by Ellen Warren
On the surface, not much has changed. For more than 100 years, summer residential and day camps have offered children an outdoor experience that promotes learning new skills in sports, the arts, and social development. Kids spend their days moving from one activity to the next, fill up only at meals, and fall into bed at overnight camp or at home sleepy after a full day of fun.
But behind the scenes, today’s camp directors are taking the business of fun seriously, and working hard to ensure that nutrition and fitness are part of the daily schedule.
Says Steven Bernstein, director of Diamond Ridge Camps in Jamison, PA, “The way our world is today, a lot of kids aren’t playing outside anymore. They’re inside playing video games or instant messaging. At camp, we play outside all day, every day, and other than rest hour, kids don’t have an opportunity to be sedentary. So the very nature of camp encourages a healthier lifestyle.”
A report by Indiana University and Ohio State University researchers confirms that from a health perspective, camp really is good for kids. Body Mass Index (BMI) is a relative measurement of height and weight that doctors use in assessing body fat and related health risks in children and adults.
In a study of more than 5,000 kindergarteners and 1st-graders, university sociologists found that on average, the children’s BMI increased significantly during the summer break, compared with the school year. Says OSU professor Paul von Hippel, lead author of the study, “Our general finding that kids do better in a structured environment with scheduled exercise and limited opportunities to eat is consistent with the idea that camp can help restrain summer weight gain.”
Diamond Ridge Camps offer day, overnight, teen, and specialty camp programs for boys and girls ages 4-14. Bernstein says that while campers get lots of choices in their day, they are always active. Camp menus are carefully planned to include healthy food choices. “Our parents definitely recognize and enjoy that their kids are being active physically and developmentally,” he says.
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She says children’s eating habits are closely monitored by counselors, who serve as role models and encourage good food choices. “Kids don’t have access to vending machines or potato chips. Plus, they are sleeping on a regular schedule, which really promotes better health,” she says.
Marjorie Gorman is a Moorestown, NJ mother whose 6th-grade daughter Lizzi has spent the last four summers at Hameau Farm, a working farm and residential summer camp for girls in the Big Valley, near Penn State University.
“Lizzi lives a typical suburban life at home, but at camp, she loves the mix of activities and farm routine. The girls are up early in the morning doing farm chores, where they bond with the animals and each other. They are so busy that they’re not thinking about TV or junk food, and there isn’t any on the premises,” she says.
Lizzi adds that the food at camp is “the best,” citing the beef stew, cheese, salads and even fresh garlic. “At Hameau Farm, work is not work because you learn so many new things. It is an escape from your life into a richer one, full of new experiences,” she says.
Role modeling helps kids understand that health is important to all ages, says Delaware YMCA executive director Phil McGovern. At the Y’s Tockwogh Camp in Worton, MD, “we encourage lots of hiking and walking,” he says. “Campers often see staff jogging during their time off. And kids learn to drink lots of water, instead of sugary juices.”
Tockwogh’s food service director, LaMar Braxton, is very conscious of healthy eating, and finds ways to give children food they will enjoy while introducing them to healthier choices.
Braxton serves wraps instead of bread sandwiches, and baked potato chips instead of fried chips, small changes that can add up to a big difference in calories.
For the last 22 years, Wayne, PA residents Dale and Barbara Dohner have run residential Camp Oneka in Tafton, PA. A registered nurse, Barbara Dohner says that simply eliminating the grazing and snacking that kids do all day at home helps prevent summer weight gain.
“Our three meals a day are always nutritionally balanced, so children often eat better at camp than they do during the school year, when they may be eating fast food or stopping at convenience stores after school,” she says. “Girls aren’t running to the refrigerator, or snacking while they’re watching TV.
“Healthy eating is simply part of the camp day, and when their options for unhealthy eating are limited and they’re hungry from a full day of activities, children will start to make good food choices.”
According to research by the nonprofit American Camp Association, 63 percent of children who learn new activities at camp tend to continue these activities after they return home. “These findings suggest that camp could actually help children become more active, and therefore healthier,” said ACA president Ann Sheets.
She adds, “Camp includes lots of physical activity, good nutritional choices, and a set sleep schedule, all of which play a role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and preventing childhood obesity.”
Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone
Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.