Getting ready for camp

By Dr. Betsy Stone

It is time, finally, for some guarded optimism. There are vaccines in arms and indications that the pandemic may be declining. The CDC says vaccinated people can see each other and vaccinated grandparents can hug grandchildren. Restaurant capacity is growing. Some of us are already thinking about travel. 

There’s one group of people who have been planning for this summer for 15 months – camp people. Summer camp directors, staff, campers and parents have been awaiting the news that a return is possible since the huge disappointment of last summer. For many of us, summer camp will be our first big excursion into the world outside of our families and pods. What can we expect? What should we prepare for?

Let’s back up a minute to think about some of what we’ve lost. The biggest non-tangible impact of COVID-19 has been the loss of trust. We have diminished trust in others, in institutions, in our government. We have spent much of this year making decisions with inadequate information and living with the consequences. We have all felt adrift from the support of communities that guide us and support us. 

We also need to understand that behavior – even bad behavior – is communication. A child acting out, sobbing, or distancing is trying to tell us something. Whether it is that she’s scared or he’s tired, behavior is a form of communication. We can respond to the message or ignore it – but we should always assume that there IS a message.

The pervasive loss of trust may impact summer camps. While the campers still trust their counselors, many of us feel less sure in our decisions, less comfortable in our skin. Each returning camper and counselor – they’re also kids — will be processing separation from parents and pods. I would expect some separation anxiety, some sleep disturbance, as kids and parents are on their own for the first time in a year. Some of this separation anxiety will be from parents – remember that the parent who calls twice a day is telling you how worried they are – not simply being a nudge!

We have also lost social skills. Over the course of the last year, pro-social behaviors like sharing and comforting have become forbidden acts. Our kids will have to re-learn how to live in groups, how to empathize, how to share. In many ways, COVID has upended our pro-social values. 

COVID has also changed us. Many of us have spent this year in a state of heightened anxiety and fear. Both alter our brain activity and make us more reactive. We are less thoughtful, less effective planners. Our brains have spent the year in a highly vigilant mode. It’s going to take time for us to think clearly, especially while we’re missing/not missing our homes and families. 

I think we will also see some body dysmorphia. No child is returning to camp with the body they left with! We have gained or lost weight, grown breasts and pubic hair, developed acne or smooth skin. While this is an issue every summer, a year spent looking at ourselves on zoom may have heightened our awareness of our appearance – and not necessarily in good ways. How can we help each other celebrate who we are, rather than complain about how we’ve changed? We should warn ourselves that we are simply not the same people who left camp – inside or out.

Where should we focus our energies? 

First, we must create opportunities – lots of opportunities – for people to tell their stories. What did you like about COVID? To whom did you get closer? What did you learn about yourself, your family? Did you develop patience? Did you slow down and discover that you were overscheduled? Did you do puzzles, increase your hobbies, play games? What made you sad? What and who did you lose? What aspects of COVID are you going to try to keep? 

Second, we must remember that camp is a place for joy. Let’s not spend the summer mourning. Let’s spend the summer celebrating. We all need some joy. Dance and sing and jump and run. And hug.

Third, let’s increase the opportunities for private, quiet time. We haven’t been with people for a year. It’s going to take time to re-adjust to social interactions. Let’s be sure that kids can time themselves out, reset. Being in bunks may be overwhelming and overstimulating for campers and counselors. We’ve been much less scheduled this year. Campers need some unscheduled time – for many of them it will be the first truly free time in 15 months. Most camps already provide this. Let’s understand that quiet time both allows and forces me to be alone with myself. Sometimes it’s wonderful – and sometimes it’s really difficult. For those of us who have spent much of the last year on technology, it may be hard to manage.

And we need to practice some self-care. Our directors are already exhausted, even before the summer begins. We cannot expect a “normal” summer. We have to be flexible and kind to ourselves. We must expect ourselves to move slower, to think slower, to adapt slower. Counselors will need to learn to slow down, and to set the bar lower. We have to model this and reward it. 

I am very aware that this is actually a time for experimentation and change. This year, more than any other years, we can try out new ideas, develop new programs. Don’t try to rebuild camp as it was. Build back better, more creatively, more audaciously. There is freedom in this summer that is new. Use it. 

All of us are changed. All of us have adapted and pivoted and adapted again. Recovery will take us back to normal, but ahead to a series of new normals. While we may dream of life as it was, we will enter life as it will be. We need the same kindness and forgiveness – of self and of others – that sustained us through this complicated, grief filled year. 

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis. She is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.