Watching my son after he returned from summer camp was the first hint that remarkable growth was under way. He was engaged, giving and confident. Viewing the camp experience as a respite from the real world is somehow to miss the point-it is the real world-simply getting dirty, trying to pull harder so your team wins, finding the friend you always wished for, being yourself-it's the time of your life and the promise of the future.
As a parent, I constantly ask, where do children have their mental, personal, emotional and physical needs nurtured? Where will they learn to get along with others, to take safe risks, to deal with conflict in a constructive way that encourages them to be creative, to explore and discover, to learn by actively doing, to try-to fail and try again? Within the camp community, I find what I intuitively know as a parent-to be a positive, productive adult, one needs the opportunity truly to experience childhood. That is how one grows.
Camps enjoy the chance to work their magic with all of our children: the gifted athlete, the budding musician, the curious naturalist, the first-time camper and the child with a disability. The idea that camp is for every child isn't just a pipe dream-it's a reality. And it's one that parents and children celebrate and the American Camp Association supports by promoting safe, fun and developmentally appropriate experiences within the nurturing camp setting.
Is camp quantifiable? Maybe not-but as a parent, I can only react with extreme pleasure as my son displays those acts of kindness and generosity of spirit that follow so naturally from his time at camp. His chance to develop and grow was marked by constant changes-our camps meet those challenges every day of every session and that's why doing what we do becomes so vital.
Camp is about firsts-a campfire outdoors, leading a pony, catching a frog, enjoying the evening stories and being chosen-chosen to be part of a community that values each child and his or her special gifts. It's about making memories and honoring the traditions of those who have come before.
We love what we do at the American Camp Association, for every child and every family, every camp staff director and counselor. The bar couldn't be higher for us, knowing that our goals and standards are the ones that support the highest aims of the camp community-safe environments; caring, competent adult role models; healthy activities and learning experiences; service to the community and the environment; and opportunities for leadership and personal growth.
Throwing the doors wide open to allow generations of children and families to enjoy the value of experiential learning and growth, a path to self-esteem and independence is what camp is all about. From urban and rural settings to international camp opportunities, we revel in watching children discover their place in the world-making a difference is truly what makes the difference.
Peg L. Smith is chief executive officer at the American Camp Association.