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The Value of Sports at Summer Camp

It’s an Olympic year, and once again sports will take center stage on a global level; functioning as a universal language, creating community and uniting people.  On a local scale, the same will be happening at summer camps all over the country.  While technology evolves – prompting many camps to introduce related programming (things like electronic music studios, robotics classes, animation making,) to keep pace – sport steadfastly remains a vital component of the summer camp experience.

So why do camps value sports so highly? (Hint: Its not just to keep a good balance of s’mores to exercise ratio!)

Sports are a vehicle for growth and learning. In addition to the clear health advantages of being physically active, sport mirrors the physical and social growth that is the foundation of traditional summer camps: making friends, trying your best, displaying resilience, forming connections, striving for improvement, being gracious in victory and defeat, HAVING FUN!! The list of benefits is endless, and in a world of screens, streaming and Snapchat, athletics have found a new level of importance in a child’s developmental journey.

We often refer to summer camp as a child’s second home, a place where it is ok to make mistakes and learn from them, and this level of familiarity and comfort allows us to use our sports programming as a tool for growth.  Camp is the place to try something new, think outside of the box and question logic and physics, especially on the sports fields and courts. One big reason for this is connection: counselors who play a unique mentoring role (not quite older sibling, parent or coach); bunkmates who become family; leaders who show they care about each individual. Kids who feel comfortable with their coaches and peers are more likely to experiment, think creatively and be innovative, they are willing to take more risks and feel free to express their true selves. Many successful athletes attribute their initial interest in – and practice in – their sport to playing with friends on the streets, and in this age summer camp often comes closest to recreating that experience.  In other settings such as a town or school sports league, the same bonds and level of trust may not exist, or may take longer to build: a child may not try that soccer bicycle kick goal, or the backhanded basketball pass or even simply try a new sport.

Sports are a safe way to experience failure.  Now, it’s important to also recognize that with trying, comes failure. But at camp, failures are the building blocks to success. Yes that bicycle kick shot may not go in the first time, or second, or third. But on the fourth time when it does, in front of your coach and counselor who has seen you grow, that moment lasts. It sticks. And with that comes self-confidence, an attitude that ‘I can achieve’ and a growth mindset that is essential for children to be the best version of themselves. These new found traits transcend the soccer field, into everyday life. Our children are often told from young age that ‘practice makes perfect‘, but we think of it as ‘practice increases self-worth, fosters a growth mindset and builds resilience‘. It’s so important our children experience these moments, because that is how they process achievement: “I did“. “I can“.

Sports encourage creativity. Some of the most incredible learning we see at camp doesn’t come from coaching or activity periods, but rather from unstructured play – another essential element of camp sports. Kids are the best at making up games – experimenting with baseball pitches during free time, or trying to get a frisbee from point A to point B using as many different styles of throw as possible. Let them invent: give them some equipment, sit back and watch. They will become leaders and organize teams, they will become collaborators and decide how the game works, they will become problem solvers, setting boundaries and rules and scoring systems. Then observe them become teachers, and share their new game with others…it’s amazing what they can achieve.

Sports are a healthy way to experience competition.   In a time of “participation trophies”, there is still a place for competitive sports at camp, regardless of skill level. As children grow and become young adults they will need to compete in so many ways; to get in to college, to secure that job, to land that promotion. In a supportive and equitable environment such as camp, they are exposed to competition and can navigate the associated challenges in a place they feel safe – forming an infrastructure of skills like grit, resilience and perseverance that will be invaluable further in their life.

There’s something for everyone! At Kenwood & Evergreen, we plan our activity periods so that at least once a day campers must choose a sport, and we meet their needs at any stage of their athletic journey.  Our structure is about being able to try sports for the first time or focusing on the sports that you enjoy/want to excel at: if you want to try cricket because you’ve never heard of that sport you can, if you want to play baseball four times a week because you have aspirations to get better, you can. If you want to compete in intramural sports against bunkmates for fun you can, if you want to play against other camps in a more competitive environment guess what, you can! Plus, we get ice cream after every tournament so there’s that added bonus… 🙂

Parents and camp professionals know that in addition to fun and long-lasting relationships, camp provides an environment that allows children to become better; better problem solvers, better communicators, better versions of themselves. Sports are a vital part of this development: those last-minute wins, the buzzer-beater losses, the impossible comebacks and all the other exhilarating moments involved are building healthy bodies and minds, ready to take on challenges in every aspect of life.  The world as a whole, and camp as an industry, will continue to evolve and change – but the potential of the ball fields and courts will remain timeless.

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