What's a good length of time for summer camp

Posted by Steve Baskin on Mar 4, 2014 10:24:00 AM
Steve Baskin
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Ideal Summer Camp Term Length  

best-length-of-time-for-summer-campPerhaps the most common question parents have about summer camp concerns the length of the sessions. They often ask us, "What's a good length of time for summer camp programs?" Summer camp can be as short as one week or as long as eight weeks. Parents want to provide the best possible experiences for their children, so they wonder what the trade-offs are regarding the different session lengths.

Goals of a successful summer camp experience

Before I go on, I would like to share what I think the goals of a successful camp experience should be. Summer camp is one of the most powerful youth development experiences that a child can have. When successful, camps foster skills that are critical to success in college and career (as well as everyday life now). These include grit, independence, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and leadership. My personal passion is to understand the best ways to run camp so that campers learn these skills while having a blast at the same time. When choosing a camp (or the length of a camp session), a parent should focus on how well the experience will help their child gain these advantages.

One week summer camp sessions

Sending your child away to camp can create parental anxiety.  As a result, many parents opt for a short session (like one week) to “see how they like it”.  While this approach may seem logical and is often emotionally appealing, it is ill-advised.

After being a camp professional for over 20 years, I have concluded that one week sessions are insufficient to foster these critical life skills.  Put differently, I have not seen camps do so successfully. I, however, am not saying that longer is always better.  A two or three-week session can foster the same skills that a 7-week camp does. I know many campers that attend 7-week sessions and they love them. But I also know that such camps are quite expensive and few parents want their children away that long.  

Why One Week Summer Camp Sessions Fall Short

First, one-week sessions simply have too few days where the camper is fully comfortable. Since new campers generally need 2-4 days to become fully integrated into the camp community, one week barely provides time to fully appreciate the camp community and its role models. Let me be clear, I an not saying that the camper is uncomfortable for 2-4 days, but he or she is learning the locations, traditions, songs and people of camp. That simply takes time. Once the child is comfortable, that is when he or she formulates the friendships, develops new skills, embraces challenges and appreciates their counselors.

This leads to a somewhat illogical truth: camp sessions that last two or three weeks are easier on campers than one week sessions. In the longer sessions, they spend more time enjoying camp and its community and less time feeling somewhat disoriented. Of course, longer sessions ARE somewhat harder on first-time parents, but not on their children. Put differently, a child in a one-week session is only fully integrated for 1-2 days of the seven (roughly one-fourth) versus 8-9 days out of 14 (almost two-thirds) of a two week summer camp sessions and 15-16 out of 21 (three-fourths) of three week camp terms. 

Also, because campers are not fully integrated for the majority of a one-week session, they are substantially less likely to return to camp the next year. One-week sessions typically retain 15-25% fewer campers than longer session camps.  Nothing reflects the quality of a camp experience better than a child’s desire to return. The fact that two and three week summer camp sessions have such higher retention rates is perhaps the best proof that they are not comparable experiences.

Longer Summer Camp Sessions Are Not Necessarily Better

So if a longer session means more time for discovery, friendship and growth, does it not follow that longer is always better? Not necessarily.  

A study of the benefits of camp conducted by the American Camp Association showed (somewhat surprisingly) that a 2 or 3-week session provides essentially the same benefits as a 4, 5 or 7-week session.  

The study, however, made no attempt to explain this, but I have a theory.  We learn the most when we are “out of our comfort zone”. New and unfamiliar experiences trigger our brain to be on high alert – making our minds like sponges that take everything in. That is why most of us remember our first day of college or our first date with our eventual spouse, but we do not remember the 30th college day or 30th date. With this in mind, the earlier weeks of camp tend to have more impact than the later ones. When the child is in the “spongelike” states, he or she then absorbs positive role models, character, leadership and teamwork, the child is very well served.  

I know that seems counter to what I said earlier about one week sessions.  Clearly, in a one-week term, there are lots of unfamiliar experiences that make a child “spongelike”.  That is true, but the camper needs time to consolidate the gains from the experiences.  The child benefits most when she can build on the early experiences and gather additional skills and confidence.  

Also, camp friendships happen remarkably quickly.  Camp directors know that all campers want to make a new friend on opening day. This rich friend-making environment is then reinforced with lots of shared activities, songs and experiences. Every summer, we see campers form truly lasting friendships in three week summer camp terms and even two week summer camp terms that rival those of longer camps.

In short, I see longer sessions the way I see longer vacations – I like them longer, but I get most of the emotional benefits (unwinding, reflecting) in the first part of the vacation. If a longer session fits your schedule and budget I cannot imagine a better way to spend a summer. If however, your hope is to get the most benefits in the least amount of time, the sweet spot is two or three week camp terms.

I have a preference for 3 weeks over 2 weeks.  I like for the campers to have 3 days of joy and comfort for every one day of disorientation/packing, which is essentially assured in a three week term.  A camper that adjusts rapidly in a two week session can get this ratio, but not all campers do.  In a three week session, campers have that extra time to bond with their counselors and to discover new skills.  Two weeks can be a whirlwind – a fun whirlwind, but a whirlwind nonetheless.  In two weeks, campers have time to form relationships and foster skills, but they benefit from “steeping” in them for those extra 7 days.  

With all this in mind, our camp (Camp Champions) focuses on two and three week summer camp sessions. We have found that we can have the impact on our campers that we strive for while providing parents multiple options during the summer to attend. If you are looking for more resources to help you choose the best sleepaway camp for your family we have provided some helpful links below:

Download Guide: Choosing the Right Summer Camp

Further Reading on Choosing Sleepaway Camps


Tags: Parents