Summer camp conjures up images of rock-hard bunk beds, long wilderness hikes and swatting mosquitoes around a fire. In today’s technological age, with close to 90 per cent of teens living in urbanized communities*, these images hold little appeal.

Yet with innovative programs and a renewed understanding of children’s needs, camp is once again becoming the latest craze.

Then and now

Canada’s Christian Camping International (CCI/Canada) represents more than 200 camp and conference facilities and programs. The ministry’s national director, John Friesen, says we live in an "experience economy," where every experience and memory has a price tag attached to it.

While this has put a lot of pressure on camps to measure up or kick the bucket, Friesen believes it’s added a level of quality to camps that wasn’t there before. Campers used to be content playing Capture the Flag in an open field; today they’re scaling mountains, sliding down zip lines, skateboarding and competing in Fear Factor contests.

While these changes are no doubt necessary to attract an over-stimulated generation of kids, they bear their cost. "Fee increases to cover rising costs, and the need for camps to accommodate more aggressive facility regulations (e.g. water systems), are . . . very notable in the past decade," says Friesen.

Other changes consist of heightened safety regulations, an increase in co-ed camps, and a more centralized community. Some camps now provide "value-added" programming through academic courses or skill training, allowing children to gain a level of certification in a specific area.

Despite all of these changes, however, one characteristic remains the same. "Camp is still undeniably one of the most effective vehicles for positively impacting the lives of children, youth and adults," explains Friesen. "[It] is a place where a child can affirm his/her self-identity and be strengthened as an individual and also as a part of the larger social community," says Friesen.

Katelyn Epp, 18, a veteran camper from Edmonton, agrees, saying, "No matter what, no one judges [me] . . . and [I] can be completely [my]self. No place in the world could make [me] as happy."

What to look for

So, what should make or break your family’s camp decision this summer?

"I believe the greatest impact on the child while at camp is the staff leadership," insists Friesen.

Therefore, ensuring each camp has an intentional training and development program for its staff, including program and cabin leaders, is imperative.

"If at all possible, the best source for checking on the quality of the staff is usually other parents whose children have attended the camp previously. I’m sure that most camps are more than happy to share some references with parents in this regard."

It’s also important to look for safety aspects at the camp, perhaps even by doing a site visit to the facility and property beforehand, advises Friesen.

Many camps have open houses in the early spring and these opportunities should be seized. Parents should look for the general upkeep of the buildings and visibility of first aid kits, fire extinguishers, emergency contact information, and so on.

Lastly, the camp you ultimately choose should offer an experience suited to the nature and interests of your child. "Parents should certainly bring the child into the decision-making process. Sending a friend along with your child is a great way to ensure an easier transition to camp, especially if it’s the child’s first camp experience."

Healing our children

Camp not only breathes interest back into today’s kids for a largely-ignored creation; it revives the health of our young people.

"The replacement of vigorous outdoor activities by sedentary, indoor videophilia has far-reaching consequences for physical and mental health, especially in children," said Oliver R. W. Pergams, co-author of a recent survey by the Associated Press entitled "Video Games May Hurt Nature." "Videophilia has been shown to be a cause of obesity, lack of socialization, attention disorders and poor academic performance."

At camp, children are given the chance to appreciate nature. Against breathtaking backdrops, they’re able to enjoy life beyond the TV screen and computer monitor, to learn about the God who made them, and to relax in a peace-filled environment. The best part is that they usually end up having so much fun with new friends that they laugh until their stomachs hurt.

*according to Statistics Canada

Emily Wierenga is a writer living in Neerlandia, Alberta. She is the author of Chasing Silhouettes: How to Help a Loved One Battling an Eating Disorder.

© 2008 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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