Camp Woodland Blog

Kids Need a Play-based Childhood 

Posted by on April 9, 2024

I started working at Camp Woodland in 1986 between my sophomore and junior years in college. Before that I rode my bike to/from school by myself at a very young age. I spent countless hours out and about with the neighborhood kids on our block. My siblings and I played kickball (until my Dad requested that we go to someone else’s yard or change games because we had “run” down all the grass between bases). My Mom would ring a bell when we needed to come home to get ready for dinner because we were most likely out of earshot. 

We had a one hour limit on the amount of TV we could watch each day (and nothing after 8 pm). My sister and I would set up the playroom in our basement to be a restaurant, school, or swimming pool so we could pretend to be servers, teachers, or lifeguards. While in elementary and jr high school, our parents dropped us off at the roller skating rink every Wednesday afternoon for a few hours where we would hang out with friends. I remember my growing up years full of fond memories of organic play. Nothing scheduled or contrived, just in-the-moment, make-your-own fun with whatever we could find, dream or imagine. Sound familiar? (I hope so!)

Little did I know then that the period from 1980-2010 was the decline of what is known as play-based childhood. As adults saw more photos of missing kids on milk cartons, heard stories of child predators, and felt a sense of distrust in the world in general, children started spending less and less time outside and engaging in unstructured play and social time. Safety became the number one concern which drove adults to watch/supervise kids in what now could be deemed as excess. 

Thankfully, there are people way smarter than me who have been studying these trends over the years, in particular a gentleman by the name of Jonathan Haidt. Jonathan was a keynote speaker at the CODA (Camp Director and Owner Association) pre-conference event prior to the American Camp Association’s National Conference in New Orleans in early February. He visually represented the data that was collected throughout his research for his latest book, The Anxious Generation, so that it was easy to see the direction a particular variable took over time on a graph. 

Haidt laid out compelling evidence that clearly shows play-based childhood has been replaced with a phone-based childhood in the years 2010-2015 (and beyond). In doing a quick (and non-scientific) Google search myself, 2023 data from multiple sources suggests that over 40% of US kids have a phone by the age of 10. This increases to over 90% by the time they turn 14. Kids today are turning to online games, engaging on social media, and partaking in mindless scrolling instead of playing in a local park, spending time with friends in person, and using their imaginations to create their own fun. Haidt calls this the “rewiring of childhood”. Not surprising, this is also when adolescents became notably more anxious, depressed, and fragile. Haidt shares in his book that play, including “risky” play, is needed to help kids develop confidence and competence that can help overcome childhood anxieties!

The contrast between play-based and phone-based childhood is starkly noted by the slope of a line on each graph starting around the year 2010. Even more mind-blowing is that every graph that was part of Haidt’s presentation had a big black vertical line through the data that marked the year 2012. He looked at the numbers of self-harm cases in youth (even as young as 10-14), completed suicides, major depression and other mental health challenges in kids both in the US and internationally. The clear inflection point shown in each graph came around the year 2012 (good stuff decreasing and bad stuff increasing). 

What else happened around that same time that can be linked to the sharp turns? His conjecture/observation is that it coincides with the birth of Instagram in 2010 and growing popularity of the social media app (especially in girls) in the following years. Here is a YouTube video of a similar presentation Jonathan Haidt gave at a different conference several months prior so that you can dive into this more and see/hear for yourself. You will probably want to hit pause and take notes frequently as there is a lot of information to take in and digest. If his talk had conference goers in New Orleans literally “buzzing” for several days (I’m not kidding!), it is well worth your time. 

Without turning this into the longest blog post ever, I’m going to jump to the important role camp plays as a solution to the “childhood rewiring” phenomenon. In his presentation to camp directors/owners, Jonathan Haidt recognized that camp offers a period of time for youth to get reprieve from a predominantly phone-based environment by being immersed in a play-based environment. Camp Woodland was founded by a family of educators who wholeheartedly believe that “play is the work of children.” Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, and Fred Rogers are a few names that come to mind as having a similar sentiment. 

In his book, Haidt talks about several important features of human childhood, some of which include slow-growth, free play, attunement, and social learning. A play-based childhood fosters each of these important features, whereas a phone-based childhood does not. 

At Woodland, we like to say that “it takes a lot of slow to grow” and is a large part of the reason our full program is designed for a 6-week experience in order to receive the maximum benefit of allowing kids to develop at their own pace without being rushed or hurried. Once kids have acclimated to camp, we see growth accelerate as they now have a foundation in place to “take off” in both their physical (activities being learned) and social/emotional development (relationships being navigated). 

While we follow a schedule with campers taking six different activities at Woodland over the course of a typical day, free play is mixed into everything we do. Kids have a choice over which activities they are going to take and that in turn gives them autonomy for a large part of their time at camp. Another menu of choices is offered for evening activities several days a week that are usually centered around a given theme (Nature Week, Water Week, etc). There is a lot of free play that happens organically during activities (singing), transitions (running or skipping to the next activity), and down time spent with cabin groups as they often make up their own games (just ask the girls in Driftwood during 2023 about their “puppy parties”!).

Attunement can be described as the process by which we develop relationships. It is how we become “in tune” with others and build connections. Learning social cues for turn taking and timing of a response is an important aspect of attunement that is hard to come by when kids are interacting on their devices vs in person. By being part of a larger community at Woodland, kids are able to practice the art of listening to the stories and opinions of others and also contributing to the conversation without interrupting or dominating. This happens in the cabin, at meals, during activities, and walking with a friend to the next exciting adventure. 

We see social learning at Woodland as kids are in close proximity to really great role models and mentors. Counselors are a good example of this as they are “near peers” with a unique opportunity to have a positive influence on the campers (without being their parents – more on this in my next blog!). Kids really look up to the staff and even the oldest campers as they learn how to traverse the complexities of friend relationships, act in a group setting, and contribute to the overall camp community. 

It makes me sad to think that the rewiring of childhood through over-exposure to experiences that are detrimental to youth development is now part of a new “normal”. I am hopeful; however, that **choosing camp for kids is one of the solutions to this challenge**. The ecosystem we have at Woodland gives kids back their play-based childhood for up to six weeks of the year. We have always been rooted in play and always will be!

Coincidentally, the day I began writing this blog, I received an email with an introduction to the release of a book written by Bryn Lotting (a Wisconsin author) called “No Child Left Inside.”

You may also want to check out a previous blog, The Device Dilemma, that relates to the topics of this post.


Now is a GREAT time to enroll your camper/s for 2024 and reserve your spot/s so that your daughter/s have the opportunity to get back their play-based childhood through the Camp Woodland experience! Sign up HERE:

Camp Reinforces the Benefits of Seasonality

Posted by on March 26, 2024

A camp parent recently shared a guest essay from the New York Times (02-16-24) that gives insight into seasonality as a much needed break from the never ending cycle of working 8 hrs a day, 5 days a week, month after month, for a large portion of the year. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, when it was necessary to secure food by hunting and gathering (and later with the development of agriculture), there were periods of time (typically during the winter months) when there was a lull from the busier seasons of planting and harvesting.

With the onset of factories and mills, the seasonal periods of downtime became no more. This carried over into “office” jobs as well when the mindset became the more you worked, the more you could potentially produce or create. I think it is safe to say that the interruption of this during 2020 and 2021 caused a lot of people to “wake up” and realize that this never ending cycle of work without periods of rest is not sustainable. We witnessed first hand how those who were working full-time became (and probably already were) burned out.

So, you are probably wondering what this has to do with camp?! The summer break in the education world has been a topic of conversation that goes back decades with the introduction of year round schools. There have been a number of organized attempts to “save our summer” in various states for various reasons. Of course, the “summer learning loss” is a point that is argued as a reason not to take a big break from school during the summer months (I have been known to counter this notion and that spending time at camp actually contributes to a “summer surplus“!). If you follow the line of thinking around the benefits of seasonality that the NYT essay offers, it is easy to connect the dots to the reason why camp is absolutely the perfect solution to the rat race of school, activities and busy schedules from September to May.

For six glorious weeks at Camp Woodland, kids are able to enjoy the benefits of seasonality. Cal Newport (essay author) shares that, “Intense periods of cognition must be followed by quieter periods of mental rejuvenation. Energized creative breakthroughs must be supported by the slower incubation of new ideas.” Each minute at camp is a much needed break from the intensity of school and all that comes with that (homework, projects, tests, sports, clubs, music/art activities, etc. and sometimes a part-time job is added to the mix). Once campers settle into the routine of camp (the slower pace, regular meals, an active lifestyle, more sleep, a built-in friend group, no phone, etc.), it is amazing what the opportunity to regroup/recharge/reboot does for the overall health of each person!

Spending a summer at camp is literally a prescription for naturally combating stress and burnout. It truly is “what the doctor ordered.” The camp experience organically gives our young people the opportunity for mental rejuvenation. An important contributing factor to this vital mental rejuvenation is the sense of calm and peace that being in nature and the outdoors provides. After 40+ days of being in surrounded by the forest trees and natural lakes, you can’t help but downshift to a more reasonable pace and rhythm that reenergizes the spirit and allows for creativity to come out of hiding within individuals (and even flourish in the group setting!).

This quieter period during the summer allows for campers to return to the demands of school and family life having had time to unwind, reset, and enjoy the benefits of seasonality by being at camp in the Northwoods!


Now is a GREAT time to enroll your camper/s for 2024 and reserve your spot/s so that your daughter/s have the opportunity to reap the benefits of seasonality through the camp experience! Sign up HERE:




Game On: Real Over Robots at Camp

Posted by on March 5, 2024

It is conference season, and several of us have been traveling to meet other camp professionals in various locations for a chance to network and learn together. I happen to be someone who leads educational sessions at conferences, and while creating PowerPoint presentations for these opportunities, I found myself having the need to put a slide at the beginning that says, “This presentation was prepared for you by a real person.” Included with this is an image of “ChatGPT” with a giant “X” through it along with my bitmoji showing a fist in the air and the words, “Game On.” I then go on to challenge the people in the room to tell me at the end if they think that a robot could have put the presentation together to the same degree. Their response?! A resounding, “NO WAY!”

When people ask me what is it that do, my elevator “speech” is “I’m in the business of developing emerging leaders with the skills that robots can’t do.” It is super fun to see what kind of response this statement brings. It usually takes a moment for people to comprehend what I just said, and it is often accompanied by a quizzical look (the kind where someone stares off into space and is trying really hard to imagine what this looks like). This is in part because I didn’t answer with the typical, “I’m a camp consultant,” or “I do staff training for camps.” It is also in part because it may not be crystal clear what I do, but it sounds really cool. And, it generates a need for someone to want to know more!

Since I am a camp professional with a strong background in education, I can confidently say in my humble (and unbiased!) opinion that camp is hands down the BEST place for youth (ages 7-97) to learn and practice the people/life skills that will set them apart from the jobs that robots (AI) will and are already taking over. Not to say that schools don’t have their place; I just find that camp is better because of all the things that are missing in the summer camp experience that make room for opportunities to practice and learn the skills that are vital to us as people. This is largely in part because through subtraction at camp, we are able to employ addition. I realize this seems counterintuitive or even unlikely; however, camp is the perfect ecosystem for the skills robots can’t do to be nurtured and developed organically!

According to Forbes, there are 10 skills that robots can’t replace in the workplace (May, 2022). LinkedIn has its own list of 7 crucial human skills that AI can’t replace (March, 2023). If we look at the crossover from these (and other) lists, it isn’t a stretch to make the connection to camp as being the place where critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, and collaboration/teamwork (just to name a few!) are an integral thread of the fabric for this unique (and real!) experience that is hard to replicate anywhere else.

By taking just one of Woodland’s traditional camp activities (I will use the annual Song Contest for illustration purposes), a line can be drawn to each of the skills mentioned above for both campers (and staff!). Song Contest is when cabin groups are tasked with changing the words to a popular song so that it tells a story about the current summer. The entire camp comes together on a Saturday evening to enjoy the highly anticipated performances of each individual cabin. There are special judges who have the honor of determining the “winner” and runners-up for this friendly, yet somewhat competitive (let’s be honest!), event.

Critical thinking shows up as each group thinks on their feet to rewrite the words, choreograph dance moves, and choose costumes to match the theme of their chosen song. Emotional intelligence can be found in the interactions between the girls from each cabin group; it takes self-awareness to take notice and monitor one’s own emotions and it takes empathy to pay attention to the emotions and feelings of others. It wouldn’t be unusual for someone’s feelings to get hurt when their idea isn’t incorporated; it takes resolve for a camper to be OK with that and to also support the other person for their contribution to the group.

Creativity is present from start to finish when taking on this challenge to put together an original entry for Song Contest. Imagination comes to life with the final performance! The week leading up to Song Contest is one giant exercise in teamwork and collaboration. Working together does not mean the absence of conflict; however, groups are able to move through and past any differences and disagreements in the spirit of having a unified effort towards a common goal.

This one example (and there are many more where this came from!) shows how camp fosters the development of REAL people skills in the normal day-to-day happenings that occur when immersed in an experience with peers when away from the typical distractions of home/school. So, when someone asks you why you send your child to camp, you can confidently say that you are giving your daughter the opportunity to develop the skills that robots can’t do! I’d love to know what response you get…you can email me at!


Now is a GREAT time to enroll your camper/s for 2024 and reserve your spot/s to give your daughter/s the opportunity to develop REAL people skills. Sign up HERE:


Making the Transition from Woodland Camper to Counselor

There’s no doubt that working as a Woodland counselor is the most purposeful, fun, and growth-filled way to spend your summer (but don’t just take it from us!). We recently spent time having a Zoom conversation with the 2023 first year staff members who graduated from our CIT program as we wanted to hear directly from them about their experience being a counselor for the very first time.

We took a deep dive into the transition that occurs each summer for a group of girls who are typically longtime and extremely loyal campers. This group of 6 was no exception! They all started camp in 2014 (around the age of 9-10 yrs old) and spent 8 consecutive summers as a camper/CIT and 1 year on staff 2023. For those of you who are already doing the math in your head, you probably came to the conclusion that this entire group will be celebrating their 10th summer in the Northwoods on Sand Lake, and you would be absolutely correct. JoAnne, please make sure we have restocked our Woodland 10 yr blanket supply!

Please join us in our engaging and enlightening conversation:

What is your first year of college like? What is a superpower you have because you went to/worked at camp?

  • Monica: I live in a triple with two other girls, and one of the other girls was also a camp counselor. We talk about how being at camp teaches you how to live with other people outside of your family and how to respect boundaries and live with people in a new environment.
  • Molly: It makes me more open minded to meeting other people and meeting new types of people. A lot of my friends from home are pretty similar, so meeting many different people at camp teaches me a great skill to apply at school or wherever I go.
  • Tori: Teamwork is no stranger to me, including trusting other people to get things done. I also know how to communicate with other people and understand the delicate balance between taking the lead and knowing when to take a step back.

What made you decide to apply to work on staff after 8 summers as a camper?

  • Molly: As a camper I realized that I was building up to something; not being a counselor would have left me feeling incomplete. It was the natural next step.
  • Katherine: I want to teach in the future, so working at camp is good experience for a field like that.
  • Monica: I always looked up to my counselors so much, and coming to camp as a staff member is a way I can give back to the wonderful role models I had growing up.

Describe your summer on staff in a ONE word:

  • Katherine: NEW. I felt this way with CIT years too, each change at camp is different. Even with all of the things you are familiar with each summer, you are also thinking about different things and have a different mindset.
  • Aubrie: CHALLENGING. I agree with Katherine’s word, “new”, and when things are new they are challenging. Experiencing things is how you figure out what to do, so it’s challenging to be in a new experience. And, there is no way to fully prepare.
  • Molly: REWARDING. Building off the previous words of new and challenging, it also takes a little bit to get acclimated. The relationships with campers and co-counselors was so worth it and so rewarding.
  • Isa: – ENERGETIC. For me this summer was filled with energy. I was always trying to be bright and uplifting for the campers. I used a lot of energy in everything I did. 

Being on staff is pretty different from being a camper! What advice do you have on the transition from camper to counselor?

  • Monica: I was told that you won’t get to see your friends as much. I realized the main difference is going to camp for yourself as a camper and thinking about what camp can do for you. You will now think about what you can do to help camp.
  • Tori: It is common to be nervous, but also important to be confident. If you act nervous, it creates a cycle going in that direction. Being confident makes it easier for campers to be on the right path and follow the expectations of group living. 
  • Aubrie:  You will not only taking care of campers, but you will also be building a relationship and bonding with them. It easy to remember to just to take care of them and get them going to what is happening next. Without that  relationship; however, you would miss a lot of things. I found it is really important to do both.
  • Katherine: – I remember the 1st day campers arrive that it was awkward and that this develops naturally over time. If a camper is really nervous at the start, it takes time for them to feel comfortable with you.
  • Isa: Remember that you were also a camper and try to remember yourself at their age. It helped me with my new campers telling them that what they were feeling was totally normal and that I went through the same my first year. It also helped to remember what counselors where like when I was a certain age and what things I liked and what things I didn’t. It is like being the counselor that you needed at your age but for them. An example for me was at swimming lessons; I tried to make it fun because I remember what it was like being 9 and going into the cold lake to swim. 

Was there anything that surprised you about working on staff for the first time or anything you wish you knew about being a counselor but didn’t?

  • Isa: It’s honestly going to be easier than you think. In my case, coming back as a counselor after so many years and after being a second year CIT was not as intimidating as I thought it would be. At the beginning, it’s funny that you’re the one in charge and it feels like you’re in the wrong place, but then you get used to it. Coming after being a CIT I thought that it wasn’t going to be more of a change but it’s also very tiring at times. You need to look after yourself and really take advantage of your time off to reset. 
  • Monica: It is good to remember that each camper is unique in their own way with their development.
  • Molly: Sometimes it is OK just to let campers do certain things. I found myself trying hard to keep campers from being close friends with another camper because I didn’t want other girls to feel left out. Then I realized that it is OK to have closer friends as long as you are not being exclusive to the other girls and that you also spend time with the whole cabin group. 

Jackie and I were super impressed with the maturity of this group and are excited to have them back on staff for 2024! They have a profound love for camp and truly want to create a special experience for their campers, both in the cabin and in activities. They have already identified things they will do differently this summer based on their experience this past summer. The fact that they are taking their growth opportunities from 2023 in order to make future improvements speaks volumes! Without question they will be good mentors for the group of counselors making the transition from being a camper to a first year staff member in just a few months. We know that Nat, Cuau, Isabella, Anna, Maya, and Tess will leave their own AMAZING footprint on the “Open New Doors in ’24” summer ahead and can’t wait to have them as counselors!


Our favorite time of year (during the winter) is almost here!! February 1st (this Thursday) is National “I Heart Camp” Day! We would love your help to spread the word on the importance the summer camp experience. Your camper may remember those funny pictures we took of her with the “I Heart Camp” poster/sign over the past summers? The “I Heart Camp” photos taken in 2023 have been living in a SUPER SECRET FOLDER, and this Thursday Camp Woodland campers, parents, staff, and alumni are encouraged to post their favorite “I heart Camp” photo on various social media platforms.

Here are a few ideas to show the world (or just your family & friends) how much camp means to you (even if you don’t use social media!):

  • Print it out and hang your favorite photo on your fridge or in your daughter’s locker at school
  • Make it a screen saver on your computer or phone
  • Facebook Profile
  • Instagram
  • Be sure to include the appropriate tags (#Woodland4Girls #Iheartcamp) when posting

Click the link to retrieve your daughter’s photos for 2024: I heart Camp Woodland Photos Link

Don’t see a photo of your daughter with the “I Heart Camp” sign? ANY camp photo will do!

Need your son’s photo too? Click the link to your son’s (Towering Pines) photos for 2024: I heart TP Photos link

All you have to do is: 1- find your picture, 2- download it by clicking the download tab on the bottom right of the photo, 3-Post it on Thursday, February 1!

Check out our archives of “I Heart Camp” Day. It is fun to see how we have grown over the years!: