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The Case Against Summer Camp

Self-sufficiency isn't something most kids are born with. The school year, with its rigorous after-school sports and activity schedules, doesn't offer this sort of platform for learning how to be alone, or for knowing how to create their own fun -- a skill that's not only a good thing but also essential.
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In the months ahead, according to statistics from the National Camp Association, more than 6 million children will attend summer camp, for which their parents will pay an average $2,500 a week tuition. There are many excellent qualities about summer camp. Camp encourages children to develop independence, value the outdoors, and learn to make friends in new settings. It can also provide a much-needed break from the modern child's technology-driven world. At camp, kids figure out pretty quickly that there are still things left to do once the WiFi powers down -- a powerful, and ever-rare, lesson.

But what if the best thing for a child is to spend a summer doing absolutely -- nothing?

The tendency to overschedule children's time is a hard habit to break, and camp quite nicely fits into patterns most American parents establish during the typical overbooked school year. But in many instances, a summer spent at camp deprives a child of important "free play" time that those months have historically provided. For children who have difficulty entertaining themselves, or being alone -- and these days, that's more of them than ever -- camp can be a crutch. A better solution? A summer marked by long periods of old-fashioned, imagination-fostering, unstructured time during which kids can explore their passions in a setting that's not determined or sanctioned by adults.

Self-sufficiency isn't something most kids are born with. They need to be taught how to be with themselves -- what that means and what it looks like -- deliberately and repeatedly. The school year, with its constant routines and rigorous after-school sports and activity schedules, doesn't offer this sort of platform for learning how to be alone, or for knowing how to create their own fun -- a skill that's not only a good thing but also essential. Kids who can't come up with their own fun risk becoming overly dependent. They have difficulty forming clear senses of selves. They may grow to become adolescents or adults who need other people around constantly, or get anxious when situations aren't stimulating. Relying too much on camps or other activities supervised by or even determined by adults can prevent children from developing essential creative skills and leadership abilities.

Science backs this up. In the 2009 report "Crisis in the Kindergarten," researchers reported that kids who didn't know how to handle free time -- because they were never forced to -- often became frustrated and anxious when faced with having to figure out how to entertain themselves. Lack of free time also deprived children of developing crucial social skills like negotiation and compromise, especially in cases where adults heavily monitored their play.

It's difficult to listen to kids complain of being bored and, by extension, unhappy, which is one reason many parents are tempted to make sure kids' every second is somehow occupied. No one likes whining. But kids don't learn to play by themselves without practice. It can take time and lots of encouragement, but it's worth it: Solo play is an extremely important role in brain development. This means that kids benefit less when adults commandeer the game for them, or overschedule so that there's something to look forward to every second of the day. What's more, children who are always anticipating what's next on the activity roster never learn how to be happy in the moment they're in. They grow to be adults always searching for what they don't yet have.

Which is why summer vacations can be a great, and arguably necessary, opportunity for parents to encourage children how to come up with their own activities, figure out how to spend the day, and even learn to appreciate being bored. Though many parents view children's boredom as the enemy of peace and order, boredom is an important enabler of creation and imagination. For most parents, the best games played while growing up sprung from boredom -- and some of the most special memories, too.

That's not to say that children should go through the summer totally unsupervised. Boredom, after all, can also lead to trouble. But the freedom of expression that can come out of boredom can't be overlooked. Summer at home leaves open the possibility for an athletic child to realize that he really loves art. Or for a quiet reader to realize that she has a passion for creating inventive new games. Or for a child to revel in the joy of absolutely doing nothing at all. Life isn't constantly stimulating -- and in many cases, that's what makes it so wonderful. It's a vital lesson to teach.

Note: Not all summer camp is costly, of course: The American Camp Association cites average weekly fees as $304 for day camp and $690 for overnight camp, with many camps offering some form of financial assistance. What's more, this isn't a call to condone all summer camp which, as was pointed out, offers many valuable opportunities and teaches many valuable skills. Rather, it's an argument for the importance of free and independent play, forced creative thinking, and old fashioned boredom -- in this case, in the form of a camp-alternative summer.