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Is Summer Camp Really Keeping Your Kids Active?

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Agata Kowalewska, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Summertime is almost upon us, whether we’re ready for it or not! If you’re a parent of school-aged children, how do you keep them busy during the long summer days?Signing my own children up for summer activities and camps is always a huge organizational task for me. Still, I know my kids enjoy the break from school and the variety these fun experiences provide.

Though my son and daughter each do some specialty camps, they also enjoy general “summer day camps,” chock full of typical activities like crafts, games, and swimming. I always figure they get plenty of active play and exercise during these summer adventures—more than during the school year, right?

Summer Couch Potatoes?

But does my idealized image match reality? In reality, summer can be a pretty sedentary time of year for kids. Studies show that children’s fitness generally declines when they are out of school and away from PE class and organized sports. Children also may gain more weight per month during this time than during the school year.

When we consider why this might be, we might find ourselves taking a closer look at those same summer day camps. Every year, 14 million children attend programs like these. Outside of school, they represent one of the biggest opportunities kids have to participate in structured and unstructured activities. But what’s really happening there as far as physical activity?

Day Camps Observed

In one recent study, researchers systematically surveyed four large summer day camps in South Carolina, tracking children’s physical activity and its context. Over the course of about a month, over 4500 observations were made of about 2500 children.

Although physical activity opportunities represented quite a large portion of the children’s time, at least 60% of children (or more) were still sedentary during these “active” times. (This percentage was, of course, higher during times when there was no planned physical activity taking place.) Why would this be?

Some “Activities” More Active Than Others

Some activities, such as free play time, time with access to play equipment, water play and swimming, and exciting “elimination” games like dodgeball did work well to get kids really moving. It also was effective to give kids lots of choices as far as the physical activity they wanted to fo. However, when staff made children wait in line or gave explicit instruction on physical activity or games, many children ended up not being very active. Instead, they spent time standing or sitting, waiting for turns or instructions.

These findings are in line with other studies showing that free play encourages children to move, while explicit adult instruction may lead to less overall exercise. (They also probably won’t surprise parents who know how much kids love water games!)

Paying attention to which activities really get “summer camp” kids up and active, as well as making a clear and intentional effort to include lots of time for physical play and activity during the camp day, is really important. Summer is a big and fun part of the year for kids—let’s make it a healthy and active time, too.

Does your child’s camp do a good job helping kids to be active? Have you noticed what works (and what doesn’t)? Share your ideas and observations in the comments.


Beets, M. W., Weaver, R. G., Beighle, A., Webster, C. and Pate, R. R. How physically active are children attending summer daycamps?. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 2013. 10 (6), 850-855

Photo Credits: diego_cervo/iStock/Thinkstock