"We in the summer camp business want kids to be kids in a place where they can be in a world where they increasingly told they can't."
It has been several weeks since we had attended the Tri-State Camp Conference hosted by the American Camping Association. The conference is attended by many camps across the country but it does have more of a focus for those camps in the northeast because it is held in Atlantic City, NJ. That doesn’t staff from coming as far as Texas, Colorado and even California, however. Meeting new people, networking, seeing what attractions and equipment can be the next new activity are some of the highlights of why people to the conference. There are also a number of information sessions that are conducted by professionals in a variety of fields such as lawyers, consultants, writers, psychiatrists and other camp directors. Admittedly I have found that the information sessions can be hit or miss from my past experiences of going to Tri-State, but this past year, there have been several that stood out, and those sessions focused on what the future of camping looks like and how it’s related to the people who will be making up the camping population in the years to come. That is the focus on my writing for this particular writing topic.
The info. Sessions are somewhat like college lecture classes with big rooms containing rows and rows of people listening intently to the speaker on their particular topic all the while taking notes in their seats. As I had mentioned, info. sessions can be hit or miss depending upon the purpose you are looking to accomplish by going to that session. For example, you could find sessions dealing with rainy day activities, promoting staff well-being during the summer, how to discipline children, and how to coordination transportation to your camp all in one time block. Needless to say, there are quite a few options to choose from in any given session time.
The ones I had found most interesting, and what seemed to be a main topic for this particular year, is the face of a changing customer/consumer of summer camps in U.S. It is not just a changing generation of parents who are sending their children to camp for the first time, but it is also the growing international component that is attracting children from all kinds of countries in the world, some of which I personally would never had expected such as China.
The sessions that were focused on the new consumer all dealt with characteristics of what parents and children (and even staff) are like in this current day and culture. I have to admit that it is quite daunting to deliver a good experience when looking at the qualities some of the speakers presented to us in these lecture halls. You can find some of the qualities listed below:
- Anxious and it’s variants (Helicopter, snow plows, and black ops)
- Digitally native and growing experience with digital products
- Less trusting of “experts” and willing to do their own research and become “experts” themselves.
- More fearful of the world based upon current and past news events.
- More value added than ever. Activities must mean something in order to get themselves or their children ahead of others.
- Making decisions, more involved with.
- Not afraid to ask for things
- More tech dependent and less socially adept.
- Get bored easily.
- Stressed out and highly medicated.
As you can see, the qualities are a little more on the negative side than positive painting a rather grim picture. However, the interesting thing about summer camping is that it takes all of these qualities and turns them upside down. It is as if summer camping is the complete counter agent to the current ills that not only campers, but also parents, suffer from. For example, I think we can all agree on just dependent kids are with technology. It seems that when you pry a cell phone away from a child’s grasp, they are left completely vulnerable and have no idea how to cope with outside stimuli of the world barreling down on them. But when you place a child in a summer camp setting, not only are you cutting children off from that technology tether, but you are doing so in an environment that is encouraging and one they can make sense of. In essence, they are able to act without a sense of impending dread or doom with whatever action they take.
Camp is the place where kids can still be kids, and this is one of the few places that being a kid can still be a learning experience and not a time where every activity or action is scrutinized. Although these speakers have some trepidation when it comes to clientele camps will be serving in the near future (if not, already), there is always that statement of optimism in looking forward. Summer camping is one of the last few places where a child can throw off the yoke of the modern world and be just himself/herself. Just thinking of releasing that pressure is a benefit to anyone (even to adults, hey, who knows, summer camp for adults?), but think about how helpful this release is for a child. A constant pressure to “succeed,” to stand out in a crowd, to be noticed, to rise above your peers, all switched off in order to just enjoy an activity or be around cabin mates.
When you view the global landscape, it seems that competition and desire are fueling the actions of those around us at a growing rate. People want to get ahead and those same people want their children to do so as well. At times, though, this pressure can become too much to bear. Again, you can point to the trait of children (and I would imagine adults as well) being heavily medicated. I would ask how else do people expect to cope with the pace of the world and the amount of information that is to be absorbed. The world is changing faster than we as humans can hope to. Slower paced moments or ones that do not have this innate pressure attributed to them are those that become more important. We need to strike a balance and, as others have said, summer camping is the one place where that balance can be achieved still.
Written on 3/29/2016