Mental health remains in view for camp directors as we head into summer camp season.
In 2020, Camp James directors received emails or had parents coming in to say — often with tears in their eyes — that they had not seen their child smile for the past months prior to coming to camp.
“That they see that their precious little child is still in there after months of being homebound essentially and that at camp they see all their happiness returning,” said Camp James Newport Dunes co-director Theresa Collins. “We have returning campers that struggle at school not only academically but also socially, but at camp they are rock stars and social butterflies, and the parents are so appreciative that there is a place their child’s uniqueness is not only appreciated but celebrated.”
Collins said they also hear from their teens and young adults about how much camp has helped them with their depression, anxiety and loneliness.
“The positive mental health they gain from the summer seems to spill over into the school year and just when they need it, it’s camp time again,” said Collins.
Indeed the mental health needs of Orange County youth have not gone unnoticed by camp directors, who are also keenly aware of the many benefits of camps for kids. Given the current state of mental health in the country, activities like summer camp become that much more important.
“Camp allows children to practice their social skills, emotional regulation, teamwork and provides them with a sense of belonging no matter how different one may be/feel in other settings,” Collins said. “Our camp exposes children to a variety of outdoor activities so there are some physical skills developed, but our focus is actually much more about positive mental health. I think there is a camp out there for every child and I wish every child got the opportunity to go to camp. It can truly be life-changing for them.”
Collins said they felt like they’d really prepared their team for the summer of 2020. They were ready for the very young kids to have some social issues from lack of group settings for most children in preschool and lower grades.
“What we did not expect was that the social deficits would be for all ages — we have campers up to age 13,” Collins said. “It seemed that summer everybody struggled with social skills for the most part, which led to less cooperative play and more meltdowns.”
By 2021 they had a better idea of what to expect and reduced group size to help the team with behavior management.
“Again we were a little surprised that over the course of the year, many children still had difficulties turn-taking, sharing, having empathy and so forth,” said Collins. “In many cases this seemed to be because many campers were still not back full-time to in-person school or involved in extracurricular like they were prior to the pandemic.”
The smaller group sizes helped as well as training the team for how children might behave now living through a pandemic.
“In 2022, children for the most part seemed to be behaving much more similar to pre-pandemic times, but we maintained the smaller group sizes and that also seemed to really help both the staff and the campers,” said Collins. “We plan to keep those smaller groups for this upcoming summer as well and we have seven directors and staff headed to Orlando in February to attend the American Camp Association National Conference, where we will gather more information on the current state of children, training tips and strategies to create the best camp we can for our children.”
Amy Behrens, executive director of San Clemente’s Casa Romantica, which offers summer camps, said that during the pandemic, many children lost confidence interacting in the social situations that they would have normally experienced with in-person group activities.
“We saw an increase in children feeling overstimulated at the start of summer camp, leading to either excess energy or withdrawing from interaction,” she said.
Omar Ezzeldine, Ed.D, founder of Camp Izza in Irvine, said the pandemic highlighted the challenges kids were experiencing well before the pandemic.
“Kids who had unhealthy home environments became exposed to those environments even longer and became more harmed by them,” said Ezzeldine. “Kids who lacked social skills fell behind in developing those skills. Kids who didn’t get enough physical activity got even less. Now that we are post-pandemic, there is an even more significant need to remediate those harmful effects. Summer camp can provide all three of those opportunities for kids, so the need for kids to engage in high-quality summer programming is greater than ever.”
Dorain Cassell, director of Operations, Child & Youth Development for YMCA of Orange County, said there’s been a marked increase in children that are more emotionally fragile and less capable of handling challenging situations with others.
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“If you can imagine a 2-year-old developing through lockdowns without social interactions with other toddlers, and then suddenly being sent to transitional kindergarten, it makes sense that what they would have learned socially and emotionally at ages 2 and 3, must now be learned at 5 and 6,” Cassell said. “Behavior Guidance has become one of our main focuses since COVID, because we are very aware of the trauma that so many kids carry with them today. Many lack the social skills to be around others, so we have seen an increase in children preferring to be inside more and less interested [in] group activities.”
Diana Shabtai, Psy.D., ATR-BC, owner of Art Therapy OC, which offers camps, said she’s seen developmental differences, such as subtle changes in attention, speech, concentration, productivity of schoolwork/tasks, movement, mental stress and mood.
“Parents mainly reported seeing differences in their child in regards to anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, trouble focusing and feeling down and confused with the transition,” she said. “Art can help as a great coping mechanism and skill to carry and utilize. Art can be an oasis for children who are struggling.”
Diana Dizon, M.S., president of Orange County-based Bionerds, said she’s noticed kids attending their camps appreciate the in-camp time more post-pandemic than they did pre-pandemic.
“They are kinder, listen better to instructions, more understanding on what’s happening in camps and their surroundings,” she said. “I am impressed that some of our students are already wise and mature considering their young age.”
Mental Health In Focus
Shabtai said she’s seen how creating art not only helps with self-care but also self-love.
“The art validates the uniqueness of an individual, which increases a sense of accomplishment and feeling of positive self-worth,” she said. “At camps it’s also a social experience for kids interacting with others who are different and unique in their own way and they not only make new friendships, but creating art together also has proven to support a sense of social identity, encourages goal-directed behavior and enhances social resilience. I love watching the kids grow over the years to love art and all it has done for them.”
Amy Reda, owner of Endless Sun Surf School in Newport Beach, said she’s seen their camps benefit kids with severe mental health issues and also kids just trying to cope with the pandemic years.
“We work with various organizations that serve youth recovering from substance abuse and mental health disorders,” she said. “Some of these groups have been coming to us for years, and our surf lessons are a highlight and a strong component of the therapy process for them.”
Jennifer Bateman, Ph.D., senior vice president of Youth Development for Boys & Girls Clubs of America, said the clubs foster a comprehensive approach to addressing youth mental health needs, focusing heavily on prevention.
“Guided by key practices from external research, Boys & Girls Clubs of America utilizes a five-pronged approach to create a continuum of preventative and responsive actions to address the current state of youth mental and emotional well-being,” she said. “Clubs aim for all young people to receive emotionally safe support, skill-building experiences by adopting a trauma-informed approach, increasing staff training to include topics on trauma and mental health, proactively partnering with families to meet youth needs, and building partnerships with national and local mental health service providers.
“With the pandemic exacerbating a decade-long rise in youth mental health concerns, it’s more important than ever that young people feel safe and are surrounded by non-judgmental adults they feel comfortable approaching [with] tough topics. Boys & Girls Clubs offer safe spaces, caring mentors and life-enhancing experiences to help all youth reach their full potential.”
By Jessica Peralta