Experts have long been asking the question…Do kids need the outdoors? Just like they need sleep, meals, education etc.? Our experience with outdoor adventure programs paired with other research and experience suggests that YES, yes they do! Spending time outdoors is believed to help build self-confidence, increase self-awareness, and improve interpersonal skills. It can also help reduce anxiety, stress, and aggression.
More and more, the daily activities and routines that make up children’s’ lives are happening indoors. Because our lives as adults are the same way, parents are reinforcing this way of life without realizing it. When given the choice, many kids will choose to stay indoors watching television, playing video games, or some other activity. In his well-known book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv gives this trend a name: Nature Deficit Disorder. While there are increased concerns in the parenting and child development community on the long-term impact of “screen time” on a child’s development, we should also be concerned about the immediate impact that growing up indoors has on social skills, self-confidence, and life skills that kids need to live emotionally healthy lives.
Many parents are turning to summer camp to combat nature deficits in their child’s life. Summer camp has long conjured up memories of cabin mates, lake swimming, arts & crafts, and camp fires, but for some kids who prefer to stay indoors, summer camp almost seems like punishment. Many of our campers here at SOAR struggle to make friends, often feel like outsiders at school, and would choose computer games over hiking any day. The idea of spending two weeks camping and living outside can be intimidating. However, it can also be life changing when given the chance.
The effects of a long-term outdoor experience, like summer camp, can resonate in multiple areas of children’s lives. So why do kids need the outdoors?
Any outdoor experience focused on kids is going to involve other kids! Whether it is summer camp, boy or girl scouts, a sports team, or a school sponsored trip, getting kids outdoors together can have a big impact on the way they interact with one another. Unlike school, the outdoors provides an environment that is naturally engaging and offers new experiences for many kids. As a group, they will be confronted with challenges that have to be addressed through communication, flexibility, and teamwork, helping build interpersonal skills that typically do not come easy for kids who are struggling socially. Completing challenging activities such as backpacking 20+ miles, rock climbing, or rafting class III & IV rapids also has a huge impact on confidence and the way kids see themselves. Realizing strengths and conquering fears gives kids a chance to rally around each other and not only begin to see themselves differently but begin to see each other differently. With this newfound confidence, stepping out of their social comfort zone becomes less intimidating.
Self-confidence is one of the biggest and most immediate impacts of being outdoors. In addition to helping kids feel comfortable to be themselves and pursue friendships, the confidence that comes with being outdoors improves self-image and can impact behavior at home and at school. Before each camper begins their experience at SOAR, we ask parents to describe their child’s level of self-confidence. We then ask the same question after their child has been home for about two weeks, and nearly 66% of parents indicate that they have seen an increase in their child’s self-confidence. When kids are placed in an outdoor environment, away from the comforts and routines available at home, they are challenged physically and emotionally. Naturally they begin to grow in areas such as independence, self-reliance, problem solving, teamwork, and so much more. Growth in these areas results in increased self-confidence, giving kids the push they need to persevere and reach their academic, social, and emotional goals.
Being outdoors has many therapeutic qualities. This is why we vacation by the ocean, roll our windows down on the way home, and prefer a big, green backyard. Nature and fresh air feels good! It lifts our spirits and leaves us feeling mentally refreshed. With the growing stress of being kid, especially a kid with learning and attention issues, hitting the refresh button is crucial to limiting behavioral and emotionally setbacks. An outdoor experience allows kids to unplug—from technology and life—and just be a kid! They get to try new activities, realize new strengths, appreciate home, and learn more about themselves in a non-threatening environment. The Attention Restoration Theory (ART) developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s explains that our daily environments, such as work or school, require direct focus and force us to try and ignore distractions. Sounds exhausting right? Imagine if you are a 6th grader with learning and attention issues. Really exhausting! ART suggests that natural environments do the opposite. They require indirect focus, which actually helps to restore attention, allowing us to focus better when we return to our normal lives.
Kids need the outdoors! Make a conscious effort to spend more time outside with your child. Here are 12 Ideas for Getting Kids into Nature from Childmind.org. Also start thinking about your plans for next summer! A longer outdoor experience may be just what your child needs to begin reaching their goals.
Have a reluctant camper? Camp is fun! It is a wonderful opportunity to experience nature and learn more about yourself. Of course, parents know that! If you are having a hard time convincing your child, let us know! We’d be happy to answer their questions and explain more about the amazing adventures that SOAR has to offer.
This year, the National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday! This centennial is near and dear to our hearts at SOAR because National Parks make many of our adventures possible!
“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” At SOAR, we believe that the great outdoors provides endless opportunities to develop independence, life skills, and self-confidence. It also supplies the world’s largest platform to develop new hobbies, interests, and to realize new strengths!
Here are just a few of the amazing National Parks that are campers, students, and gappers visit each year. Thank you to the National Park Service for making these adventures possible. Happy Birthday!
Yellowstone National Park
All of our Wyoming campers get to spend a few days exploring Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone National Park is also one of the first stops on our Gappers regional expedition!
Dry Tortugas National Park
All of our Florida Keys campers spend three days soaking up the beauty of Dry Tortugas National Park. The crystal clear waters are the perfect spot for snorkeling and sea kayaking.
Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is the first stop on our CA Coastal Adventure. Campers take in the incredible views while snorkeling, sea kayaking, sea caving, and day hiking!
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is just one of the incredible National Parks campers get to explore on our CA Expedition. Here campers will find themselves surrounded by giant sequoias, magnificent waterfalls, and deep valleys surrounded by towering granite cliffs.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a major part of our NC Campers’ experience. Just minutes from our Balsam Base, it provides endless views and explorations for campers.
Summer Camp: Camper vs Parent Experience
As a camp staff, it’s a look I see often. It’s the look of panic when it’s time for parents to depart, leaving their campers on their own. Sometimes it’s hardly noticeable- a lump in the throat, or a raise of the eyebrows. Other times, it’s outright sobbing. And no, I’m not just talking about the campers. In these quick moments, my heart is filled with empathy for both parents and kids. This got me thinking about how this single, shared interaction then takes parents and campers on very different, yet sometimes ironic paths over the next few weeks of camp.
Day one: Hides anxiety, reluctantly begins asking questions like “what’s your name?” “Have you seen the newest _____ movie?” Moves into cabin, sees bunk beds. Brushes teeth, goes to bed homesick
Day two: First full day of camp activities. High ropes course. Camper terrified of heights learns to conquer their fear! Completes the ropes course in screaming in sheer excitement as they zipline across base. Camper goes to bed missing their own room. Writes letter home asking to be picked up.
Days 3 – 5: Camp activities continue. Campers mountain bike, rock climb, and learn how to prepare “trail pizzas” on camp stove. Camper misses home & bed, but mostly wonders what friends at home would think about their new skills.
Day 6: Parent update day. Campers do laundry at laundry mat. This requires them to sort through their dirty clothes, and then folds them when they are done. While waiting, camper writes letter home detailing the amount of dirt accumulated on clothes. Is proud. Groups then go out for ice cream.
Days 7 – 10: Backpacking trip teaches camper to pack and organize, and carry only the “essentials”. Backpack is loaded with personal stuff and group gear. Campers push themselves physically- hiking miles each day. Saw a snake on the trail, hung a food in a tree to prevent bears and critters from getting food, learned to dig “cat holes” before going to the bathroom in the woods, learned how to “spray” toothpaste while brushing teeth. Doesn’t miss video games. Sleeps under the stars.
Day 11: Last full day of camp. Whitewater rafting trip. Campers get soaking wet- take on huge rapids and learn how to paddle as a team, raft guide falls out of boat, all campers squeal in delight. Evening is spent in end-of-course celebration, has dinner out with group. Gets addresses and phone numbers of their new friends. Can’t believe camp is already over, not ready to go home.
Day 12: Camp ends. Camper packs for home. Finds 3 pairs of clean socks- never used. Spends breakfast telling stories with friends talking all about the new stuff they learned. Is happy when parents arrive, but “plays it cool” and shrugs off hugs and kisses. Camp debrief focuses on growth and successes at camp, camper is proud of all they have accomplished. Says good bye to friends and counselors. Begins to tell stories on the way home- already talking about the things he will miss at camp. Asks if he can make his family trail pizzas for dinner tonight. Says he wants to return to camp next year, only next time he wants to stay longer.
Day one: Full out sobbing in the car on the way home, begins asking questions like “What have I done? Will he hate me? Will he brush his teeth?” Has trouble sleeping that night- falls asleep in campers bed.
Day two: First full day at home alone. Sits for hours terrified that camper is miserable . Swears they hear camper screaming “Mom” several times, only responds twice. Considers getting in car and picking up camper- decides to wait until morning. Wonders if she packed enough socks?
Days 3 – 5: Spend just 25 minutes cleaning house. Normally, this would take hours. Spends hours watching nothing on tv. Wonders what friends are up to, but assumes they are busy and decides not to call or make plans- will save that for later in the week.
Day 6: Parent update day. Anxiously awaits call from camp director. Call comes at 11:07 am. Reports camper is having a fantastic time, has made friends and completed all camp activities. Reports that groups are currently doing laundry. Parent realizes they haven’t done laundry since camper left.
Days 7 – 10: Decides to clean out and organize car – amazed at number of juice boxes, crushed crackers and Tupperware lids in floor boards. Misses camper like crazy. Sorts through camper’s room to pull out old clothes, continues on to play room in search of toys to donate- leaves behind only the “essentials”. Cleans the bathroom- scraping globs of toothpaste from the floor. Spends hours on Pinterest finding recipes and crafts. Sleeps in camper’s bed, again.
Day 11: Last full day at home alone. Rereads camper letters several times during the day. Convinced camper will still be mad that they were “sent off”. Realizes they never called their friends to visit. Tries to take mind off camper…can’t focus. Goes to grocery store to purchase campers “favorite food” to prepare the perfect dinner tomorrow night. Can’t believe 12 days can feel so long.
Day 12: Camp ends. Departs home- sure camper is going to be so excited to see them. Envisions them running up to the car, like an escaped prisoner. Skips breakfast- to nervous and excited to eat. Arrives at camp, swears camper has grown inches. Slightly confused when camper doesn’t seem thrilled at their arrival. Proud and amazed at the report from counselors. Silently thinks “Really? My child did all that?” Listens intently to stories in car on the way home. (Much different car ride than the one spent in tears after dropping camper off). Gulps at the thought of camper being gone longer next summer.
Parents, does this sound about right? We often focus so much on how a camper will be able to handle camp, that we forget how hard it can be for us sometimes!