I got a glimpse of life “over the rainbow” last weekend. No, my house wasn’t swept up in a tornado, and no, I was not hallucinating after taking a sharp blow to the head.

I visited my kids at summer camp.

In the 1939 film version of “The Wizard of Oz,” life in Kansas looks to be no fun at all. To underscore the dullness of life there, the segments of the film set there are shot in sepia tones, so that all we see seems dusty, dry and desolate. When Dorothy awakens in the magical land of Oz, by contrast, the screen comes alive in glorious Technicolor.

By the end of the school year, life at home might as well be life on Dorothy’s Kansas farm. School has grown old and tired, and if every teacher at the beginning of the year resembled Glinda the Good, by year’s end, no one is still bubbly and cheerful. The prospect of spending three months at home with their parents is about as appealing as having to labor out in the hot sun with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em on their hot, lonely farm.

A summer at a traditional sleep-away summer camp, though, is magical and transformative. It is life in living color. In land of Oz, the familiar faces of friends and acquaintances are transformed into larger-than-life personalities. The ordinary farmhands Hunk, Zeke and Hickory become the extraordinary Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man. At summer camp, ordinary school teachers and administrators, who perhaps two weeks before may have seemed like the waspish Miss Gulch to their own weary students, are wondrously changed into their exuberant, camp-staff personae. Back in Kansas, he was Mr. Eigenvector the mathematics instructor; but at camp he is Barracuda, protector of the waterfront.

Like Dorothy in Oz, it is the campers themselves who are most transformed by their experience.

Whisked away from Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, Dorothy finds herself independent for the first time, setting forth alone on her quest to reach the Emerald City. Along the way, she makes new friends and faces — and surmounts — new obstacles.

At sleep-away camp children get a parallel taste of independence. Although campers today are, in fact, carefully supervised and their days at camp highly structured, campers feel far more free than they do in whatever personal Kansas they call home.

They enjoy the freedom to choose different activities, to spend every afternoon training at archery. Or not. They may spend that time instead on the waterfront or learning wilderness survival skills or in any of a variety of other adventurous activity.

At camp, kids enjoy the freedom to try — and sometimes to fail — at these activities. At school, failure has consequences, and kids fear failure. If at camp, you can’t make the canoe travel in a straight line or build a shelter that will keep the rain out, everyone has a few laughs, and you move on.

Usually, of course, the campers do succeed and gain the confidence that comes with mastering new skills and conquering new obstacles. (At a good camp, the leaders are working unobtrusively in the background to structure things so that campers mostly face only challenges they are ready to meet). So in a summer, campers may learn how to build a fire after a rainstorm or how to work together as a team to win at capture the flag. They discover that they can hike long distances, carrying their own food and equipment. Whether the particular skills prove useful to the camper in the future matters less than the benefit the learning of them provides in the moment. Such learning is fun, and empowering, and a part of growing up.

Most importantly, campers enjoy the freedom to face these challenges and to express their distinctive and developing personalities away from the judgmental gaze of parents. We parents play a vital role in preparing our children for adulthood, but something about our presence makes our children feel as though they are still little kids, not the young adults we want them to become.

Though Dorothy loved her time in the land of Oz, in the end she longed for home, and when she got back to Kansas, she saw traces of the magic in the faces of her familiar friends.

Hard as it is to let our children leave us for the seven weeks of summer camp, seeing that growth, and seeing their renewed energy for another year “on the farm” is worth it.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: