Ask your girls what they like most about Agawak, and these two things will top the list: Friends and fun. While these takeaways certainly are central to the camp experience, a whole lot more happens in these woods, and in cabins, and on our playing fields. Weeks away from parents and familiarity instill character traits that can sustain them throughout a lifetime:
Campers learn quickly how to cope on their own. If someone in the cabin is mean, they can’t say “Mom, take care of this.”. Together with counselors, they have to use their own voice and their own negotiating. They have to be brave.
Living with strangers in close cabin quarters, children discover their inner strength, as they open up to, and embrace, persons far different than them. The ability to adapt to communal living with strangers of varying backgrounds lays the groundwork for youth to become adults who are independent thinkers, inclusive and responsible.
Campers are in charge of keeping their cabins clean, and by the end of the summer, young children are masterful at sweeping, cleaning bathrooms, making crisp beds. They are learning that every person must pitch in for a community to thrive as an efficient whole. The character trait of taking personal responsibility for the greater good goes a long way in shaping adults who give back to their communities.
Taking responsibility for the care of cabins streams into deeper arteries of a child’s life. With homesickness prevalent during those first camper days, kids become responsible for taking care of each other.
As children return to camp summer after summer, the relationships thicken into bonds that are deep and authentic, and lasting. These are indestructible friendships cultivated during days that begin shivering together in a cold cabin when the morning bell rings and end with whispering their secrets, from their warm beds.
As I have found in my 58-year-affiliation with Agawak, this is the greatest gift of the many gifts of camp, a girl-gang that became a family, bound not by blood but by love and loyalty. Away from screens and cell phones, kids build genuine relationships in real-time, learning teamwork and empathy, important social and emotional skills
Here is how Agawak Director Mary Fried describes the power of disconnection in an interview featured in my book Camp Girls :
“At camp, the girls aren’t out-posting each other on Instagram; they are talking, not texting, They share their deepest secrets and it is healing because they have uninterrupted time to really hear each other.”
3. Love of Nature
When nature surrounds us, we dig deeper into self-discovery and our stressors are relieved. Under open skies uncluttered by buildings, in a forest of towering pines, swimming in lakes that are cold and clean, minds expand, bodies are set free, campers are fully awake and alive.
As it turns out, nature can even invigorate our brain. In Florence Williams’ book “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative”, the prize-winning author traversed the planet, from the forests of Korea to the rivers of Idaho, and uncovers new research on how nature expands our minds, hoists our moods, and can even reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
“Nature makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves,” Williams told me in an interview. “This fundamental lesson children need more than ever as they grow up largely indoors. Nature facilitates the shared adventures that form the kernels for deep connections that last a lifetime.”
Reverence for nature can also turn into a career: Many of the city kids who spent summers at camp, on canoe trips, sleeping under the stars, and hiking in the woods, are the professionals doing critical work in environmental preservation today.
In these times of global instability, sending children to the stability of a camp environment can keep them centered, optimistic, and less fearful of the future. Particularly after the dark months of quarantine, coming back to camp means returning to an oasis, a safe harbor, a place with a predictable routine, traditional activities, and songs, fiends they can count on. Time and time again, we hear our returning campers describe coming back to Agawak, as “coming home”.
Campers are encouraged to try every activity, an extensive menu of offerings that range from tennis to kayaking, water skiing to track races, softball to zip lining. Failure comes often, and they are always encouraged to try, try again until they succeed.
You as parents hear their exuberance as they describe finally getting up on a slalom ski or making it to the top of Tango Tower or hitting consecutive bulls eyes in archery. Campers learn the value of hard work and patience as the road to success. They also learn how to be humble winners and compassionate losers, as Blue-White games are played often and only one team can land on top.
These victories and defeats create a stick-to-itiveness that stays with us throughout our lives. We learn at camp the value of hard work and persevering until we get it right. We learn at summer camp that failure is the most valuable lesson in learning how to come back stronger and better, and push harder the next time around. This last lesson is a huge help throughout the life cycle that is filled with inevitable losses and challenges.
I save perhaps the most important character trait for last: Our campers leave Agawak as a girl or young woman who knows her power, who is not afraid to use her voice, a person with heightened confidence.
Whether she conquered a new sport or formed a new friend group or portaged a canoe in the pelting rain, we see the bloom of self-esteem growing every day like a well-watered plant. We see girls who arrive a bit shaky begin right away to believe in themselves and in their abilities. We see followers become leaders. We see the timid become bold.
We see generations of alumni who have risen to the tops of their professions, in business and the arts and non-profit work, who credit those summers of youth in the wilderness of Wisconsin for their confidence to muscle their ways to the Number One spots.
So, you see, camp is about a whole lot more than just friends and fun.