We receive many questions about the summer camp experience, but one of the most common concerns relates to summer camp length. Parents want to know "What's the best length of time for summer camp? How long should I send my child to summer camp for?" And there are certainly many options: Summer camp terms can be as short as one week or as long as eight weeks.
There are tradeoffs to short and long camp terms. This post will provide some guidance for parents wondering about these pros and cons.
What are the goals of a successful experience at summer camp?
Summer camp is one of the most powerful youth development experiences that a child can have. Camps encourage the growth of non-cognitive skills that are critical to success in college, success in the workplace, and more. Some examples of these skills include (but aren’t limited to) grit, critical thinking, communication, independence, confidence, and leadership. My personal passion is finding how to most effectively run a summer camp so that campers have a blast while they’re learning these skills.
When choosing the length of a summer camp term (or the camp itself), a great thing to focus on is how well that camp will foster growth in these skills.
ONE WEEK SUMMER CAMP SESSIONS
There’s typically some amount of anxiety associated with going to camp for the first time – for parents and for kids. Therefore, many new camp parents choose short one week camp terms to test the waters. I can understand why this approach is appealing and seems logical, but here is why I think it is actually not the best option.
I have been in the camp industry for 20 years, and I have noticed that one week sessions typically do not have the time to truly foster the development of these important skills. In other words, I do not know of any one week camps that can successfully foster these skills. But I’m not saying that longer is inherently better. In some cases, a two or three week summer camp term can lead to the same skills as a six week or longer camp does.
There are hundreds of campers that attend all-summer-long camps for seven or eight weeks and absolutely love them. But those camps are very expensive, and fewer and fewer parents can or want to send their children to camp for that long. Mid-length terms such as three week camp sessions offer a compromise, then, between the investment in community and skill development, and the affordability and flexibility needed in a busy summer.
Why One Week Summer Camp Sessions Fall Short
Most new campers use the first 2-4 days of camp simply as an adjustment period. It takes time to become fully integrated and invested in camp – an all-new community with new routines and traditions. One week at camp is simply not enough time for the camper to enjoy feeling fully comfortable, appreciate the camp community, and get to know their peers and counselors. This doesn’t mean a new camper is uncomfortable for 2-4 days, but he or she is still in the process of figuring out where everything, what to do when, who to go to, and more.
It’s a process that requires time. Typically, it’s only once a new camper is fully comfortable that he or she can form deep, long-lasting friendships, learn new skills, take on fun challenges, and really respect their counselors.
Because of this, there’s a bit of a disconnect in what is “easiest” for new or nervous campers. Two or three week camp terms are actually easier for most campers than one week camp sessions. Longer terms allow for more time enjoying the camp community, and less time feeling a little confused and disoriented. Still, it’s true that the longer sessions ARE a little harder on first time camp parents, but it’s not that way for most campers. Think of it this way: a kid in a one week camp term is only fully integrated into the camp community for one or two days out of seven (about ¼ of the total) versus eight or nine days out of 14 (almost 2/3 of the total) of a two week summer camp term and fifteen or sixteen days out of 21 (3/4 of the total) of three week camp sessions.
Because campers are not fully invested and comfortable during the majority of their one week camp term, they’re unsurprisingly much less likely to return to camp the next year. The average retention rate for one week camp terms is about 15-25% less than the retention rate for campers who attend longer camp terms. And since a child’s desire to come back to camp is one of the best reflectors of that camp’s effectiveness, retention statistics are telling. Since two and three week camp terms have much higher retention rates, it’s pretty clear that in many ways, they are a step above the one week camp experience.
Longer Summer Camp Sessions Are Not Inherently Better
Long camp sessions encourage new skill and activity discovery, deeper friendships, and personal growth. So logically, the longer the better, right?
The American Camp Association (the ACA) conducted a study of the benefits of summer camp which showed that two or three week camp sessions actually impart essentially the same growth benefits as longer camp sessions (four, five, and seven weeks).
Here are my thoughts on why that is, because the study didn’t address that question. Our brains are built to learn the most when we are in unfamiliar circumstances: think cavemen facing a new animal for the first time. Predator or prey? When we stretch ourselves and put ourselves into new scenarios, we are putting our brains on alert. They becoming like sponges, soaking in new information and lessons to help us make sense of this unique experience. You can probably clearly remember your first day or high school, or your first date with your significant other. But try to remember your 25th day at school, or your 20th date. You probably can’t pull them to mind quite as easily. By that point, the novelty was gone, so your brain was no longer in hyper-learning mode.
Now think about summer camp. The first weeks of camp tend to leave a stronger impression on campers than the last ones. When everything is new, a child’s brain is “spongelike,” ready to listen to the positive role models of his/her counselors and start believing they can accomplish anything.
This might seem counterintuitive, given what I’ve said about one week camps above. Certainly there are many unfamiliar experiences in a one week camp session that make a child “spongelike” and receptive to new ideas and lessons. Which is true, of course. But children need time to cement the benefits from their camp experience. Once they can build on their early experiences and gather additional skills and confidence during the second or third week, then they can truly reap the benefits of camp.
Relationships form and strengthen at camp incredibly fast. Since we know many campers are worried about finding a friend, camp professionals encourage new friendships on day one, which is quickly reinforced with shared activities, songs, and experiences. It takes more than one week, but the friendship can be as solidified in two or three weeks as it can be in seven or eight.
Overall, I think of long camp sessions like I think of long vacations. I certainly enjoy a long vacation, but if I’m honest, most of emotional benefits (relaxing and reflecting) happen in the first part. If all summer at camp works with your budget and schedule, it’ll be a marvelous way to spend your summer. But if your hope is to maximize the benefits of summer camp for less time and cost, two or three week camp sessions provide the perfect balance.
Personally, I prefer three week camp terms over two week camp terms. That way, children get three days of fun and ease for every day of confusion and packing. A three week term essentially guarantees this. Some campers adjust to camp life very quickly and can obtain this golden ratio in a two camp term as well. In a three week camp term, there is extra time to bond with counselors, try new activities, and develop true expertise in old favorites, whereas two weeks often feels like a whirlwind. It’s a blast of a whirlwind, to be sure, but a whirlwind nevertheless. In two weeks, there is enough time to form relationships and develop new skills, but campers will get the most out of the experience when they have that additional week to “steep” like a good tea.
For all the reasons described above, Camp Champions provides primarily two and three week summer camp terms. This enables us to have the most positive impact on our campers while still offering parents a variety of choices about when to attend. Here are some further resources to help you choose the best overnight camp for your family.
Further Reading on Choosing Overnight Camps