By Meghan Vivo
With college and the responsibilities of young adulthood looming, teens have just a few more years to “be kids” and prepare for the challenges that lie ahead. While most parents understand the many benefits of sending their teen to summer camp, it can be difficult to choose the best summer camp for your particular child.
Your teen may have a variety of talents and interests, and he may be pushing to go to a camp with all of his friends from school. At the same time, you know he would benefit most from a camp that could help him address some of the troubling behaviors he has exhibited in the past and get him back on track to finish high school on a high note.
Fun, Friendship, and the Freedom to Redefine Yourself
Wilderness camp, also known as adventure camp, wilderness therapy, or outdoor education, may be the solution you’re looking for. At wilderness camp, teens hike and camp in the great outdoors, play games, and get to know other teens but with the added benefit of having trained field guides and master’s level therapists available to offer insights into more effective communication and coping strategies.
Although your teen may want to attend a summer camp with her friends, sometimes getting away from negative peer influences and starting fresh in a new, unfamiliar environment brings about the greatest transformation. At wilderness camp, teens’ thoughts are not dominated by technology, the Internet, or the opinions of friends and their days are not ruled by a time clock.
Once separated from these influences, young people are free to act in ways they may be embarrassed of around peers or family members at home. For example, they will not be judged for being “weak” if they open up and share their personal story. Being free of the expectations and judgments of others can liberate young people to explore who they truly are and who they want to be.
Growth Through Challenge
Wilderness summer camp is an opportunity for teens to develop life skills for the next stage of life. There are plenty of challenges that go along with living in the wilderness with a new group of peers, but these challenges create unlimited opportunities to succeed.
At some wilderness camps, teens learn to create fire using a primitive bow drill, build traps, or mold instruments from trees and other natural elements. At other summer camps, teens participate in ancient rites of passage such as sweat lodge or “solo” (a supervised, solitary experience in the wilderness). These experiences help teens learn self-reliance, patience, responsibility, teamwork, and other essential life skills, as well as the important lesson that hard work pays off.
Although most teens begin wilderness camp believing they couldn’t possibly accomplish the tasks presented, they often leave a summer in the wilderness saying, “If I can do this, I can do anything.” After being challenged to communicate in new ways, push themselves physically and emotionally, and take a fresh look at their lives, graduates of wilderness therapy feel confident and empowered to face the next set of challenges life will bring.
Learning by Doing
Nature and firsthand experience are the most powerful teachers. Rather than sitting in a classroom over the summer or staring down a therapist in an office once a week, teens at wilderness camp actively learn from the natural consequences of their actions. If they don’t want to set up their tents, they’ll get wet; if they don’t feel like getting up in the morning, they’ll arrive at the next campsite late and set up their gear in the dark.
Most importantly, if they are disrespectful or negative toward other campers, the group will hold them accountable. And because they live and work closely with one another, they receive feedback that has a real impact on their daily life. This peer dynamic mimics a family system, which means the skills teens learn at wilderness summer camp translate to relationships with parents at home.
Because the teens are with their groups 24 hours a day, seven days a week, their true thought and behavior patterns come out more quickly than they would in traditional therapy. This gives both the teens and therapists a chance to “get real” about what’s happening in the teen’s life and what is holding them back. With greater openness and accessibility, teens in wilderness therapy tend to establish close bonds with their field instructors and therapists, who are hiking, getting rained on, and role modeling how to succeed while undergoing the same challenges the teens are facing.
Inspired by Nature
The experience of being in the wilderness, for both city- and country-dwelling teens, can be life-changing in itself. Life is simpler in the woods, and full of opportunities to be awed by forces greater than ourselves.
Many teens have a spiritual experience during wilderness summer camp – an experience that ties them to something bigger than themselves and gives them a sense of purpose and belonging. Rather than looking for answers by stockpiling material possessions, experimenting with drugs or alcohol, or investing all their energy in friends, girlfriends, or boyfriends, they have an opportunity to be silent and think about what they truly want, and to be humbled by the vastness of the world around them.
For some teens, a sense of purpose provides the incentive to complete high school and go on to set new life goals. Without this groundedness, many teens wonder if there’s any point to working hard, staying away from drugs or alcohol, or listening to their parents. In nature, they realize there is a point: a happier, brighter future and the ability to make a difference in someone else’s life. With enhanced awareness and understanding come renewed motivation to live life differently from this point on and an improved relationship with parents and family.
Everyone finds something in the wilderness. Whether it’s a connection with a higher power, an opportunity to reflect on past behaviors and future goals, a bond with a peer or staff member, or a renewed sense of confidence, teens and the wilderness are a natural match. When traditional therapies have failed and a traditional summer camp just isn’t the answer, wilderness camp may be one of the most memorable, life-changing experiences you can offer your teen.