When Langford mom Sam Earl dispatched her children to summer camp this year, the three kids were smuggling along a stowaway, a favourite teddy.
Ted was practically preapproved, since Camp Thunderbird in Sooke allows parents to send along a favourite toy to help with homesickness. But he also proved unnecessary, since all Earl's kids - Nadia, 7, Logan, 9, and 11-year-old Lucas - seemed to take to camp life immediately.
"Once they had all settled into their little cabin groups, they were fine and it was me who was getting upset - 'Good-bye kids, I love you,' " said Earl.
"And they were all, 'OK, good-bye Mom. You're embarrassing us now.' "
For many urban kids, camp life offers a first taste of living close to nature. But it's also another important childhood milestone - a first experience of independence. For many, it's the first time they've been away from home on their own, living in cabins or tents and spending their days swimming, canoeing, orienteering and sitting around a campfire singing songs.
"It's playing at being independent," said Doug Magnuson, University of Victoria associate professor in the faculty of child and youth care.
"It's crucial to the idea of what play is. It's something you do for its own sake, and you learn about the limits and potentials of your own capacities.
"It's psychologically satisfying and an essential experience."
Yet Magnuson said outdoor nature camps are becoming a dwindling part of children's summer vacations, as parents choose from an ever-wider variety of education-themed day camps focusing on topics such as science and computers.
"A lot of parents are sending their kids to camps where they are promised to learn skills that will get them jobs when they are 22," he said.
For Magnuson, 51, and others of his generation and older, summer camp away from home was a near standard childhood rite of passage. "The majority of kids went to camp," said Magnuson, who grew up in Northern Minnesota.
He noted summer camps began in North American about the mid-1800s, about the same time urbanization was becoming a fact of life. That "Golden Era" of summer camps lasted from about the 1920s through the 1970s.
He said the early push for the summer-camp experience may have been a reaction of newly urbanized parents who felt their children were missing out on something special: small town community life and a close proximity to nature. Now, the historical connection to small towns and the wilderness is lost for most people. But the belief remains that getting close to nature is an important experience.
Magnuson doesn't necessarily believe that modern children are afflicted with "Nature Deficit Disorder," deprived if they don't get good exposure to the wilderness. "The challenges of our connections to nature have always existed."
But he believes the summercamp experience can be enormously enriching. The great outdoors is not just about the natural world. It's also a chance to be in a liberating, big, physical space where kids are free to move and play.
"It's play in the outdoors, and the adventure associated with that is a big deal," said Magnuson. "They have more freedom, typically at summer camp, to just play.
"They have ready-made friends in their cabin group or scout troop. They don't have to go looking for them."
Another benefit is that lots of camps involve some kind of democratic process. "They get to choose what they want to do," said Magnuson. "They get to do stuff that is under their control, rather than the adults'."
Peter Gibbs, summer-camp program co-ordinator at Camp Thunderbird - a YMCAYWCA-run facility in Sooke that accepts kids as young as six (they must have completed Grade 1) - says their camp experience is based on a set of core values.
Gibbs said living and playing together is a great way for kids to learn those values, which include teamwork, sharing, caring, honesty, respect, friendship and responsibility.
Counsellors do their part by encouraging kids to meet and overcome challenges.
Even running through a forest, with its natural obstacles and uneven groundwork, can be a revelation and a learning experience.
"It's really neat watching kids learn how to run in the woods," said Gibbs. "There's roots in the ground and it's uneven or it's steep and there are branches hanging down.
"It's an environment that is not totally uniform and what they are used to."
Another challenge that's part of the camp experience is homesickness or anxiety over separation from parents.
"For a child to overcome a little bit of homesickness is a really big accomplishment," said Gibbs.
Besides allowing children to bring along a comforting toy, camp counsellors might ask if a homesick child has a special bedtime routine, like saying a small prayer.
The one thing the camp won't permit is cellular telephones. Instead, children are asked to write postcards to their parents, who can send e-mailed messages, which are printed off and handed out to kids at mail call
Ultimately, if a child is inconsolable with homesickness, the camp would seek assistance from the parents, or even ask them to pick their children up and take them home. "There is a certain point where being homesick at camp is no longer a great experience and we don't want to scare people off," said Gibbs.
For Sarah Smith of Oak Bay - mother of Sebastian, 11, and Lukas, 4 1 /2 - her own memories of camp are nothing short of "amazing."
It began with a week-long camp experience at the age of nine, at Camp Artaban on Gambier Island. Smith went with a friend who cried the whole week, but her own experience was spectacular and she returned for many summers afterwards.
"I loved it," said Smith.
"We got to go swimming and hiking and do skits in the evening."
Son Sebastian is already a veteran of Camp Thunderbird and Lukas will go when it's his turn. Smith prepared her son with a visit to a pre-camp open house. "I had such a good experience at camp and I think it breeds such good memories and independence, I wanted Sebastian to have the same," said Smith.
SUMMER CAMP OPTIONS
- Homewood, Heriot Bay, Quadra Island Offers themed camps with outdoor activities and a Christian spiritual focus. homewood.bc.ca
- Camp Pringle, Shawnigan Lake United Church camp offering aquatic and outdoor activities on the western shores of Shawnigan Lake. Activities include canoeing, sailing, swimming, windsurfing, archery, crafts, nature study, skits, music, faith exploration, games, and out trips. camppringle.com
- Camp Thunderbird, Sooke Operated by the YMCA-YWCA, it offers accommodation in heated cabins with ensuite washrooms and activities ranging from swimming and canoeing to archery, orienteering and hiking, as well as rock climbing and kayaking for older kids. victoriay.ca
- B.C. Easter Seals Camp, Shawnigan Lake Offers instruction and education in all aspects of the outdoor experience for children with disabilities, according to level of ability. eastersealscamps.ca For more information about camps throughout the province, check out the B.C. Camping Association. bccamping.org.
© Copyright 2013