The Pros of Summer Camp for Kids in the Pandemic World

Girls camp dance

Like nearly everyone in the world, my daily life as I knew it changed completely with the pandemic.

Suddenly, my active-duty husband and I transitioned to working from home, and our two young children began virtual learning – all in our small Washington, D.C. apartment.

Next, all our summer plans were cancelled. Our family had been looking forward to sending our kids to a wonderful Jewish day camp just outside of DC. In fact, Jewish summer camp has been a plan for our children since before they were born. Unfortunately, this dream had to be postponed as many day camps and the majority of overnight camps didn’t open at all in the summer of 2020

With the summer of 2021 right around the corner, camp is on my mind!

What is the Status of Camps for 2021?

The good news is that camps are largely open for business, and summer camp directors and staff have been planning for this summer for 15 months. 

Students performing an animal dance with animal masks
Students at St. Martin’s Summer Day Camp perform in the talent show

As with last summer, the status of camps largely depends on state guidelines. Having relocated to Louisiana, every camp that I researched is planning to open with varying COVID-19 protocols in place and most with a reduced capacity. In Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia many camps are preparing to open as well. However, the ability for camps to open rests on their state and local guidelines, and some states are enforcing stricter guidelines and protocols.

As such, fewer camper spots are available this summer due to safety measures. If you haven’t already registered for camp, it may be challenging to secure a spot. Be sure to do your research right away and sign up your child sooner rather than later.  

Military Parents are Eager to Send Their Kids to Camp

In 2020, military spouse Leah Wade was waiting to see if her daughter’s Montessori school would offer camp. “Lexi needs to be around other kids the way she needs air. Without that stimulation, she is miserable. Camp lets her run, have fun, socialize, learn, you name it.”

Lexi’s school chose to open camp and with safety precautions in place, Wade was comfortable sending her daughter. When Lexi was able to attend camp last summer, she said that the difference in her daughter was startling. “She lit up again!” Wade said that she is planning to send her daughter back to camp again.

Navy spouse Jamie Geis chose to homeschool her two elementary-aged daughters this year due to health concerns with in-person learning. However, Geis worries that her daughters “have lost a lot of social skills in the last year. Our circle has gotten so small and when they run into confrontation, they aren’t nearly as equipped to deal with it.”

She hopes that by attending a Girl Scout camp this summer, her daughters will be better prepared to deal with uncomfortable social situations they may face in the fall when they start attending their local elementary school again.

Wade and Geis aren’t the only ones concerned about the lack of opportunity to develop interpersonal skills.

In her article Getting Ready for Camp, Dr. Betsy Stone highlights social skills as a major reason to send kids to camp. “Over the course of the last year, pro-social behaviors like sharing and comforting have become forbidden acts. Our kids will have to re-learn how to live in groups, how to empathize, how to share. In many ways, COVID has upended our pro-social values”.

Screen Free Time in the Outdoors

In addition to the socio-emotional well-being of children, parents are also concerned about the amount of time their children are spending on screens.

Between virtual learning and entertainment, there has been an increase in screen usage over the last year (for understandable reasons). Parents have scrambled to care for their children while working and overseeing virtual learning. As of March 2021, 20% of students remain learning virtually.

“Now more than ever, it is crucial that we strategically and consciously create space for young people to move their bodies, be outside, and connect face-to-face with peers” says Catherine Menendez, a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate who works with Camps Timberlake and Merri-Mac in Black Mountain, North Carolina.  

Like many parents, I am guilty of relying more on screens to entertain our kids this past year. Camp is a place where my kids can unplug from technology for a few weeks and have fun in the outdoors.

Camp is a Place to Return to Play 

Mother and son at the zoo in front of an elephant statue
Chaperoning a field trip with my son’s camp to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, LA 

For all of 2020, my oldest child was engaged in virtual learning. It was challenging to find time for him to get outside during the school week. Besides lunch, he had very few breaks during the day, and my husband and I were both still working.

Since PCSing to Louisiana at the end of 2020, my children have been able to attend school in-person. I have already seen such a change in their emotional health since they started school. There are still a lot of restrictions in place that don’t allow for enough creativity or free play. Class sizes in public school can be large, and even things like recess are now structured.  

“Even if kids have been in school, they don’t have the play aspect. Normally the whole first grade goes outside. But, you’re with the same people all day now,” shares Kristi Jacobs-Stanley, a New Orleans teacher, camp director and mom.

Kristi and I discussed the anxiety her own daughter experienced due to not being able to understand everything that is going on with COVID-19. As an only child, her daughter craves playing with other kids and trying new things, but in-person play dates have been difficult when trying to follow safety guidelines. For these reasons, Kristi is excited to send her seven-year-old to St. Martin’s Theatre Camp this summer. She is comfortable with the precautions the camp is taking and trusts the director, another theatre teacher and colleague. 

Overnight Camp is Another Important Experience for Children

Two boys posing for a photo together at camp
Aiden Kempner and his friend Elijah Arnowitz met in Virginia when the Kempners were stationed there and now attend overnight camp together at Camp Ramah New England

While all children can benefit from an overnight camp experience, it can be particularly impactful for military kids.

Marissa Kempner’s oldest son and daughter have attended Camp Ramah New England, a Jewish overnight camp, for three years, and her youngest is going for the first time this summer. For her military-connected children, “camp is a bridge that connects you and gives you friends all over the place.”

As Nancy Keates explains in a Wall Street Journal article about summer camp, “Overnight camp has always been a way to give children an experience removed from the realities of everyday life—a place to run free, learn new things and make lifelong friendships”.

Kempner’s 16-year-old son Aiden has already formed strong friendships with his Camp Ramah friends. When he was younger, Aiden traveled to attend a camp friend’s bar mitzvah in Massachusetts, and as a sophomore he is already planning a possible gap year in Israel after high school graduation with camp friends. Additionally, Kempner highlights that, “Jewish sleepaway camp provides kids with the ability to explore their Judaism in any way they want to”.

As the mother to two Jewish military-connected kids myself, I am aware that sometimes military life can be challenging. Due to the transient nature of military service, we can’t always give our children the religious education or experiences we’d hoped for. That’s where camp comes into play.

Overnight camp can be a great way to fill in these gaps and to bolster our efforts as parents. Overnight specialty options are numerous and can include, but are not limited to, religious based overnight camp, sports camp, theatre camp, and much more. Many even offer a military discount!

Children sitting in a circle listening to a parent reading a book
Reading a book to my daughter’s Jewish preschool class. 

Whether you are considering sending your child to overnight camp or day camp, you should act fast.

Spots are filling up and many camps have already reached capacity. I am very grateful to have secured a Jewish day camp and theatre camp for my children to attend this summer, and my oldest is eager to start his Ramah Darom overnight camp adventure next year!