How Summer Camp Helps Kids Unwind After Covid
Summer camp = the best outdoor therapy
By Ruth Diamond

JCC Camps at Medford yoga specialist Rachael McFadden leads a class
Photo: Stinsman Photography

Two years ago, Sara Sideman was excited to hire a mental health director for JCC Camps at Medford. As the camp’s director, Sideman was teeming with ambitious ideas to address the mental health needs of campers and staff. But that was the beginning of 2020, so it wasn’t too long before the entire camp season was canceled.

Last summer when camp returned, the plans she had originally made for the mental health program went out the window. Her team had to start from scratch.

“We thought we would be able to take a deep, holistic dive into understanding how mental health issues are handled at camp,” says Sideman. “But from Day 1 on, our mental health director didn’t sit down for 39 days straight. We were putting out fires all summer long.”

“With the younger kids, there was a lot more kicking, hitting and biting – things we don’t normally see at camp,” she says. “Many didn’t know how to talk to each other or navigate conflict anymore.”

With older campers and counselors, mental health struggles showed up as panic attacks, anxiety, depression and anger issues, Sideman says. Teens and young adults struggled while processing loss and the experiences they missed out on as the pandemic dragged on.

“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she adds. “These were really heavy issues that we as leadership had to take on. But camp itself was a light-hearted, safe place that so many kids consider their home.”

Across South Jersey and beyond, camps are gearing up for what is expected to be a blockbuster summer. Enrollments are up 20 to 30% across the board as more families look to the camp experience as an antidote to the stressors and isolation their children have experienced over the pandemic, says Andy Pritikin, director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Bordentown and a past president of the American Camp Association, NY/NJ. No one is taking that responsibility lightly, he notes.

“The past 2 summers affirmed unequivocally that there’s no better place for children and young adults to learn and regain their social and emotional equilibrium than at summer camp,” says Pritikin. “It’s like a social-emotional vaccine.”

“Older campers and staff actually thank us for providing an electronic-free, stress-free utopia.”

Teen leaders during a Color War relay event at Liberty Lake Day Camp

Liberty Lake, one of the few camps that opened during the 2020 season, now has 2 years of experience running camp safely during the pandemic. Pritikin says he’s in the process of hiring a second full-time social worker in anticipation of the mental health needs of both campers and staff.

“Everyone was super grateful to be here last season and the overriding thing was that the kids had an amazing time – but it was the hardest summer ever,” says Pritikin. “It was like a box of chocolates. You didn’t know what you were going to get behavior-wise.”

The youngest kids, the pre-schoolers, were basically a year behind developmentally. And the middle schoolers, teen and young adult counselors were also suffering. “After a year and a half of being hidden from society at a really important time socially in their lives, camp was a big opportunity for them,” he says. “It wasn’t easy but they bounced back.”

One of the camp’s superpowers is that no one is permitted to use a cell phone or any electronics during the day. “You’d think after so much screen time kids would be jonesing for the phones, tablets or TVs,” he says. “Nope. Playing outside with their friends is way more engaging. Older campers and staff actually thank us for providing an electronic-free, stress-free utopia.”

Kids riding 3-wheelers at Chartwell’s Happy Day Camp

Chartwell’s Happy Day Camp, which also had a 2020 season, saw its enrollment double last year, says Owner Jim Johnston. “Parents were just so grateful we were open during Covid,” he says. “It was such a joy watching the kids being kids, smiling, laughing and just having fun.”

Beyond sports and fun in the club’s 6 pools and splash park, the opportunity to connect with the simplicity of nature really resonated with campers, Johnston says. Led by a New Jersey forest ranger, Chartwell’s nature program features educational walks on trails across the 20-acre property. It was such a hit during the pandemic that it’s expanding this season.

“We’re working with the 4H Club and Audubon Society on our butterfly habitat. Kids will literally be raising the monarchs,” says Johnston.

At the JCC Camps in Medford, a yoga and meditation program that introduced campers to mindfulness strategies last summer will be back again. The Zen Den provides kids strategies for controlling their bodies and self-regulating their moods, says Sideman.

And mental health initiatives will expand this year as well. Sideman is hiring 3 additional clinicians. They will be involved in staff training, developing individual behavior plans for campers who need them and writing a policy for dealing with mental health issues that come up at camp.

“We want everyone on the same page when it comes to these decisions and how we manage them,” says Sideman. “We felt we needed this support pre-pandemic and the need is so much greater now. Fortunately, camp really is such a unique place to gain experiences so beneficial to our campers’ mental health.”

March 2022
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