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As camp directors, we often get the question, “Is my teen too old for camp?” It is an appropriate question, and one that we often answer with, “No. No one is too old for camp!” Teens have many options for their summer. They can attend summer camps, travel with friends, hold a summer job, etc. Their pool of opportunities grows with their increased independence, as it should. There are, of course, many factors that go into a decision of what a teenager should do over the summer, not the least of which is what they will learn from their experience.

Summer camps are naturally set up to create experiences that support the growth of teens, and it is critical to ensure the teen programming is designed to promote engagement and growth. Here are a few of the essential elements a program should have to keep teenagers engaged.

Choice-based programming: Teens are at a critical developmental stage in which they begin to exert their independence and make more decisions for themselves. It is imperative that teens are given opportunities to make choices daily in their programming that give them a sense of agency and ownership over their camp experience. Providing more choice engages teens in their program and promotes their self-advocacy skills.

Self-led activities: Giving teens control of an activity is as empowering as it is educational. When they take the lead of an activity, they step into a new mindset, from camper to leader of a group. It gives them a chance to give back to a camp community they have grown up in and learn more about their leadership potential.

Increased unstructured time: Teenagers are hungry for less structured activity time that is planned by adults and need practice making determinations on how to spend increased levels of free time. As teens enter college, they have more unstructured time in their daily life that they are asked to navigate. Affording teens opportunities to practice their decision making during free time is key.

Buy-In: Teens need to, and should, have their voices heard. We see more advocacy by teens across many platforms in the 21st century, and they expect to have their voices heard. When developing a program for teens, it is important to get their buy-in prior to their arrival at camp. It is important to hear their feedback and desires and include them in the process of building their summer experience.

Mentorship: Campers grow up admiring their counselors and older campers who carry on traditions they hold dear. Giving teens a chance to be role models to younger campers increases their sense of responsibility and self-worth.

These elements of programming support the social-emotional growth of teenagers and are desired by them. Teenagers are discovering so much about themselves at a rapid pace, from their social independence to the increased level of responsibility that comes with it. They are establishing new social circles and learning about their ability to lead others. Summer camps have a great opportunity to continue supporting that growth while providing teens with more life-changing experiences.

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