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Summer camps provide socialization, structure after year of isolation

Best friends at summer camp
Summer camps can not only provide campers with the opportunity to socialize after quarantine, but to build friendships that can last a lifetime. (Source: Adobe Stock)

After a year of sheltering at home and online school cutting off many students from both existing friends and opportunities to make new connections, many school-aged children have reported the mental and physical effects of social isolation to their parents and pediatricians.

Dr. Hong Frankel, a pediatrician at SSM Health Outpatient Center in St. Charles, even stated that drugs like Prozac, which is an antidepressant also used in cases of bulimia nervosa and panic disorder, have been increasingly prescribed. More and more students have also been experiencing stress about virtual learning and isolation as a result of the prolonged periods of isolation.

“It’s really hard on all the kids, and overall, in-person learners are is doing much better than virtual-only (students) just because they have some connection with their friends, and they have their relationships still going,” Frankel said.

Since the start of the pandemic, summer camps across the United States have made multiple changes in accordance with studies from the American Camp Association (ACA) to make sure campers and counselors alike would be able to thrive in safe environments. Going into the 2021 camping season, many previous guidelines and rules have been streamlined thanks to advances in COVID-19 research and the growing availability of vaccines.

“We’re doing better,” Frankel said. “We don’t have to worry about our grandparents as much, because a lot of older people have been vaccinated. That’s a big layer. I have quite a few patients that are quarantined or doing virtual-only learning because their grandmother has diabetes or asthma and something like that, so they can’t go anywhere. Some will go back to in-person learning just because of that. It’s good for the kids to kind of let themselves go, not much, but just a little bit more flexible.”

The prospect of reintroducing summer camps in 2021 is an even more valuable social experience than usual for campers of all ages.

“Kids with a little bubble – even a very tiny bubble, like a boyfriend or a girlfriend – they tend to do better than kids that are by themselves,” Frankel said. “A group setting, like summer camps, will definitely improve the mental status of all kids of all ages.”

Many camps have added safety regulations that don’t compromise the more social parts of the traditional camp experience. 

According to the ACA, many summer camps are being recommended to operate in a cohort system, where campers are grouped together based on factors like age, interest or geographical location.

According to Frankel, group learning on any size can provide a myriad of social benefits, especially in a controlled environment like camp. However, different group sizes and dynamics can have different pros and cons.

“A large group is going to give you more choices,” Frankel said. “If this kid doesn’t like this other guy, he can talk to another one, so you have more choices than a small group. (But) one good thing about small groups is that they get more individual attention, so they may learn more compared to big groups.”

The different summertime activities that take place at camp, such as specific skills or crafts, also offer campers the benefit of teaching their peers and sharing their own skills while simultaneously learning and collaborating with others. 

“I do like summer camps,” Frankel said. “It’s just like a school, you want kids to have social (interaction) to learn new things and be with each other so they have that camaraderie.”

According to Frankel, these moments can serve as pivotal first experiences of independence for some campers, which can help bolster feelings of self-confidence as they age.

“Let’s say it’s soccer,” Frankel said. “They will probably like each other more because they can talk about soccer, they can play, develop strategies and so forth.”

While socialization is a big part of summer camp, some may find the prospect overwhelming.

While feelings of anxiety are normal, according to Frankel, campers should feel comfortable communicating their concerns to parents or camp counselors to prevent bigger disagreements or tension down the lines.

For some campers, changing cohorts or meeting another group of people may be the best and healthiest solution that still builds relationships but doesn’t force them to stay within a group where they don’t click.

“I do not want little boys and girls to stay miserable in a group that he or she really does not care for,” Frankel said. “That would really be a negative experience for kids, and we don’t want to traumatize them because they don’t have the choices. That’s the best part of being in a bigger group. You can literally pick and choose, so that allows them the option.”

For those feeling anxiety, Frankel encouraged open communication with parents and peers as a means to facilitate feelings of trust and maintain a consistent and dependable line of communication.

With their shorter duration and more flexibility, Frankel recommended day camps as a good starting point for camping newbies.

“I think parents need to talk to their kids,” Frankel said. “Not all kids are ready for summer camp. Some of them may be ready for overnight camp, but I think you can start with day camp. Just go there with a group of kids and see if he or she likes it. Do a little prep before you throw your kids in a big swimming pool and expect them to swim well.”

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