Sleep-Away Camps for Adults Offer Play, Transformation
“I used to be a nihilistic atheist. I was miserable. I attracted sad, miserable people. I would post angry diatribes on Facebook,” says Eric Garside, a 31-year-old software developer from New York City. “Now I only want to post inspiring things to make people think that a better life is achievable. I am a fundamentally different person now than I was before.”
This is how Eric describes the metamorphosis he experienced at Soul Camp, one of several sleep-away camps for adults that have been popping up like freckles on a redhead’s nose from Big Sur, California, to the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Less than a decade ago, the concept of camps for adults was unheard of; after all, why would anyone pay money to sleep in a bunk bed and get bug bites? Yet now, with nearly a dozen camps opening in just the past five years, the trend has clearly caught on.
Whether people are seeking a community based on genuine acceptance, a chance to chill out and have fun in nature, or a truly transformative experience, camps for grown-ups are springing up because they offer all this and more. The camps usually last three to four nights and vary in style and theme, from the classic summer camps you might remember as a kid—with color wars, kick the can and eating in a mess hall (albeit with better food)—to a full-on wellness retreat, complete with expert workshops and classes.
A study of more than 5,000 families done by the American Camp Association between 2001 and 2004 found that kids who go to camp experience a boost in self-esteem, social skills, adventurousness, spiritual growth and other markers of well-being—and judging from what adult campers say, grown-ups come away with remarkably similar benefits. Clearly, the alchemical mixture of joining a tribe of fellow campers, being out in nature and having opportunities for growth and introspection is producing much more than a pleasant vacation among the trees. In fact, it’s sending people back home with a newfound confidence and optimism as well as a bevy of new best friends.
“American adults are lonely. We spend a staggering amount of time alone in front of screens. There is a yearning for community that camps offer,” says Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D., author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow. Camp Throwback, one of the original grown-up camps, was started in the woodlands of southwestern Ohio by body acceptance guru Brittany Gibbons—known for her TED Talk, popular blog Brittany, Herself and 2015 book, Fat Girl Walking: Sex, Food, Love, and Being Comfortable in Your Skin…Every Inch of It.
According to Brittany, the camp started almost by accident: “I just wanted a cool place for my readers to get together,” she says. “I had worked at a huge Meatballs-style summer camp after college, so that gave me the idea.” The site where Brittany holds camp can accommodate 120 campers; the first time she put tickets up for sale in 2014, they sold out in less than two days. “I really didn’t think a bunch of adults would pay money to come to a summer camp,” she says, laughing. “I was surprised to see how many other weirdos were out there.”
At the beginning, most of those who signed up were Brittany’s fans, and so were already familiar with the themes of self-love and body acceptance she champions. But even newer campers unfamiliar with her work get Camp Throwback’s ethos of total acceptance pretty much the minute they arrive (Brittany describes it as “You’re OK, I’m OK”).
Angela Morales, a 31-year-old customer service representative from Los Angeles, found Camp Throwback through a friend. “It’s hard to make friends as an adult,” says Angela. “I definitely became more confident in myself at camp because I didn’t know most of the people there, but right away, you’re all just friends. And you remember, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ Age doesn’t matter. How many times you’ve been [to Camp Throwback] doesn’t matter.”
At the end of the long weekend, Angela says, “There is a good 15-minute cry session when you leave camp. You realize that one of your good friends now lives in Wisconsin, [one] in Pennsylvania….We send each other texts like, ‘Only 72 days left until camp!’”
Dawn Carlstrom, 52, feels the same way. When the wife and mother from Corcoran, Minnesota, first went to Campowerment, an all-women’s sleep-away camp in the hills above Malibu, California, she had never flown on an airplane by herself. Now she can’t wait to return for her fourth visit. “There is a whole community of women now who have my back,” she says.
Tammi Leader Fuller is the founder of Campowerment, which operates in Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains as well as the Malibu location. The former Hollywood producer grew up on the East Coast going to camp for two months out of every summer, and she spent the rest of the year looking forward to those eight weeks. “Camp was my happy place. It’s where you could be who you wanted to be and not who your parents wanted you to be,” says Tammi. Now she works hard to create a safe place where women can open up to each other on the deepest level, whether participating in a journaling circle or pushing themselves past previous limits with a physically challenging ropes course.
At Campowerment, the energizing workshops go from sunrise yoga through the evening’s epic lip-sync battle of the bunks. You can attend Decluttering Your Soul, Noticing Your Bliss, Jumping Fitness With Jakub or Energy Healing With Peggy. All the workshops are held outside, and the experts also participate, giving a sense of full openness and vulnerability to the proceedings.
On the first day there, you are not allowed to say what you do for a living. That, along with the genuine, accepting atmosphere creates a leveling effect at the camp, according to Dawn, so it doesn’t matter whether you are an actress, a homemaker or an architect. “You’re in sweats all weekend,” says Dawn, and you soon “realize that everybody is dealing with their own crap.”
On Dawn’s first trip, she bunked with a group of extraordinary women, aged 21 to 65, who dubbed themselves the “Bug Juice Bitchezzz.” Five of the women have since become so close that they travel and meet up all over the country. They recently joined Dawn in Minnesota and did a “polar plunge.” When one of the group’s original bunkmates, Rocky, was sick and dying from breast cancer, the women rallied to her bedside, with camp photos in hand, and were there when she took her last breath. Later the friends returned to camp and founded a scholarship in Rocky’s name so that less fortunate women could attend. “I just wish every woman could have this experience,” Dawn says.
“Everything is more intense at camp,” says Eric, of Soul Camp, which hosts camps in California, Illinois and New York. “The night is more like night. The day is more like day. The stars, the splendor of nature [are all] around you.”
This magic even has a scientic name: biophilia, or love of nature.
According to John Zelenski, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and author of several studies on the connection between nature and happiness, “Immersing someone in nature—even [for just] a 15-minute walk—increases people’s positive emotions. It makes them feel more alive, but also more relaxed.” John’s research also shows that being in nature—or even just looking at it—can make people more pro-social and cooperative with others.
Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that all this bonding and boundary-breaking is happening out in the wilderness, and not at a wellness retreat at the Hyatt. “People report a sense of fascination, of awe when they are in nature,” John says. “They’re seeing things in a new way and being curious, more open.”
According to Michael, camps were started as a philanthropic venture to get poor city kids out into the country in the summertime. “For city kids [camp] was life-changing. You got to be in the woods,” he says. “Adults need this, too. Suburban life is even less natural sometimes than city life: Drive. Mall. House. Work.”
When Angela was at Camp Throwback, she laughed after seeing a toad. “When was the last time I saw a toad in Los Angeles? That doesn’t happen. I saw lightning bugs—all these things, I forgot they all existed. It’s important to make them a part of your life.”
At Camp Grounded in Northern California, the programming is primarily play-related, and almost everything takes place outdoors. Unlike many other camps, there is no access to technology whatsoever. No phones. No Wi-Fi. Only you, your tribe and Mother Nature. Those factors have made it extremely popular with the young go-go-go executives of Silicon Valley, as well as more bohemian types.
“These are people who work in front of a screen all day,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist, executive coach and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. “They can’t take a ‘real’ vacation because technology follows them everywhere. If they are in Hawaii and it’s possible to be connected, they feel guilty if they’re not on call.” You get the sense that some of these executives would pay money to go to jail if it meant they could hand over their phones. Camp Grounded’s absolute lockdown on tech makes that prospect a lot more appealing, with a full roster of activities from stilt walking to synchronized swimming—all out among the redwoods and under the sun.
Soul Camp offers a mind- (and body-) bending array of wellness sessions, such as meditation, yoga or sound therapy with Tibetan singing bowls in addition to classic camp activities like canoeing and arts and crafts. But the effect on your well-being may be equally positive whether you are learning to meditate or play kick the can. That’s because while mindfulness is important, so is pure play.
Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist, the founder of the National Institute for Play and the author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, has been advocating for the importance of play in both children and adults for decades. He says that meaningful connections can quickly be forged between a group of strangers through the power of play. “Playful communications and interactions, when nourished, produce a climate for easy connection and deepening, more rewarding relationship—true intimacy,” Stuart writes.
“It’s that play aspect that I see as being a backlash against the achievement culture so many young adults have grown up in,” Christine says. “It’s a chance to not perform, not to perform. And what an incredible relief to not have to put up that façade” for a few days, when we spend so much of our adult lives doing just that.
At Soul Camp, as at Campowerment, “Nobody talks about what they do. We share an experience. We get to know each other authentically on a human level,” Eric says. As Angela remembers from Camp Throwback, “We got out a Slip ’N Slide, and it wasn’t just a normal Slip ’N Slide, it was an industrial Slip ’N Slide. And it started raining while we were pulling it out and everyone was just having a field day like—you were sliding down this huge tarp and it’s that sense of just flying. It’s slightly reckless, and there is no one to tell you can’t do it, except maybe yourself.”
Sleep-away camp has always offered kids a chance to develop independence and an individual identity, separate from home and school. At first glance, adults going off to these same camps might seem just like weekend partiers or New Agers. But something wonderful is taking place at these establishments, and it’s turning curious first-time campers into die-hard acolytes who can’t wait to return.
Camp Grounded takes the idea that camp is a world apart a step further so that once there, campers do not even use their real names. “There is a whole ceremony around choosing your ‘camp name,’” explains Christine. Your camp name is one you choose to represent who you really are, not what you do or how people see you. Yes, capture the flag is fun, but because of the welcoming atmosphere created at the camps, the free play, communal bonding and general sense of well-being bestowed by nature itself, campers are bringing home much more than a suntan and a henna tattoo.
These getaways seem to give busy adults a much-needed timeout, a chance to look at their lives and assess them from a peaceful distance. “Going to Soul Camp and leaving the judgment behind made me realize I didn’t like the place where I was,” Eric says.
“It gave me the space to jump off the ship of misery and have a party on a beach. I found that at camp, and that is the life I live now.”
Emily Wise Miller is the web editor at Live Happy.
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