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
I suspected as much.
In addition to being a camp director, I’m also an experienced camp parent, having sent my kids both to GAC and several other camps. So I am well aware of that “where did I put that camp handbook?” feeling.
My sons are both going to camp this summer, so I, too, am now in all-out alert mode to get them ready. In the past, I may have waited a tad too long on a few items, so I thought I’d share some advice before I get in gear and get them prepared!
Here are some tips to keep chaos at a minimum during camp preparations for your child:
#1 Order clothing labels today!
I really like these labels (and they are the ones we sent you) because you DON’T EVEN HAVE TO IRON THEM! Seriously, when I was getting my older kids ready for camp 15 years ago, we didn’t have such conveniences. Now, it’s super easy to have my kids label all those socks and undies on their own!
#2 Fill out your forms.
The forms we require you to complete are your primary way to communicate your child’s information and any special considerations or needs to the staff who will be caring for your child at camp. If you stick those forms in your child’s luggage as they depart (YOU WOULD NEVER DO THAT, RIGHT?), the staff may not have vital information about your child. Allergy lists for the kitchen, special activity requests, etc., are all made available before campers arrive. We need the forms 30 days before their session begins so that we can get the correct information to the appropriate staff.
Late forms are not okay. Fill them out. (As a related aside, I thought I could call our pediatrician at the end of April and schedule my son for a physical in May, but that was not the case. I had to send an apologetic email to camp explaining that his appointment is four days before the session starts. This is embarrassing for a 31-year veteran camp director!)
#3 Look at the packing list.
Sweat pants? Those can be hard to find in stores this time of year, and if your kids are like mine, last winter’s are way too small. You’ll have to order them online. I know Amazon is fast, but if you’re looking at the packing list the night before camp, even Amazon can’t get the sweatpants to you in time. Check out the list. See what your camper needs. Get it now rather than risking a panic attack at 11:45pm the night before camp.
#4 Plan for some down time.
When I hear about the schedules some of our campers have before and after camp—with not a minute to rest before or recuperate after—I worry. Remember our childhood summer days? A whole lot of nothing, most every day, so that by September school was actually sounding pretty good? Today’s kids have summer school, sports camp, junior lifeguards, test prep, sports practices, band camp, family vacation (need I go on?). Please schedule some time for rest and reflection after camp. The experience is so profound it needs to be savored, not wedged in between everything else.
#5 Figure out how to work our camp online system.
As soon as your camper arrives at camp, you’ll want grandparents to know how to send emails, and you’ll be anxious to see photos. Practice now so that on the first day of camp, you’re not fumbling around online.
There you have it—just a few tips to get you ahead of the curve on camp preparations. Trust me on these. I have been there a few times, and I know that ironing labels past midnight before an early camp departure is not a fun experience.
Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, Director of Gold Arrow Camp for the past 31 years, writes about camp, parenting, and happiness at her website, Sunshine Parenting. You can also follow Sunshine on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest for links to other articles and ideas about camp and parenting.
Summer Camp (lots of Sunshine Parenting resources to help you prepare for camp!)
Camp Supplies (there are TONS of other places to get camp gear):
Everything Summer Camp (trunks, duffels, other camp gear)
Label Daddy (no iron clothing labels)
Gruvy Wear (UV protective swim wear)
Originally posted in Sunshine Parenting.
by Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, Camp Director
Recently, I’ve been going through the many boxes of letters, photos, and memorabilia which I have collected over my first five decades. It’s been a time-consuming task, but I’m trying to organize into a smaller number of boxes what has been accumulated over the first half of my life. What has struck me most is the huge number of letters I amassed from my childhood, high school, and college friends. Until this week, I didn’t remember how much we corresponded, but I just finished going through hundreds of letters. I now have proof of the many friendships that were solidified over hours of writing to one another.
I mostly have the ones written to me, but I can assume from the “Thanks for your letter”s that I was writing at the same rate as my friends were. Maybe some of my letters are in a box out there somewhere?
Not only was there a huge volume of letters (see picture), some of the letters were ten pages long, with tiny writing. Others were short notes or fun greeting cards. Most of them were in beautiful, cursive writing, even some from boys! What an amazing thing to think about. Back then, without the distractions we all have today, we had TIME to write letters like that! Plus, we enjoyed it and were good at it! We wrote letters, because often long distance phone calls were too expensive. Many of us traveled and studied overseas, so the letters chronicle our trips.
The process of trying to get rid of most of this paper required that I at least skim through each one. I pulled out many that I simply can’t bear to throw away. I found letters from my late grandparents, with their words of wisdom. I found letters my parents had written to me over the years. I also found letters from friends showing major teen angst, which is a good reminder now that I have teens of my own. We weren’t that different back then after all! It’s just that we didn’t splash our anger and sadness at each other on Facebook. We wrote each other heart-felt notes.
One thing I realized is that my kids will not have a big box of letters like mine. They don’t write letters like we did in the pre-computer, pre-email, pre-social networking, pre-cell phone era. But then I had a revelation! They DO still get to send and receive letters. It’s when they’re at camp! I have told parents how much campers enjoy getting “real” mail while at camp (the kind with a stamp), but now I have realized another benefit – they will have these letters as keepsakes and memories of their childhood. And you, as parents, most definitely should save all of the letters you get from your camper!
Among my box, I came across a postcard I sent to my parents in 1977, when I was a camper at Gold Arrow Camp. This is what it said:
I think it’s mean that you have to write a letter to get into dinner, but I’m glad to write a letter to you because I love you. It’s been raining since we got here. But we still went horseback riding. I wrote a letter to daddy this morning and sent it. Camp is so fun. I can’t wait to tell you. My counslers name is Liz. She’s nice.
Let me tell you, we have gotten some good laughs in our house over this postcard. Not just about how I spelled “counselor,” but about my comment about the “Mail Meal” (dinners on Wednesday and Sunday that you need to have a letter or postcard home as your ticket in). The dreaded “Mail Meal” has been a camp tradition for as long as anyone can remember, but I didn’t even remember thinking it was a bad thing. My adult view is much different than my ten year old one! I now understand how much parents need those letters. I hope most kids get beyond the “I have to write this letter” part, and share some of their feelings and memories of camp. The resulting memorabilia will be priceless.
So, here’s to another benefit of camp I’ve only this week realized. We have the chance for our kids to experience the (almost) lost art of writing and receiving hand written letters. And you, as a parent, have a chance to write down words that your child will be able to read and keep long beyond any email you’ve sent them!
P.S. Did you see this hilarious book? P.S. I Hate it Here: Letters from Camp Some really funny, real letters kids wrote to their parents from camps.
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.“
“The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles.”
– Garth Stein
Written by Christine Carter, Ph.D.
What quality does the Buddha share with Luke Skywalker and Joan of Arc? What links Harriet Tubman with Harry Potter? What does your camper have in common with Michael Jordan?
It has nothing to do with enlightenment or magic. It has to do with struggle. These heroes share a key quality: GRIT.
What is grit?
I think the best way to describe it is by starting with Joseph Campbell and his classic analysis of the “hero’s journey.” Campbell explains how the journey always begins when the hero leaves home and all that is familiar and predictable. After that, Campbell writes, “Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed—again, again, and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.”
Kinda sounds like summer camp to me.
It is grit that makes our heroes (campers) face down their dragons and persist in the face of difficulty, setbacks, failure, and fear. They fall down and get back up again. They try their hardest, only to fail. But instead of giving up, they try again and again and again.
It isn’t just historical or fictional heroes who need to be gritty to rise to the top. Recent psychological research has found that grit is one of the best predictors of elite performance, whether in the classroom or in the workforce. Defined by researchers as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” grit gives kids the strength to cope with a run-of-the-mill bad day (or week or season) as well as with trauma or crisis.
It turns out that grit predicts performance better than IQ or innate talent. Grit makes our kids productive and successful because it allows them to reach their long-term goals despite life’s inevitable setbacks. This ability to overcome challenges makes them stronger and more masterful at their tasks. Moreover, the ability to cope with difficulty—to be resilient—paves the way for their long-term happiness.
Grit is not really a personality trait as much as it is a facet of a person’s character that is developed like any other skill. Babies are not born with grit any more than they are born with the ability to speak their mother’s native language. We humans develop grit by encountering difficulty and learning to cope with it.
And with that in mind, here’s some perverse “good” news: No life is free from challenges or difficulties. In other words, all of our kids will have plenty of opportunities to develop grit. Out of their setbacks and failures grow the roots of success and happiness. Grandmaster chess players, great athletes, scientific geniuses, and celebrated artists learn, in part, by losing, making mistakes, and failing. Consider this quote from Michael Jordan (who, incidentally, was cut from his high school basketball team):
I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
The even better news is that most kids have the capacity to develop grit, and I believe summer camp is the best place for them to do it. Camp exposes kids to what I think of as “safe difficulties”–real physical, social, and emotional challenges for them to overcome. They will sometimes fall off the rock, or struggle to kneeboard. They may have a hard time leaving home, or have a hard time making friends. They will also have a ton of old-fashioned fun, make deep friendships, feel great gratitude for their families, experience the exhilaration of collective joy, learn new skills and develop new talents.
The benefit, to me, is this combination of sheer joy and great difficulty that camp exposes kids to. For most kids, camp is an experience that is at times hard and uncomfortable, but that they remember most for all the times it was easy and joyful.
Despite the discomfort they may feel at times, kids experience camp positively for three reasons:
First, they learn at camp that it isn’t so bad to make a mistake, and that a difficult situation is just a difficult situation, a problem to be solved or an opportunity for improvement. At home and at school, kids typically fear making mistakes and so hide their failures, and this prevents them from truly learning anything from them.
Second, at camp kids learn that they have the ability to cope with difficult feelings and situations themselves. At home, we well-meaning parents are usually around to help solve problems and salve emotional pain. At camp, kids gain a more powerful sense of themselves when they develop the skills they need to deal with difficulty without their parents, and these skills transfer to life outside of camp.
Finally, kids learn that no one is entitled to a life free from difficulty. Camp is a great equalizer, providing challenges for all kids. Camp lets them all star in their own hero’s journey. Instead of letting them give up and go home when the going gets rough, it gives them the opportunity to experience what it is like to dig in.
Camp gives kids the opportunity to see difficulty not just as an inconvenience or injustice, but as a chance for what Campbell calls a “boon,” or dramatic win in the hero’s journey. This gives kids new perspective on life’s challenges—and new strength to deal with them.
There are drawbacks to the hero’s journey, of course. Our kids don’t come home from camp the same: Once they’ve faced down a particularly difficult challenge, they typically have grown so much we might hardly recognize them. But the advantages to developing grit are great, and the “boon” is always worthwhile.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a parent coach and the author of RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. She coaches and teaches online classes in order to help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for parents and couples. She is also a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Sign up for her short weekly Happiness Tips at www.christinecarter.com.
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.
For the past three summers, we’ve celebrated our graduating campers – campers who are coming to camp for their final summer – with a special ceremony held after the dance each session. All campers entering their sophomore year of high school are invited, in addition to all of their counselors from that session. While all the campers sit around a campfire, the group counselors say a few words about each of their graduating campers, including specific strengths they’ve seen and how they’ve watched each camper grow over the course of the session or their entire time at GAC. After these words are shared, campers receive a paddle with their name engraved on it, as well as a Sharpie so that campers can write notes and sign one anothers’ paddles.
Campers then have the opportunity to share how they’ve grown because of camp. While it is optional to share, many campers are very open about how camp has affected their lives. The paddle ceremony gives campers a chance to reflect upon their camp experiences and say goodbye to their camper days. While many campers may return later as Junior Counselors, OLC participants, or counselors, there’s nothing quite like being a Gold Arrow camper.
At the end of Session 2, we said goodbye to Tigger for the summer. Tigger has worked at GAC for thirty years, and we honored her at Appreciation Campfire with a gold arrow necklace. Tigger has brought so much insight and wisdom to camp due to her extensive experience working in education as a special education teacher. Hundreds of homesick campers over the years have had “Tigger Talks” full of encouragement and perspective, and several counselors mentioned the help that Tigger provided them with when they were campers.
Tigger wrote a poem and shared it with camp after being honored for her many years of service at GAC:
As I look back on my last 30 years
I’ve shared many smiles and shed a few tears
My first days as a counselor a long time ago
I saw joy and wonder and it started to grow
I knew shortly after I walked on these grounds
I had fallen in love; a second family I’d found
But never in all of my wildest dreams
Did I think 30 years later I’d be on the GAC team
I’ve had different jobs in my life through the years
But they just can’t compare to my GAC days I fear
For the memories I’ve made and the lives that I’ve touched
Each day that I’m here, why they all mean so much
The activities are great; this place is supreme
But it’s the intangibles that touch you and here’s what I mean
The wonder you see in the eyes of a child
Or the smile you get when you’ve known them for a while
Or the hug of a counselor as they say “Hey –
Thanks a lot; you made my day!”
These are the things you can’t touch but I know
They’re the things that stay with you; the reason you grow
Enjoy each second because this I know
The times you spend here are the best of your life
Days filled with love, and not with strife
The days you spend here are the best times of all
Good times to be had, so just have a ball
But it’s the people that matter the ones you call “friend”
They’ll touch your life and be with you till the end
So cherish those friendships and your time spent at GAC
I’ll see you next year; you can bet I’ll be back!