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Feb 06, 2020

The 4 Elements of a Life-Changing Summer Camp

For a teenager, a transformational summer experience is ripe with discovery — not just about the people and world around them, but about their own capabilities and potential. A life-changing summer is a journey that simultaneously ventures inward and outward.

Moira Kelly

How much can a life change in just a few weeks? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Any moment might alter the trajectory of a life. But more often than not, real transformation comes from that special combination of opportunity and environment. An individual’s entire worldview can shift from being in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things with the right people.

That’s what we mean when we talk about transformational summer camp experiences (which we do a lot).

For a teenager, a transformational summer experience is ripe with discovery — not just about the people and world around them, but about their own capabilities and potential. A life-changing summer is a journey that simultaneously ventures inward and outward.

From the Sidelines to Centerstage...In Three Weeks

A few summers ago, Christopher Streat was a self-described “always-on-the-sideline student.” I was a student who was far too eager to fit in,” he told us last year.

All that changed with two three-week stints as an EXPLO student. In the supportive, encouraging EXPLO environment, Christopher challenged himself to try improvisational acting, stage combat, and movie production. He explored social psychology, the philosophy of physics, and robotics engineering, and was inspired by a weekend trip to see a Broadway show.

At EXPLO, Christopher discovered a passion and found the courage to stretch into the best version of himself.

“I was no longer self-conscious about what this true version of myself looked like to other people,” he said.

Evidence of Christopher’s life-changing experience? He recently landed a prestigious internship on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

What Do Life-Changing Summer Camps Have in Common?

Christopher’s transformation may not have happened at just any summer program. Camps like EXPLO draw on the experience and expertise of their educational teams to create the ideal conditions for building confidence and trying new things.

Here are some of the characteristics of a life-changing summer camp:

1. A Supportive Culture

So often in life, we hold back because we’re afraid of failure and judgment. Teens are especially reluctant to step out of their comfort zones. They’re worried about what their peers will think of them, how it will affect their grades — even disappointing their parents.

A transformational summer camp promotes risk-taking. Educators and administrators strive to build an environment where students feel safe to challenge themselves. Students are encouraged to support each other, offering congratulations for success and motivation to push through difficulties.

2. A Diverse Community

Many teens spend their entire childhoods surrounded by people from similar backgrounds with similar ways of life. When they get to college or out in the “real world,” it’s not uncommon for young people to undergo a radical perspective change as they realize the world is so much more diverse than their hometowns.

What if that could happen earlier in life?

A transformational summer camp nurtures a student body that is diverse in every way. Students befriend and work alongside people from other parts of the country and around the globe. As they learn about all the different ways people live and think, students discover the commonalities that connect us all as humans.

Consider, for example, the enduring friendship forged at EXPLO between Beyoncé, a 15-year-old aspiring performer from Mississippi and Yvonne, a basketball-loving 17-year-old from China.

“It’s like I found my other half,” said Beyonce, who is now learning Mandarin. “I just didn’t know that she was all the way around the world.”

3. Thoughtful Programming Throughout the Day

The memories teens build at summer camp don’t just come during the educational programming. A life-changing experience is about the total package: joining afternoon activities, sharing meals, going on weekend outings, participating in talent shows, and contributing to discussion groups.

A transformational summer camp offers a broad range of educational and recreational activities and suffuses its programming with opportunities for discovery, growth, and courage.

4. Student Agency

The spirit of summer has always been independence. Summer is an opportunity for teens to break free of the rigid curriculum and expectations of the school year. 

You can’t learn much about yourself dutifully following a path laid out by someone else. Discovery happens when you chart your own course, when you follow your curiosity or passion wherever it may lead.

Life-changing summer programs give students genuine choices about the classes they enroll in, the activities they join, the trips they take, and even the food they eat. For teens, it can be an early taste of the independence they’ll have in college and in adulthood. By practicing their agency at summer camp, teens can learn what it means to take responsibility for their actions and to create a life of meaning and purpose.

Choice is built into the educational programming, as well. Some of the best academic summer camps emphasize experimentation, collaboration, and finding creative solutions to real-world problems. Students are encouraged to find their own answers, not simply absorb material from lectures and textbooks.

For example, students at EXPLO might find themselves not merely studying human anatomy but designing an apparatus to catch blood clots. Or instead of working through dry physics problems, students might construct a model roller coaster based on their understanding of centripetal force. 

Discover the Secret to a Transformational Summer

The Secrets to a Transformational Summer Camp Experience for Your TeenWith thousands of camps and programs to choose from, how will you find the one that will help change your teen’s life? Learn how to start and what to look for in our free guide for parents, “The Secrets to a Transformational Summer Camp Experience for Your Teen.

Moira Kelly