The Essential Thing Kids Should Bring to Summer Camp

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camp trunk Photo: Mabel’s Labels

Some parents love packing their kids for camp. Others don’t. Either way, every parent has asked themself (and likely all their fellow camp moms and dads) the vexed question: “What do I pack?”

Being the Founder & CEO of Happy Camper Live as well as a camp director and (according to dining hall talk) a “master of the camper packing list,” I’ve gotten this question a lot. As in, 22-years-of-running-summer-camp a lot. So, naturally, a great number of things come to mind when I hear it, like different articles of clothing, towels, snacks, water (preferably in a refillable bottle), sunscreen. The list could go on. Still, there is one big thing I did not list. One big thing I recommend no child sends off to camp without. And here’s some welcome news: parents don’t need to buy a larger camp bag for it.

That’s because, strange as it may sound, this most important item can’t be packed. It can’t be stowed in a secret pouch. It can’t be zipped into a pocket. This most-important item is indeed no item at all.

It’s one good disposition.

In other words, a positive attitude.

When I first heard about “one good disposition,” I was eight years old. It was the opening day of my summer program. A storage box and duffle bag were sitting in the living room of my childhood home, almost fully packed with clothes that I had folded myself (my mother taught me how). Sidenote: I recommend parents do this since most camps have kids take care of their own clothes.

My mother had also been sewing labels into my clothing for weeks. (I also recommend parents label their campers’ clothing. It’s much easier today with peel-and-stick or iron-on tags, like the ones Mabel’s Labels makes.)

“I’m just about ready,” I thought to myself.

I took out my packing list and read the items. I wanted to make sure I had everything. My most cherished pairs of jeans (kids should pack together with parents not only to bring about in them a sense of responsibility for their belongings but also to ensure their favorites are packed), plenty of socks, swimming gear. Check, check, check. I went on reading smoothly until the last item. It gave me pause. It gave me panic.

“One good disposition.”

Of course, I wanted to know what that was and where I could get one. Was it a type of shirt? Something I put on after swimming? In the end, I was too embarrassed to ask. And so I went off to camp still excited, yet imagining I lacked this important item.

Important indeed!

Okay, so, why must a camper metaphorically pack this “one good disposition”?

It’s common knowledge that summer camp is full of magic, fun, and adventure. While certainly great in their own right, all that magic, fun, and adventure aims toward a larger purpose. No, I don’t mean archery (although camps have that, too).

I’m talking about growth.

Growth has been the main purpose of summer camp since its rise in the late 19th century. The original summer camps promised to teach kids leadership skills and to build up their character. (Of course, at that time, camp was only meant for boys.) According to American Camp Association, building character is still a central theme for summer camps.

Challenging pursuits (for example, rope courses) give campers the opportunity to try and fail and try again, teaching resilience in a judgment-free setting and, in the end, showing them the fullness of their potential. Other games help campers learn teamwork, cooperation, and communication. Time away from home promotes independence. Clean up fosters responsibility.

All these lessons make summer camp a positive, productive experience for kids. One might wonder what any of this has to do with “one good disposition.”

Well, studies show there is a tight connection between mood and growth.

According to the broaden-and-build theory developed by Barbara Fredrickson, positive emotions are internal signals that encourage “approach behavior,” which motivates individuals to engage in their environments and familiarize themselves with new people, ideas, and situations. When people are open to new ideas and actions, they expand their horizons and learn and grow as people. In my view, that’s what summer camp is all about.

Of course, I could answer the question “What do I pack?” much more literally. (Actually, I recommend parents check camp policies for what they shouldn’t pack. Often, certain items are not permitted, such as cameras and cell phones.) In other articles I’ve written, I made detailed lists of actual items to stuff in the beloved “camp bag.” One thing I always emphasize to parents is not to overpack. But there is something I would say is quite impossible to overpack.