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The Case for Single-Sex Summer Camps in a Gender-Neutral World

My daughter went to sleepaway camp for six summers. The first year, she was somewhat homesick, but over time, camp became her happy place — away from homework, tests and the frenzied schedule of school-year activities. At camp, she felt carefree. She acted goofy, dressed in costumes and sang songs unapologetically off-key, all without fear of judgement or concern about looking foolish in someone’s Instagram story (after all, no phones are allowed at camp). Her bunkmates became like sisters. Why was her experience so special? If you ask me, it’s because her camp was girls-only. Yep, it may seem old-fashioned, but I’m a firm believer in single-sex summer camps.

Anna Morin, director of Camp Timer Tops, an all-girls camp in Pennsylvania, tells SheKnow that “for many parents and campers, a single-sex camp is a welcome escape from the fast-paced world of social pressures, which culturally seem to be happening younger and younger.”

Here are even more reasons in the “pro” camp for single-sex camps.

The atmosphere is low-key

When we were visiting summer camps, my daughter and I didn’t have our minds set on a single-sex environment per se. But we immediately liked the vibe at the all-girls camp we ultimately chose. I remember during our tour, the director said, “Appearances matter less here.”

My daughter was a middle schooler when she went to camp — only 10 years old. She still had to be coaxed to take a shower and brush her hair. So the observation about appearances not mattering was less relevant at the time. But as the summers passed, that point the director had made really hit home. As my daughter matured, she did become far more focused on her appearance — at least, during the school year. At camp, those concerns seemed virtually non-existent.

At single-gender camp, there is often less social pressure. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, whose admirable job title is “chief girl and family engagement officer” at Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) tells SheKnows, “When you look at current news about all the pressures on girls these days, a single-gender camp is an even more valuable opportunity to provide girls with a healthy place for development — away from social media and the sometimes superficial sense of identity [it fosters].”

They create safe spaces

The single-gender environment changes the way both campers and counselors behave. Studies by the Girl Scout Research Institute show that “girls value girls-only ‘safe spaces’ where they can confide in trusting adults and other girls.” The sisterly environment the all-girls camp created for my daughter was empowering at an impressionable stage of her development. She shared so much more of herself with her bunkmates at camp than she did with many of her year-round friends at home. I’m not sure if this was a result of just being away from home or the all-girl space or both, but the combination made her much more comfortable sharing her secrets and fears with peers.

My daughter also developed strong relationships with her counselors, who provided her with great role models. As Morin explains to SheKnows, “Our counselors don’t feel social pressure to dress a certain way or act a certain way or look over their shoulder while coaching soccer or instructing yoga. It allows them to focus on activities and on their campers and not on gendered stereotypes of how they’re meant to act or meant to look.”

And it’s not just about boy-girl comparisons and crushes and the like; a single-gender environment can be beneficial for girls of any sexual orientation. “At Girl Scouts, we welcome girls of all backgrounds, experiences and abilities to camp,” Archibald tells SheKnows. “We recognize there isn’t just one way to be a girl, and know all girls can benefit from the girl-centered outdoor leadership, adventure and skill-building our camps provide. We don’t believe a girl’s sexual orientation impacts her experience or enjoyment…of all-girl camp.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., the author of many books, including Kid Confidence, tells SheKnows that “for queer girls, an environment that’s free of the heterosexual presumption of having to attract boys can also be a relief.”

They foster an environment for healthy risk-taking

GSUSA’s most recent study, From Girl Scout Camp To Real-World Champ! How Girl Scouting in the Great Outdoors Builds Female Leaders, shows that “in an all-girl environment, girls feel supported and more comfortable trying new things, taking appropriate risks, and learning from failure.” The study also states that girls-only settings give girls the freedom “to talk about issues they wouldn’t necessarily talk about with boys” and to “experience less pressure to look or act a certain way.”

Single-gender camps can also help kids and teens with body-positivity and self-image. It’s so common for kids to develop body issues as they hit puberty, and these issues can manifest even more strongly in the summer, with all that “beach body” pressure. Feeling self-conscious about their bodies can result in young people feeling shy and unwilling to take risks, especially when members of the opposite sex — ie, those who have quite different bodies — are present. Archibald tells SheKnows, “In a girls-only environment, they may feel more secure putting on a bathing suit…and more willing to try new activities such as hiking, rafting or rock climbing without fear of embarrassment.”

Boys can benefit, too

Single-sex camps are not just for girls. Jared Shapiro, owner and director of Camp Winadu, an all-boys camp in Massachusetts, tells SheKnows, “Teenagers today are more connected than ever through social media, which often leads to immense social pressure. For boys, attending a single-sex camp can be and is often a deep breath and break for them.”

Shapiro believes there’s a misconception that all-boys camps might endorse a hyper-competitive environment. He says, “It is actually quite the opposite. Single-gender camps provide boys with an environment where both the overt and subtle pressures they feel at home or at school [are removed]. Boys can just be boys without judgment; they tend not to care who is the best or who runs the fastest. The focus is on their friendships. They can be silly, sing and dance without concern about being ‘cool’ or worrying about other social factors.”

When it comes to choosing between a co-ed and a single-sex camp, the most important factor is understanding your child. Kennedy-Moore explains that “for individual children, a single-gender camp could be a wonderful way to foster close friendships in a new context, perhaps without the pressure of trying to be attractive to the other sex.”

For my own daughter, I believe her summers spent at all-girls camp shaped her to become the confident woman she is today. And while much of the emphasis on creating a gender-neutral environment in today’s parenting culture may make a single-sex camp sound antiquated, Morin points out that “an all-girls camp creates a certain freedom from gendered expectations despite its obvious gender-specific angle.”

To find a Girl Scout camp anywhere around the country, go to Girl Scout Camp Finder.

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