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  • Writer's pictureJodie Finney


Updated: Mar 1, 2020

"I'm sorry did someone say SUMMER? Let me unzip my full-length parka while you tell me more." All kidding aside, it is around this time of year that we all start thinking, more like yearning, for summer. And with the prospect of summer on the horizon, camps are beginning to be a topic of interest. 

Fear, not fellow reader I have just the interview for you. Tom and Catherine (aka my sister) Holland are the proud owners of Wilderness Adventures and have been in the camping world for years. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom. You can read our dialog below, but first I wanted to give you more information about Tom and his accomplishments. He's a pretty cool dude.  

An award-winning educator, Tom spent three years teaching social studies at the secondary level before he left the classroom to work at a camp in northwest Wyoming. After two years on the team, he was named the Executive Director, a role he held for six years. In 2013, he went on to work for the American Camp Association and held the roles of Chief Foundation Officer and Chief Executive Officer. Known as a leading expert on the camp experience, Tom has spoken at both national and international conferences on youth development, the camp experience, and children in the outdoors. He holds a B.A. in secondary education and an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis. Tom is a board member of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation and City Kids Wilderness Project.

So Tom, with all your years of camp experience, what do you see as the most significant benefit(s) children get from going to sleep away camp?

"Our roles as parents are all about us preparing our kids for life. One of the most important things we can do for them is to give them time to grow outside our presence. When they have time away from us as parents, they develop critical life skills that will resonate for years. These skills are independence, critical thinking, creativity, and resilience. This is what camps offer. They offer kids an opportunity to grow in new and unique ways outside the watchful eye of us as parents. Also, camp is a great place to make new friends. Friendship is elemental to our time growing up, and camp provides a natural forum to connect with others. 

One more thing: kids will not know this growth is happening. They will describe camp as just 'fun,' and we must understand that the outcomes of a quality camp experience go well beyond fun." 

What should a parent look for when selecting a sleep away camp for their child?

"I always encourage parents to start by looking to see if the American Camp Association accredits the camp. It is the one accreditation organization that evaluates summer camps. With 13,000 camps in the US, there are many options; however, of these, only 2600 are accredited. Start there.

Then, look at the basics: your schedule, your child's age, price and affordability, and location. By considering these elements, you will narrow your search. Then, once you have taken these steps, consider your child. I use the word Child with intentionality: the right camp is not the same for every kid (even in the same family). Not every kid is ready for a four-week sleepaway camp at 12 (and that's okay!). Next, consider activities and make sure the child has bought into the idea of the program. Forcing a child to go where they are not excited about any activity is a recipe for disaster. Also, consider your child's camp readiness. Do they go over to friends' houses often? Do they spend the night out? "

Many camps across the country are technology-free. What do you see as the benefits of that and why?

"I suspect the readers of this will remember a time when cell phones did not exist (right, when 411 was a thing?!!). We have been given a gift and that is the gift of balance when it comes to tech. We remember a time when there was no cell phone/technology usage all the time. Having these memories, many of us take this balance into our own tech usage. But here is the deal: our kids do not remember such a time. Technology is all they have known. We must give them this time. We must provide them with opportunities to fully learn that their brain and their heart are far better tools than their phone, Alexa or Siri. That balance is the benefit. Tech free camps provide kids with the knowledge that they can exist without technology, and it strengthens their sense of self because of it."

 Many sleepaway camps are 4 to 6 weeks in length, that seems like a long time. In your experience, do kids do well at that length of time? Do you think there is a perfect camp length? If so, what would that be? 

"The perfect length of time is different for every child, and parents will need to assess that on their own. I have seen 9-year olds do amazingly for 4 weeks of camp, and I have seen 16 year olds struggle with 4 weeks, so it is really child dependent. That said, I think it is very productive, both for the child and the parent, to grow into the duration of camp. For instance, a 10 year old going away for 1 week is a wonderful first step. Nevertheless, the growth that can be accomplished from 3-5 weeks is astounding. Moreover, I believe that all high school students should experience 3-6 weeks away from home prior to attending college. This time away is great for the child and great for the parent as well. "

What are common Dos and Don’ts that parents should know prior to sending their child off to sleep away camp?

"Do reach out to the camp and camp director and get to know them. They view this as a partnership, so don't hesitate to contact them.

Do take time and approach the packing list months ahead. And break in that gear if need be. But don't pack things that the camp says not to bring (i.e., candy)-there is a good reason why they address those items.

Do send your child with a memento from home. It will mean a lot to them. 

Do have active discussions with your child about the program and educate him/her on what a typical day looks like.

Don't be worried if your child is homesick. This is totally normal and something all camps handle all the time!

Don't worry if you do not receive updates all day, every day from the camp. They are focusing on your child, not texting you the meals of the program. That said, pictures that are provided by the camp are great, but if you see your child in the background of a picture, do not worry! It does not mean that they have been left behind. Take these pictures and cherish them, but do not read too much into the dynamics of the photo. 

Don't feel like a child needs to go away to camp with a friend. Sometimes it can be freeing for a child to go to a program alone. 

Don't make your own camp experience bigger than it actually was. Camp stories are fun and often exciting, and we remember them as more prominent than they actually were. When kids are told these tall tales, they often struggle to live up to these experiences in their own camp time. "

When is the best time to sign up for sleep away camps? Time of year? And the ideal age?

"Some camps offer early enrollment in the fall and can offer some discounts. Generally speaking, the longer the program, the farther out you want to look. That said, January and February are big months for camp enrollment. Ideal age is all dependent on the child. My eldest was ready for sleepaway camp at 8, but my middle child might not go until she is 13 or 14. "

WA is a different type of sleep away camp. Can you explain some of the main differences? Similarities?

"Most residential summer camp programs have 100-400 kids and a bunch of cabins. Activities are on a set schedule each day. Routine is critical. Wilderness Adventures is a program that is all about your trip group. This is a significant difference: at any camp, you may be one of 100, at WA your trip group will be 10-13 kids your age. That provides for a more potent and intimate experience; one where we can focus a great deal on each member of our group. Additionally, adventure travel is our routine and the outdoors/natural world is the medium by which we provide this experience. So, our groups are moving from one place to another, going from national park to national forest and having adventures (ie backpacking, whitewater rafting) with each day. We have a lot of traditional camp aspects, like singing songs, and playing group games, but it is our schedule of activities and our group size that makes us the most different. "

Having spent so many years in the camping industry, what do you love most about your job?

"There is nothing as pure as seeing ten middle-schoolers sit around a fire in the middle of nowhere and share their story. If one could see what I get to see every summer, people would know that camp (and Wilderness Adventures) is way more than just 'fun.' I love seeing kids at their best. I love the hope that each group of students gives me when they reflect on their time with us and how they want to take their experience and go make the world a better place. I went on Wilderness Adventures as a kid, and its positive impact on my life continues to define my character, and it taught me how to dream big. Now, I see it continuing to do that for so many kids. To be a part of that really is me living my dream, and I think we are impacting the world is a positive way, 1 kid at a time. "

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