• May 2014

Can Camp Make a Kid Healthier?

If you’ve ever been to camp, you know that it does a body good from all the exercise and laughing and playing outdoors all day with your peers. But it’s not only your physical body that benefits from the camp experience.

“Research shows that camp can deliver a positive impact for children coping with illness—especially those who have the SeriousFun experience at their camps throughout the world,” explains Steve Nagler, director of Program Innovation and Evaluation at SeriousFun (pictured above).

Consider the April 2013 study that SeriousFun commissioned from the Yale Child Study Center. Based on surveys and interviews with 250 families from 12 of SeriousFun’s US and European–based camps, researchers found that:

“Children with serious illnesses are faced with myriad physical and social challenges, often resulting in isolation from peers, loneliness, and limited personal growth. When they attend a SeriousFun camp, they showed improved confidence, higher self-esteem, a greater sense of independence, and increased interest in social activities.” — Drs. Linda Mayes, Steven Southwick, and Shauna Tominey, who all have extensive expertise in the fields of child development and neuropsychology.

Based on observations from parents of children who attended a SeriousFun camp, the findings showed:

  • 83 percent reported an increase in confidence;
  • 80 percent reported an increase in self-esteem;
  • 76 percent reported an increase in maturity;
  • 74 percent reported an increase in independence;
  • 72 percent reported an increased interest in social activities.

“Developing positive adaptive abilities for dealing with challenges such as illness is critical, especially for children, and it’s essential for personal growth, development, and building a set of resilience-promoting skills,” said Dr. Mayes. “Our work with SeriousFun points to the impact of the camp experience on fostering these skills and facilitating children’s ability to develop and maintain more positive social connections important to their overall health and well-being.”

In addition, the study revealed that children’s stress related to their illness decreased as a result of the camp experience.

  • 98 percent of campers reported making at least one friend; and
  • 58 percent of those reported that the friendships lasted beyond the camp experience through social media, in-person visits, texting, phone calls, and email.
  • In addition, the data suggests that resilience indicators—such as possessing positive coping strategies, happiness, and a reduction in illness-related stress—showed significant improvement following camp.

“The study confirms what we’ve known anecdotally about the positive impact our camps have on children,” said John C. Read, president and CEO of SeriousFun Children’s Network. “We plan to use this information to optimize the outcomes-based programming our camps deliver.”

For more insights into the SeriousFun Children’s Network, scroll down for our interview with two of the program directors.

Behind the Scenes at SeriousFun

It was a pleasure to travel to SeriousFun headquarters in Westport, CT, to interview Kelly Elliott, interim director of Camp Support Services, and Steve Nagler, director of Program Innovation and Evaluation.

Kelly Elliott (pictured above), the interim director of Camp Support Services, has been with the organization for the last seven years. Prior to joining SeriousFun, she spent time at Children’s Aid Foundation in Toronto, where she helped establish a corporate development and communications program. Prior to joining SeriousFun, Elliott was responsible for in-country communications for Right to Play in Ghana, helping to promote sport and play as a vehicle for health education. Elliott has a BA in sociology from Wilfrid Laurier University and an MA in multimedia communications from Sacred Heart University.

Steve Nagler has been with the organization since 2002. From 1995-1999, he was the country director of the United States Peace Corps in Samoa, and from 1998 through 2002 he was the director of the Peace Corps Pacific Initiative. Thereafter, he became an assistant professor and the founding clinical director of the Yale University Child Study Center Family Support Service for almost 20 years. He helped provide child mental health and child welfare service to abused, neglected, drug affected, HIV-affected, and at-risk children. It was the team he worked with there that SeriousFun tapped to do the 2013 survey (explained in detail, above).

Tell our readers more about SeriousFun.

Be Inkandescent: Tell me about the vision that Paul Newman had in 1988, and how it has evolved in the last several decades.

Kelly Elliott: Paul always talked about the luck he had in his life, and how fortunate he felt to be in the position that he was in. He also talked about how there were others in this world, children especially, who didn’t have the fortune that he did. So he wanted to provide a place kids could go—where despite their illness, despite their limitations ,they could still be children and kick back, relax, and raise a little hell. He wanted to afford them the opportunity to figure out who they were, beyond their illness.

Be Inkandescent: What makes these camps different than others?

Steve Nagler: For starters, these are camps for children who could not go to other camps because of their illness, or the medication they need to take, or the diet they need to maintain. But what really sets us apart is the quality of the people who come in and work with our kids. We have a process in which all volunteers and staff are trained, which helps them deal with homesickness and behavior issues, and really bring the campers out of their shell. We also provide an extremely high standard of care. All of our camps must be certified by the American Camp Association (ACA). In addition, they all go through a process of standardization, which include the policies and procedures that they must adhere to in order to maintain their membership in the SeriousFun network.

Be Inkandescent: What kinds of illnesses are the kids typically suffering from?

Kelly Elliott: Initially, we mostly served kids who were suffering from cancer, HIV, and other blood diseases. Over time, that has changed. Now, every camp is required to undergo a needs assessment to determine who in their area is suffering from what type of diseases, and where the gaps and services are. Now we work with children who have had heart surgery and kidney transplants, and those who are also suffering from critical illnesses.

Steve Nagler: And to serve the needs of the children, each of the camps has a full pediatric medical clinic. Some physicians who visited the camps say it’s equivalent to an emergency pediatric center. But we try to play with this serious reality, so none of these are called clinics—but rather “the body shop,” or “the turtle shell,” or other fun, crazy names. What’s even better is that they don’t look like clinics. The medical staff doesn’t wear white coats. Everybody is called by their first name. But we are equipped to handle the most serious situations, and we never forget that safety is our first responsibility.

Be Inkandescent: What kinds of activities do the kids engage in?

Steve Nagler: If you come to a SeriousFun camp, it’ll look like every other camp you have seen or been to. Kids are riding horses, kids are swimming, kids are going down zip lines, they’re camping out at night. There’s a full range of activities, and all have been adapted and made safe for the kids we serve. What’s essential is that the sense of possibility remains, because these kids are constantly facing the things they can’t do.

Be Inkandescent: Talk more about creating a “sense of possibility” for the campers.

Steve Nagler: Most of us grew up thinking that if we do our homework, ate our spinach, and listened to our parents, we could grow up to be anyone doing anything. With these kids, that’s not the case—and they know it. They lose time from school because of their illnesses and the treatments they undergo. And unfortunately, people tend to shy away from kids who are illness. So that sense of possibility gets disrupted. Our camps are very intentionally programed to restore a sense of possibility through the successes that these children achieve while they are playing with us. Through their ability to realize that they are not alone, through the relationships they forge with the other kids and counselors at camp, that sense of possibility is kept alive.

Be Inkandescent: Kelly, talk a little about the volunteers you rely on for that. What is this experience like for them?

Kelly Elliott: We do rely heavily on volunteers, because our camps are free of charge. It’s also important because these energetic, excited, interested adults bring a breath of fresh air as they come in on a weekly basis and work with the staff that is there all summer long. Initially, the volunteers are nervous and don’t know if they can deal with the situation. But as soon as that first bus of kids pulls up and they see the smiles on the campers/ faces—it’s a realization that this is a beautiful process and camp is a very positive, welcoming place. They learn just as much from the campers as the campers learn from the volunteers.

Be Inkandescent: How do you get to be a volunteer? And how does SeriousFun raise funds?

You’ll find out in the rest of our podcast interview with Elliott and Nagler in this episode on the Inkandescent Radio Network.

To learn how to get involved with the SeriousFun Children’s Network, visit www.seriousfunnetwork.org.