By Camp Director Audrey “Sunshine” Monke
There are so many reasons great parents choose to send their kids to summer camp. Several years ago, I shared five of them on the most popular post I’ve ever published. But now I have more to share. Consider this the second installment in a series with others to follow, because the list of ways kids benefit from summer camp is seemingly endless.
Since I last wrote about reasons great parents send their kids to camp, I conducted research and found that camp experiences positively impact campers’ happiness and social skills. I’ll begin, then, with happiness.
The first reason great parents send their kids to camp is that it helps them BE HAPPIER.
“Camp makes me happy and nothing can prepare me for life as well as this environment.”
“Come on,” you’re thinking, “How can two weeks in the mountains change my child’s overall happiness level?” Good question. One of my research findings was that both parents and kids agree that children feel happier after being at camp. The combination of positive emotions, deep friendships, being disconnected from technology, and just plain fun makes kids feel happier at and after camp. I’ve previously written about how the science of positive psychology may explain why kids flourish at camp and demonstrate increased happiness levels before and after their camp experience. In this era, when we’re seeing our kids suffer from rising rates of depression and anxiety, isn’t it nice to know that there’s a place where kids can go that actually serves as a positive intervention for overall happiness?
Next, great parents send their kids to camp because it helps them DISCOVER THEIR BEST SELF.
“Being at camp gives me this sense of belonging that I’ve never felt anywhere else.”
In many different ways, but all with the same underlying meaning, campers describe camp as a place where they can be themselves. They feel open to saying and being who they really are, not stuck conforming to what’s considered “cool” and “acceptable” in the outside world. Surrounded by a diverse group of friends of different ages and backgrounds, kids develop the ability to explore their own interests and express their own thoughts better. As a parent, I hate to admit that I sometimes push my own interests on my kids, even when I don’t mean to. For example, I might say, “You’re so good at softball! Don’t you want to keep playing?” when my child says she doesn’t want to play anymore. Stepping away from their regular activities and normal life schedules (as well as their well-meaning but often overly directive parents), kids have the opportunity to think through what’s really important to them as individuals.
Third, great parents send their kids to camp because it helps them GROW THEIR GRIT.
“The counselors challenged me to do things I wouldn’t normally do at home.”
Learning self-reliance, experiencing mistakes and failures, and reaching for goals are all camp experiences that help campers develop their grit, an important character trait that we’ve learned is critical to success in life. Camp offers a unique experience to children – the chance to be away from their parents for a short period of time and learn to handle more things on their own. Without parents to step in and assist, or rescue from mistakes, kids develop confidence in their own ability to make decisions and solve problems. Just being “on their own” is a huge confidence builder for kids, and they feel more self-reliant after being responsible for themselves and their belongings for a few weeks.
Fourth, great parents send their kids to camp because it helps them MEET POSITIVE ROLE MODELS.
“Camp has made me into a leader, having the best role models as my counselors to look up to.”
One of the best things that happens at camp is that kids get exposed to a different kind of adult role model than what they see in the media. No reality TV stars will be gracing the waterfront or backpacking trips at summer camp. No perfectly coiffed and stick-thin model will be standing next to them brushing teeth in the bathroom. No macho guy who speaks disrespectfully about women will be leading the campfire discussion. In fact, the college students who choose to spend their summer working at camp are an outstanding bunch of young adults. Most are stellar students with outstanding leadership skills. They love the outdoors and working with kids, and they are the kind of people we want our kids to emulate. They love leading discussions on topics that are important to their campers and helping them build confidence. There’s no focus on appearance at summer camp, and so designer clothes, make up, and trendy hair-styles don’t hold the same importance that they do at junior high or high school. In fact, the predominant style at camp is pajama pants paired with dirt and sweat-stained t-shirts. And we hardly ever spend time in front of a mirror.
Finally, great parents send their kids to camp because it helps them DEVELOP BETTER COMMUNICATION SKILLS.
“The other part of camp that has influenced me the most is the simple idea of trying to always smile.”
In post-camp surveys, campers consistently write about how ditching their electronics was one of the best things about their camp experience. In fact, it’s a practice they take home with them, setting aside phones during meals with friends so they can connect more genuinely, face-to-face. In the absence of technological tethers, campers have many hours each day to practice these face-to-face communication skills. They learn the importance of things like eye contact, smiles, and body language as they positively interact with their peers. Counselors help facilitate lively discussions, and campers learn to ask each other questions, listen more carefully, and figure out common interests. Kids learn and practice valuable communication skills at camp, which they can use throughout their lives.
There you have it! Five (more) reasons that great parents send their kids to camp!
Five Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp (original Sunshine Parenting post)
Study Finds Campers Really are Happy, Sunshine Parenting
Research finds Children Learn Social Skills at Camp, Sunshine Parenting
Why Kids Flourish at Camp, Sunshine Parenting
Five Ways Camp Grows Grit, Sunshine Parenting
10 Social Skills Kids Learn at Camp, Sunshine Parenting
Making Friends, 3 Communication Skills Your Child Needs, Sunshine Parenting
Increased Levels of Anxiety and Depression as Teenage Experience Changes over Time (Nuffield Foundation)
10 Surprising Things Kids Learn at Camp, Sunshine Parenting
By Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, Camp Director
Read more of Sunshine’s camp-related posts at her website, Sunshine Parenting.
“Children want to be independent, and they realize that they cannot be truly independent until they beat homesickness, even when they have a painful case of it.”
– Michael Thompson, PhD., Homesick and Happy
Recently I spoke with a mom whose 11-year-old son is coming to camp in a few days. He’s nervous. He had a negative experience at a one-week science camp. He doesn’t think he can “make it for two weeks” and is worried he’ll be too homesick to make it at camp. I chatted with the mom and gave her some key messages to communicate to her son. She asked for them in bullet points in an email, and I thought there are probably others who might benefit from this same list, so I’m sharing this with anyone who has a child suffering from pre-camp anxiety.
Before I share my list, let me say that if you are not a camp proponent and don’t plan on sending your child to camp, you should probably not read any further. I am a huge supporter of camp and recently had a JC (Junior Counselor) tell me that “Camp made her who she is today.” So, I think that camp is a great thing for building kids’ independence and confidence. I have also seen many kids work through some pretty painful emotions at camp, so I know that camp is not easy for all kids.
We have 7-year-olds at our camp who do great during our two-week sessions. They are the ones who’ve begged their parents to let them come to camp and generally have older siblings who’ve attended camp. I also talk to a lot of parents with older kids who “aren’t sure if they’re ready for
camp.” One thing I’ve learned after close to three decades at camp is that the same kids who are anxious and hesitant about going to camp when they’re nine or ten will still be anxious when they’re 13. And they may not be interested in going away to college when they’re 18, either.
So, as a parent, you need to decide how to approach your child’s separation anxiety, as well as your own. You can avoid it and not send them to camp and hope that they develop independence in other ways, which is definitely possible. Or, you can bite the bullet, give them these positive messages, and send them off to camp with a smile, knowing that it may be hard for them, but they will grow from the experience.
In Michael Thompson, PhD.’s book Homesick and Happy, he says “It is the very challenge of camp that makes it such a life-changing experience for so many children.” I know there are many parents and children who just can’t stomach the idea of going through some painful time apart. Again, you need not read further if you are not sending your reluctant child to camp.
This post is for those of you who have decided that your child is going to camp, and especially for those of you who had a previously excited camper who is now having last-minute camp anxiety. Here are some messages you can give prior to dropping your camper at the bus or at camp. Pick and choose, and of course use your own words, but acknowledge your child’s feelings and empathize with them while holding firm in your confidence in their ability to succeed and your belief that camp will be good for them.
Without further ado, here are some messages to give to your anxious camper:
- Let them know that missing home is okay. “You may feel homesick, and that’s okay. A lot of kids feel that way. That just means that you love us and you love home. I feel homesick when I’m on trips, too. Missing home is part of life. But I know you can still have fun at camp, even if you feel sad sometimes.”
- Reassure them that there are people at camp who will take care of their needs. “There are adults at camp (counselors, directors) who are there to take care of you and help you with anything you need. They can help with things you normally come to me about. Let them know if you are feeling sad, and they can help you. They have lots of experience working with kids who are away from home for the first time.”
- Talk with your child honestly about the importance of starting to develop some independence. Something along the lines of: “It may seem like a long way off, but in a few years, you’ll be ready for college. I want you to feel confident in your ability to live away from me, so that you can choose any school you like, even if it’s far away from home. Think of camp like your practice time for when you’re older and ready to move away for school or a job. You’ll get better at being independent by starting now, when you’re young, with short spurts of time away. Some kids aren’t doing well when they start college because they don’t have any experience being away from home. I want you to feel great when you go to college, because you’ll know that you’ve already been successful with short camp stays.”
- Share the reality that many good things in life come with some pain and failure. If you have a story from your own life of something that you had to work hard at or had to go through difficulties in order to master, this is a great time to share. Something along the lines of, “Many good things in life aren’t easy at first. Learning a new sport or trying something new is really hard. Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone to discover something you really love. If you never go through anything hard, you’re going to miss out on some great experiences. The first few days of camp may be hard, and that’s okay. I know you’ll work through it and figure out what makes you feel better. I have confidence in you, and I am so proud of you for going to camp and trying this new adventure!
- Let them know that you are confident in them. “I am so excited that you get to go to camp this year. I know it’s going to be such a great experience for you and that you are ready for this.” If you went to camp, share with your camper what you liked about it and how you grew from the experience.
- Make sure they know you want to hear about everything. “Every day comes with its good and bad parts. When you’re at camp, I want you to write me letters and tell me all of the stuff that you’re doing and feeling. If you feel homesick at rest time, tell me about it, and also tell me what you did to help yourself. Did you talk to your counselor? Keep yourself busy playing cards with friends? Write me a letter? I also want you to share good stuff. Did you get your favorite food for lunch? Try rock climbing? Get up on a knee board? I want to hear both the good and bad things about camp in your letters.”
- If your camper asks you if you will pick him up if he’s sad, you need to let him know that you are not going to pick him up early. “Even if you’re a little homesick for the whole time you’re at camp, you’re going to feel so much better about the experience if you stick it out and make the best of it. Most kids feel better after a few days of getting settled in and adjusted, and I know you’ll feel great once you let yourself relax and just start enjoying all the fun things at camp. I’m not going to pick you up early, no matter what, because I know you will feel really proud of yourself for making it through camp, even if you have some hard days.”
In Homesick and Happy, Thompson says, “Homesickness is not a psychiatric illness. It is not a disorder. It is the natural, inevitable consequence of leaving home. Every child is going to feel it, more or less, sooner or later. Every adult has had to face it and overcome it at some point in life … If you cannot master it, you cannot leave home.”
I would like to note that you do not need to use all of these messages but instead choose the ones you think will resonate most with your child. What’s most important is that you express confidence in your child and in the camp experience. These same messages would be great as responses to a sad letter you receive from your camper.
I always tell the kids that the fun and happy feelings at camp usually far outweigh any sad feelings. Many kids tell me they “don’t feel homesick at all,” but there are some who struggle, especially during their first summer. Those kids seem to grow the most and feel the most pride in their accomplishment of staying at camp. If you are feeling worried about how your child will do at camp, know that you are giving your child a precious gift by allowing them this special time where they get to grow their wings.
- Five Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp
- Five (More) Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp
- Homesickness Help (sunshineparenting.wordpress.com)
- “Kidsickness”: Help for First Time Camp Parents (sunshineparenting.wordpress.com)
Homesick & Happy, by Michael Thompson, PhD.
By Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, Camp Director
Taking risks and trying new things – both of which can feel very uncomfortable – are daily occurrences at GAC. Campers are challenged to get outside their comfort zone, both physically and mentally. And in that “discomfort zone,” growth happens.
Physically, we live in tents, without electricity, and sleep in our sleeping bags on sometimes-squeeky, army-style bunks. We hike down a path to get to the bathroom, and we use flashlights to find our PJs. Camp doesn’t have many of the comforts of home, but in our rustic living we discover that we can live – very happily – without the luxuries of our own bathroom and a feather-top mattress!
Mentally, we get outside our comfort zone when we try something that we’ve never tried before. Sometimes we have to climb up really high or jump into a lake. We try things that we don’t think we’ll be good at. We try things that are a little scary. We say, “I can” to ourselves and listen to our counselors and cabin mates encouragement. We say “Hit it!” to the boat driver and get up on water skiis for the first time. And our discomfort and fear turns to pride and confidence! And, we gain a new willingness to take risks and try new things in other settings.
We want campers to feel comfortable and at home, but we also know that campers will also feel uncomfortable at times. And It’s from those moments that campers will grow and learn the most!
“We regularly witness varying levels of discomfort at camp. Parents may receive a sad, homesick letter from their camper detailing how uncomfortable, miserable, and sad their camper is feeling. It’s difficult for parents to know how to respond, and the natural instinct may be to jump in the car and rush up the mountain to save their camper from this discomfort.
But, as I’ve learned over my three decades at camp, the “saving” never turns out to be as helpful as it may seem. In fact, when struggling campers are saved rather than having to face the challenges of camp, they learn their parents don’t think they can handle discomfort, and in turn they lose a little faith in themselves; on top of being miserable, they now feel incompetent.
How can we best help our kids develop into adults who persevere and can handle life’s inevitable setbacks?
We must learn to coach our children to tolerate their discomfort”. Read more of “Why Kids Need to Get Uncomfortable.“
By Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, originally published at Sunshine Parenting.
I’ve learned to face my fears, I’ve tried new things, and I have learned that you don’t always need to have your phone or video games.
Children between eight and ten years old currently spend nearly eight hours a day on media. Adolescents average nearly eleven hours per day, seven days a week, on screens. The negative impact of this digital lifestyle is evident in kids’ expanding waistlines as well as their growing lack of interest in being outdoors. Now there’s an additional worry about the impact of our kids’ excessive screen use: anxiety.
In a recent NY Times article—Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?—Benoit Denizet-Lewis writes, “Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram, but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits—round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers—were partly to blame for their children’s struggles. To my surprise, anxious teenagers tended to agree.”
Anxiety is on the rise—among children, teens, and adults—and our screen time is exacerbating the issue. The problem is not just with teens. Adults are modeling this uber-connected life and experiencing a similar rise in anxiety. Ubiquitous screens are all that this anxious generation has ever experienced, and as parents we can feel powerless to stop devices from overtaking our family’s lives.
Whether sending or receiving SnapChat messages, watching YouTube videos, scrolling on Instagram, playing video games, or taking 100 selfies to find the best angle, our children are inundated with digital input while also feeling pressure to post the “right” things. The attraction of media is hard to resist, so most of us (including parents) simply succumb to having the near constant presence of our electronics.
Many of us find it difficult to drag ourselves away from our laptops and smartphones, and often our schedules and lifestyles don’t allow for adequate time to just be outside and enjoy our natural surroundings. Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods to describe the alarming trend of children spending less and less time outdoors. Whether due to sensational media accounts of lost hikers that have fanned parental fears, or simply a lack of time in over-scheduled lives, children simply aren’t outside playing as much as they used to. Instead, they’re inside on their screens.
I don’t think anyone would debate that we all need to unplug more, but it’s very difficult to actually get kids off their screens, especially now that many schools require devices for course work, and most kids have their own smartphone by middle school.
Earlier this year, I interviewed a mom who gave clear instructions before her twelve-year-old daughter’s birthday slumber party: devices would NOT be allowed. But this mom, unfortunately, is still the exception, not the rule. She lamented that when her kids go to other people’s houses, they complain that all the kids do is play on their devices the entire time. While we can get our kids to turn off and put away screens at home, it’s difficult to monitor them when they’re not at home. And, unfortunately, kids are drawn to homes where screens are not as limited.
While a few weeks at camp is not the only answer to all the screen and anxiety problems, camp experiences can be a great salve for our kids. Breathing fresh air, connecting face-to-face, and not worrying about “likes” and what they’re missing, kids relax and enjoy themselves. And they report feeling happier and less anxious.
Here are four ways summer camp can help with the parenting challenge of too much screen time:
Just being completely unplugged for a few weeks is a new and refreshing experience for kids—a true digital detox. Because they’re having fun and staying engaged and entertained, they get over their screen addiction quickly. And, because it’s a “cold turkey” approach with no ambiguity (everyone’s following the same rules), campers don’t push back against being unplugged like they do at home.
- CHANGED PERSPECTIVE:
By experiencing screen-free fun and friendships, many campers express a new desire to spend less time on their devices once they return home. Campers and staff have frequently reported examples of providing leadership in asking friends to participate in phone-free times.
- APPRECIATION FOR NATURE AND OUTDOOR RECREATION:
While counting shooting stars, appreciating spectacular views from a hike, or smelling the smoke from their campfire, campers aren’t thinking about their TV, video games, and cell phones. Instead, they are experiencing nature and being truly present with others. Many discover new outdoor activities they enjoy, and they are inspired to spend more time outside and in the moment once they return home.
- BETTER FACE-TO-FACE FRIENDSHIP SKILLS:
Social interactions can be difficult, and many kids choose to keep interactions safely behind a screen. At camp, while sharing stories around the campfire and spending quality face-to-face time with new and old friends, campers gain more confidence in their social skills and are more likely to pursue real, face-to-face friendships upon returning home.
Getting kids off their screens — and convincing kids how good it feels to be unplugged — can be a real challenge. Summer camp can help.
Over the summer, I interviewed kids about their camp experiences. The topic of being unplugged came up a lot and the kids had insightful words:
Thoughts on Being 13 (CNN documentary)
By Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, Camp Director. Originally published at Sunshine Parenting.
While it’s easy to think of ways to teach our kids to do laundry or solve math problems, finding a way to instill important character traits isn’t as simple. The way we model traits we want our children to exhibit has a powerful influence on them, and some traits (kindness, gratitude, and generosity) they learn first and foremost from parents.
But there are other traits best learned through experiences outside the home and beyond the watchful (sometimes too watchful) eyes of parents. Camp experiences offer exactly the kind of experience away from home where children grow important character traits like independence, self-confidence, and grit.
“Looking back at my life, camp has been the most influential part of it. I can truly say camp is where I developed my independence, gained confidence, and learned what friendship truly means.”
Being hyper-involved and in constant communication with our children has become something modern parents brag about. But when do we start letting go and giving our kids a chance to feel independent? This has become much more challenging in an age where cell phones are always attached to our (and their) hips and tracking apps are ubiquitous. In fact, as parents today we tend to foster dependence even when we’re trying not to. Forgot their lunch? A friend says something mean? Stubbed their toe? We know right away and swoop in to help.
Whether the result of parenting trends or ultra-high levels of physical and digital connectedness, today’s children are much less independent than we were at the same age. I find it hard to resist editing my son’s paper to make it “just a little bit better” or jumping in to help make his lunch when he’s running late for school. Thirty years ago, we were babysitting infants at age 13. Today, some of us hire babysitters for our 13-year-olds!
Camp experiences offer the unique opportunity for kids to see how much they can do without us hovering nearby. They build their independence skills because they take more responsibility for themselves and their belongings, make their own decisions, and feel a sense of autonomy. For many kids, camp is the first opportunity they’ve had to experience these things.
“Camp has really helped me become more confident with who I am and has helped me try new things. Without camp, I would be too shy to go up to someone and introduce myself. Camp has had a giant impact on my personality, and without it I would be a completely different person.”
When we tell our kid she’s “great” at something, it’s easy for her to be wary of the praise. We parents are notorious for seeing our kids through rose-colored lenses and thinking they are the greatest at _______ (fill in the blank); our kids know intuitively that our assessment of them, however complimentary, is most likely not accurate or objective.
However, when another respected adult mentor – like a camp counselor! – recognizes a positive trait in our child and points it out, that can have a powerful impact. When someone outside the immediate family recognizes our child’s unique qualities and helps him or her address weaknesses, it can build real self-confidence.
“I love the encouragement that I got, both from counselors and campers, to try new things all the time. I love that the camp encourages you to do that. The camp atmosphere made me stand out and be unique, in ways that I would have been too embarrassed to try at home.”
“Grit” became the new buzzword in education and parenting circles thanks to Paul Tough’s best-selling book, How Children Succeed. Angela Duckworth further cemented the importance of grit, or resilience, in her popular TED talk: Grit, the Power of Passion and Perseverance, and her book, Grit. People with grit have “stick-to-itiveness,” persistence, and resilience, all of which help them work hard and push past difficulties and failures.
We all need some grit. But how do we teach grit to a distinctively non-gritty kid or young adult—one who quits when something gets challenging, who doesn’t want to try anything new or difficult, or who prefers playing endless video games to practicing piano, reading, or some other more useful-seeming skill?
As parents, it’s hard to create experiences that require our children to use grit, but at camp those experiences happen every day. While struggling to climb the rock wall or attempting to get up on water skis for the 12th time, our kids develop their grit muscles in a big way at camp. And, they likely wouldn’t try for as long or as hard if we parents were hovering nearby with our worried expressions. At camp, kids are encouraged to set goals, challenge themselves, and overcome failure again and again. And that develops their grit.
Interrupting the cycle of dependence can only happen when we as parents are willing to encourage our children to develop their independence, self-confidence, and grit, and, though it may seem counter-intuitive, that happens best when we’re not around.
By Andy “Soy” Moeschberger
In all probability the educationist of the year 2000 AD will look back upon us and wonder why we, the school people of 1938, failed to include the camp as an integral unit of our educational system.
– The Kappan Magazine, the official magazine of Phi Delta Kappa – 1938
If you ever have the opportunity to visit us at camp, you’ll have the opportunity to sing the GAC Song. While many people love the “wadda-ing” that takes place in the chorus, my favorite part comes in the final verse. We sing, “I sure did learn much more here than I ever did at school.”
My love of this line comes from my teaching before I came to work for Gold Arrow full time; I was a high school social science teacher for 14 years.
It may seem odd that a teacher would love a line about learning more at camp that we did at school. But I do, because camp and school operate symbiotically. While those of us in camping and education have known this anecdotally for many years, there is an increasing body of evidence that supports that belief with data.
Some of that research has been supported by the American Camping Association, and I was privileged to hear one of the leaders in the field, Lance W. Ozier Ed.D. speak on this at a recent conference. He has written on the history of camps and schools (you can read it here). In that article, Dr. Ozier lays out the reasons that camp blossomed in America after the Civil War. As people moved to the cities, adults began to worry that their children were losing touch with nature, and so they sent them to live in nature. How familiar does that refrain sound to us today?
And yet the challenges for young people are even greater now than they were then. The rise of computers, social media and cell phones have had as great a social impact as urbanization a hundred years ago. Today, camp serves not just as a way to reengage children with nature, but as a way to help them learn vital social skills in a systematic way. We are fortunate that one of our camp owners and directors, Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, has studied the impact of camp on building social skills. Her research shows that a significant majority of campers report having improved social skills because of camp. She believes that this is because camp counselors are specifically trained in helping campers to improve skills like making friends and listening to others.
It isn’t just Sunshine that has found these results. According to research conducted by the American Camp Association, campers and their parents report that campers have more social skills, higher self esteem, and more independence.When a child returns to school more comfortable socially, they have more confidence, and are more likely to sit up front, ask questions, ignore distractions and choose a seat near the front. When they do that, they are setting themselves up for more academic success.
But wait, there’s more! Camp also provides an opportunity for children to struggle in a safe and supporting environment. Sunshine has written about this as well. That post is about Growing Grit, a concept that has been moved into the public discussion about education by Angela Duckworth’s research. We think that grit is so important we made it our theme for an entire summer! But there is increasing research that shows how struggling actually changes the way the brain grows. This research in neuroplasticity shows that the brain grows much more when it is engaged in something difficult. So every time a camper tries to waterski another time, or climbs the rock wall, their brains are growing!
(Interestingly, that same research shows that the brain also grows more and stronger synapses, in mice at least, when they are allowed to roam openly in nature.)
None of this is news to people who send their kids to camp, or those of us who work at camp. We can see anecdotally that kids are more confident and more “alive” after camp. But this research simply confirms what so many educational researchers knew in the early 1900s: going to camp when you’re not in school will help your education.
Visit Sunshine Parenting for more of Sunshine’s articles about the benefits of summer camp, children’s social skills, and parenting.
Written by Audrey “Sunshine” Monke
Campers often describe camp as their “happy place” or “the best two weeks” of their year. And, from my own observation, I’ve seen that kids and the counselors who work with them are obviously happy at camp. They smile a lot. They look relaxed. There’s a lot of laughter. So many fun things happen at camp every day that it’s no surprise it’s such a happy place for kids.
Recently I’ve read several books about the science behind happiness and the research that’s being done to determine the specific elements that cause people to “flourish” in life. (See my reading list below.)
Traditionally, psychologists have focused on studying psychological diseases – depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. – and their cures. But led by Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), a new breed of psychologists called Positive Psychologists have, for the past decade, been studying the positive side of people. They ask not what is wrong with people, but what is right. They research what makes us do well in life and the reasons why some people thrive and find success and happiness in life.
Originally, Seligman had a theory of “happiness” outlined in his book Authentic Happiness, but he moved away from only using the word “happiness” to a new theory that focuses instead on well-being or “flourishing.” Seligman determined that it’s inaccurate to use the term “happiness,” as some people simply don’t have the personality to appear outwardly happy to others, even when they are doing quite well in life. I’m an extrovert who smiles a lot, so, objectively, people would probably say I’m pretty high on the happy scale. But how do we account for an introvert who doesn’t show a lot or emotion or display the outward symptoms that we equate with happiness? He may not smile a lot or appear outwardly happy, but, Seligman contends, he could still be flourishing. So, instead of using a one-dimensional definition that’s dependent on momentary emotions and personality traits, Seligman developed a more thorough theory of well-being that moved beyond his original happiness theory.
Seligman uses the acronym PERMA to define his theory and the five measurable elements he has determined lead to well-being. As I read about each pillar of PERMA in Seligman’s book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, I kept having “ah-ha” moments. “This happens at camp!” I would think. “And this, too!” In fact, as I read, I determined that ALL of the elements of flourishing that Seligman describes happen at camp. According to Seligman, “No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it.”
I’ve always been sucked in by inspirational quotes and quick sounds bites about how camp contributes to happiness, but I love knowing the science behind why kids flourish at camp.
PERMA at Camp
P: Positive Emotion
Positive emotion is exactly what it sounds like: feeling happy and having positive thoughts about yourself, the people around you, or your surroundings. When someone reports they are feeling content, relaxed, or happy, then they are experiencing positive emotions. At camp, positive emotions are the norm, not the exception. We’re singing; we’re dancing; we’re doing skits that don’t make sense but that cause us to laugh so hard our stomachs hurt. Whether we’re telling jokes and stories around the campfire or just entertaining ourselves talking and hanging out together, positive emotion is literally swirling around camp. You can almost see a haze of happiness and fun surrounding everyone at camp.
Seligman’s next element, engagement, describes when one is interested in and connected to
what they are doing. When you’re engaged in your hobby or book or job, you’re fired up about learning something new and energized by the activity. At camp, kids are constantly exposed to new experiences and challenges – both recreational and social – that get them interested and excited to learn. They’re pushed to get outside their comfort zone and really engage. For some kids, their stay at camp is the first time they’ve slept away from home and their parents, and they are engaged in learning to live with a group of new people. For others, the camp dance is the first time they’ve ever danced with other kids, so they’re being engaged socially in new ways.
As Seligman and other researchers found, and most of us intuitively know, “other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.”
We all know that positive relationships are one of the main contributors to our happiness in life, so it’s no surprise that relationships are an important pillar of Seligman’s theory. Our life’s relationships – with our parents, our siblings, our friends, our spouses, and our co-workers – are key to our happiness. Everyone comes to camp to see their old friends, make new friends, and just spend quality time connecting with others and building positive relationships. And camp is like no other place for that. You don’t have any of the competition or stress that often accompany kids’ relationships at home: Two bright students who are close friends are also competing for the valedictorian spot. Or two athletes who have grown up together are competing for the same position on a soccer team. The relationships at camp, without all the competition and “baggage” that kids have in some of their relationships at home, grow strong quickly. This is probably why so many kids have told me that, even though they are only at camp for two weeks, their camp friends are their closest friends and they stay connected with them all year, well beyond their time at camp.
To flourish in life, we need to feel that we have a purpose and that we matter. According to Seligman, meaning comes from “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than the self.” Being a member of a cabin group at camp helps kids gain an understanding of how they are valued by others. For some kids, camp is the first place where they understand what it means to be a valued and accepted member of a community. Unlike at school, where some kids can be “invisible,” and go through a day without connecting with others, camp forces integration. Kids learn that they are an important and valued member of their cabin group, and they discover their character strengths through recognition from peers and counselors. While at camp, kids also have the opportunity to feel part of something bigger than themselves – a camp community that goes back nearly a century, where we still get to follow the same traditions our predecessors did. While learning about friendship, gratitude, and kindness, and practicing those skills, kids learn that they can positively impact others. They learn that they have value and that there is meaning in life.
People flourish when pursuing goals or mastering a skill. So, while having a great achievement is wonderful, much of flourishing comes from the striving towards the achievement. Many people report that it was a lot of fun working their way up and accomplishing small steps on the way to a goal. In fact, many people feel a let down once a goal has been achieved and realize, as Ralph Waldo Emerson so eloquently explained, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
Every day at camp, kids have the opportunity to try new things and master new skills. Some kids arrive at camp with a specific goal: a bull’s eye at archery or getting up on a slalom water ski. But others simply practice and work towards improving or challenge themselves to try something that frightens them – like completing the ropes course. And all of their progress and little achievements add to kids’ flourishing at camp.
At this time of year, when parents are busy completing camp forms and are possibly having cold feet about sending their child to camp for the first time, I’d like to remind you that camp can help your kid flourish like no school, sports team, or other activity they do. So, enjoy watching your child flourish at camp this summer.
- Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin Seligman
- Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Martin Seligman
- The Myths of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky
- Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Deiner and Robert Biswas-Diener
Gold Arrow first introduced the Nature program in the summer of 2016, but this summer, we’ve taken the program to a new level, focusing on specific goals in order to help campers learn the most and make the most of their nature experience.
Some of the goals of the new nature program have been to get kids to appreciate more simple ways of life, to get kids to have fun with and be more aware of their surroundings, and to help kids develop a moral concern for the environment. In order to achieve these goals, Nature counselor Yogi designed activities for kids to participate in that center around observation, identification, and connection.
A few activities used to help kids in their observation skills have been the “Hundred Inch Hike,” where campers use rulers and magnifying glasses to slow down and look for new things in such a small space. Another activity used to help kids is the “Silent Hike,” where kids use their senses to observe nature around them.
Several activities have also been used to help campers in their identification skills. Campers go on nature hikes, where they use books to help them identify trees, flowers, bushes, and other plants they might find. Campers also participate in “Plant Tag” during which campers are only safe from being tagged when they’re touching a plant that they can identify.
The “connection” part of the program aims to help campers see the connection of each of the smaller aspects of nature to the greater ecosystem as well as their own personal connection to nature. Campers are asked about their favorite aspects of nature and their most memorable experiences in nature. Sometimes campers play “Web of Life” where a ball of yarn is passed around the group and each person represents something different in nature. By passing the yarn around, campers discover how different aspects of nature are actually all interconnected.
In addition to these activities, campers sometimes decorate tree cookies, figure out the ages of trees, and use special nature print paper to capture the intricacies of the plants they find. Many campers have sported their tree cookie necklaces throughout the session, and the nature program as a whole has helped campers both be more aware and more conscious of the nature around them.
Eight-year-camper Kate Scibelli is off on a new adventure in Tanzania this summer. Kate is participating in a Rustic Pathways sponsored African immersion program, and her mom claims that the “resilience, independence, empathy, confidence, and courage” that Kate needed for this trip came from her summers at Gold Arrow Camp.
Kate’s program leader is already noting the “positive energy, curiosity, and commitment” that Kate’s group has brought to the program. The group’s main project is building a school dining hall and community center for Njoro village, but Kate has also had the opportunity to work with children during an education exchange where she teaches kids about teamwork and communication.
On top of service work, Kate has also had the opportunity to design her own clothes to be made by the village tailor, cook local foods, and ride through a national park full of wild animals! We are so excited for Kate and her new adventure, and we are happy that Gold Arrow equipped her with the independence and confidence that helped her take the leap for this big adventure. Kate will always be part of the GAC family and we will always be eager to welcome her back, but we are also proud of her for the adventures she has sought out and will continue to seek work. We love you, Kate!