something beyond regular science class.
“We try to make up a curriculum they wouldn’t necessarily see in school,” Szczepankiewicz said. “We specifically look at running a science program at the age where everybody is into science. Our objective is to target them in the early grades and show them science is fun, science is for everybody, and then maybe they can maintain that mentality.”
Camp directors agree that summer camp and school work together to provide a healthy balance for children.
“Camp is an opportunity for children to learn in a different way than in the school year. They learn through experience instead of instruction,” said Snell. “But [camp and school] go hand-in-hand; there’s a time and place for both. One would not be impactful if they didn’t have the other.”
Snell said campers are learning while they’re having fun, whether they’re aware of it or not.
“We trick them into learning in the summer,” she joked.
Building social skills
Camp directors also agree that summer camp helps children develop social skills.
According to a report from the American Camp Association, parents said sending their kids to camp is important because it helps build self-confidence and self-esteem, and that it’s a safe environment to make friends. Parents also said camp helps children feel good about themselves as well as gain independence, leadership skills, social skills, adventurousness and a willingness to try new things. Camp can also open up new worlds.
Szczepankiewicz calls camp an “intentional widening of experience.”
“Kids tend to work themselves into a particular corner over the course of the school year,” he said. “When you put them into a camp environment, it gives them a license to explore new friends and new attitudes.”
Geoffrey Falkner, YMCA Buffalo Niagara’s communications director, attended YMCA camps growing up, and said the experience is something he’ll never forget.
“Yes, you learn new skills, like rope tying, but you’re also making friends,” Falkner said. “You gain your own confidence, your own voice. Those are life lessons you take with you