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August 6, 2013 at 9:10 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Summer Camp Psychology

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Last weekend, my kids and I participated in our local Color Run. We got up early on Saturday morning, shucking our usual laziness, and donned official color run white t-shirts and headbands. In the middle of town, we met up with 11,000 crazed compatriots.

Once the start sounded, the masses moved through a 5 km course where runners were doused with powder of different colors, finishing in a grande final that ensured a complete color bath. We walked away invigorated, rejuvenated, bonded. I felt youthful. 

I thought about this event and what made it special, beyond the novelty of getting covered in colored powder. I've seen this before, experienced this sort of camaraderie - summer camp, college fraternity, etc. As I look back, I realized that these experiences helped me forge an identity. They also helped me avoid some pretty unsavory societal trends, if only for a short time.

Color Run

I'd like to examine what I'll term "summer camp psychology" and how engaging in such experiences from time to time can benefit our lives.

Shedding Norms

Prior to the color run, my teenage daughter was aghast that I would wear a shower cap on my head for the run. Once there, caught up in the spirit, her reservations quickly dissolved. Before long, we were admiring men wearing tutus and others running in large sunglasses. It was okay to be a little weird, to step outside the norm. 

I remembered my younger years at summer camp with the silly songs and traditions.These were things I wouldn't be caught dead doing among family or in my school. Still, these brief moments of freedom and acceptance spill over into our daily lives in the sense that it's okay to be different. In turn, this builds individual identity, which is vital in a world pressuring us to conform.

Uniting as One

Camp Counselor

The paradoxical thing about such venues is the unity and uniformity that develops despite the individualism. Consider the shirts. My run last weekend involved 11,000 people all with the same white t-shirt embossed with the color run's rainbow logo. Similarly, most summer camps clad their campers in like shirts. Uniformity brings pride and a sense of belonging. Uniting under a common logo or name builds identity as a member of something. Once thrust back into the real world, identity becomes attached to the idea of family or the sense of pride in belonging to something bigger than the individual, such as a school, church, club, or corporate structure. 


Esprit de corps, band of brothers, etc. - these terms sum up the wonderful balance of identity, both individual and collective, that come from taking the time to participate in organized events outside of our comfort zone. Facing adversity in these events is something that is met on an individual level and then shared among participants. 

Like medals on a soldier's chest, mementos are often used as visual reminders of these experiences. Look at the backs of cars as you drive. A "26.2" sticker indicates that the driver ran a marathon. College stickers identify and affiliation with the institution. This fall, kids with that special summer camp experience will bring mementos to school, perhaps as a pin or dangling pine cone on their school backpack. This week, I'll see my color run headband on the closet door knob before I head off to another day of work. This reminder will help me carry my experience with me throughout the day.

In Conclusion

"Summer camp" experiences are important. Stepping out of our comfort zones every now and then, participating in something unfamiliar, allows us to live more fulfilling daily lives. As a parent, I encourage you to send your children to summer camp or to have them participate in events that deviate from their norm to help them develop a sense of identity, both individual and communal. As an adult, seek out opportunities periodically in your own life.  

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