Reinvent Family Vacation at Summer Camp

Free your inner child while building bonds in the great outdoors.
Familycamp 315

Trade travel itineraries and hotel continental breakfast this summer for camp-counselor-led activities and campfire s’mores. Family camps offer a vacation alternative that releases "real-world" obligations from every family member and allows the freedom to have fun and foster family bonds without interference from social media and societal conventions. It also provides a new take on an old tradition, creating a charming and challenging experience that includes every member of the family.

Bob Ditter, a child and family therapist and author of "Summer Camp Rules!" has been consulting family camps since the 1980s. "The greatest aspect of family camp is the unique opportunities families have to play together. Given how busy, stressed and technologically-distracted family members can be, family camp offers an opportunity to connect through fun and play," Ditter says. "Experiences like rock-climbing, puppet-making and fire-building provide opportunities for family members to engage in ways that go beyond their roles at home."

"Family camp also is an opportunity for first-time campers and camp families — who might not be used to the camp experience due to the young age of a child cultural traditions, or time spent in other enrichment programs outside of the family — to explore and acclimate to the camp experience together, says Peg Smith, CEO of American Camping Association.

The Family Camp Experience

Family camp builds on the traditional summer camp for children, allowing parents to join in on the action and relive their beloved childhood camp experiences hand-in-hand with their children. The programs vary from camp to camp. Some are day camps or one-nighters; however, most family camps take place over a weekend.

Depending on length of stay and budget, family camps fall in a wide price range from $30 for a one-night stay to over $1,500 for a long weekend. Family camps also provide a variety of residential arrangements from private cabins to gender-specific lodging to large sleeping halls. These camps include opportunities for large extended families, mom and daughter, father and son and single parents.

With an ample amount of family camps taking root in North Carolina, from Camp Seafarer on the coast to Camp Highlander along the Blue Ridge Parkway, parents can choose the best fit for their family’s interest.

Each camp’s location influences unique amenities and activities offered, but most have traditional camp activities like arts and crafts, drama and team sports.

Throughout the last eight years, the ACA has seen a 17 percent increase in the amount of residential camps that offer family camp programs. Having more options means parents have a better chance to find the right fit for their family.

Overall, family camps offer a rustic environment where families can step away from technology and immerse themselves in physical, intellectual and relationship-building activities. Parents and children can participate in activities together, as well as encourage each other to accomplish things that they may have never thought was possible.

Play and ‘Girl’ Power

Mary Elizabeth Trent and daughter Maddy at Skyland Camp for Girls.

Wake up with the sun to the sound of birds chirping in harmony. Fall asleep on the sleeping porch under the stars, cicadas and crickets serenading the moon. Experiencing life united with nature is a beautiful, magical experience, and Mary Elizabeth Trent, a child psychologist from Watkinsville, Ga. couldn’t agree more after her experience at Skyland Camp for Girls located in Clyde.

Last August, Trent and her 6-year-old daughter Maddy Solomon took part in a 97-year-old tradition. They spent three days and four nights nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains at the "Big House" – a Victorian grand hotel built in the late 1800s that was renovated by Susan Courtney Harris, a pioneering nature-lover and beloved mother of five, in 1917 to accommodate young girls and their mothers.

"Being outside in this beautiful environment was such a nurturing and empowering experience," she says, "You feel like you are transported to another world."

Passed down by generations of women, Trent says the camp was ignited with feminine power and positive encouragement in an environment that promoted courage, grit and compassion.

"We got to watch each other have new experiences … stretch our comfort zones," she says.

Adhering to a traditional camp schedule, this mother daughter duo participated in archery, horseback riding, swimming and arts and crafts.

"Both being introverts, the most challenging activity for us was performing on skit night, but it turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences," Trent says.

Persistence and Presence

Lori, Kevin and Colin Shannon outside of the woodworking shop at Camp Highlander.

For Kevin and Lori Shannon, seeing their son rise to the challenge was enough to keep them coming back to family camp for the last five years.

"Watching my 7-year-old son climb a 50-foot wooden climbing wall on the first attempt was the most rewarding experience," says Kevin Shannon, Bank of America retiree and business consulting owner. "He got a third of the way up, got tired and wanted to quit, but the camp counselors encouraged him and he did it."

The Shannon’s, who live in Mooresville, wanted to give their son, Colin, a family vacation filled with physical activities outdoors. A fellow church member at Williamson’s Chapel United Methodist Church recommended family camp at Camp Highlander in Mills River.

Camp Highlander offers a four-day, three-night Memorial Day Weekend family camp. It includes a wide variety of activities and team sports such as kayaking, canoeing, riflery, mountain biking, basketball, lacrosse and rock climbing. Families participate in activities together and individually.

"Colin even got to see his mom in a different light, see her strength, in ways he wouldn’t have otherwise," Kevin Shannon says.

His wife, Lori Shannon, a former nurse turned stay-at-home mom, says being able to be completely present with her family made the experience worthwhile.

"You can go in there thinking you can get something done, bringing projects from home, and then you get there and you forget about the world for three days," she says.

She was also very comfortable at Camp Highlander, because each family stayed together in their own cabin, giving them time to rest and reflect as a family.

"This is one of the few things that we do that is just us. We will go back again this year," Kevin Shannon says.

The Psychology of Camping

The Journal of Experiential Education conducted a mixed-methods study in 2013 with 60 families across 18 camps. Eighty-six percent of families responded that family camp experiences strengthened family relationships.

How could it not? Given that the opportunity plucks families from their fast-paced, often over scheduled lives and places them in a simpler environment. No distractions from Twitter and Facebook. Just real face time to talk, goof off, play and be together.

Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist and professional educator from New Hampshire has been attending camp since he was 4 years old, and has worked at the YMCA’s Camp Belknap for more than 30 years. "Families come in all shapes and sizes, and they are the cornerstone of a healthy society. When families share healthy time together and have the opportunity to interact with other families, they become closer, stronger and happier," he says.

It’s the remedy to that old adage: families that play together, stay together. Family camp provides the ultimate opportunity to play among the great outdoors and invest a little more fun in family.

Crystal O’Gorman is a freelance writer who lives in Indian Land, S.C. with her husband Ryan and her children, Mikey, 4, and Bella, 2.