Nature Can Nurture

Why consider summer camp for your child? Perhaps you hope to raise another Michelle Kwan or Tiger Woods. Maybe you are desperate for an alternative to a summer of day care, chauffeuring, and video games. But according to child development experts at the American Camp Association, there is an even more compelling reason to consider a high-quality summer camp: Children at summer camps are learning vital life skills called Emotional Intelligence that will help them grow—and will make their lives healthier and happier along the way.

Jeremy and Tony are excited to go fishing. Their counselor helps them work out a way to share the one rod fairly without arguing. Their newfound ability to share without anger carries over to their cabin and the question of who will operate the only working flashlight.

Matthew and Valerie watch out for Robert as he maneuvers the climbing wall. They yell encouragement, cheering on their camp friend who, unlike his cabinmates, struggles daily with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. On Opening Day, these two teased Robert about his unstable walk and slow progress across the field. Cabin discussions about disabilities, a counselor’s careful example of kindness and respect, and simple time spent together have helped the three form a strong friendship.

Skills Can Be Learned

Observers are finding that a set of abilities, collectively called Emotional Intelligence, has much to do with how children grow and succeed. These skills—self-awareness, self-control, empathy, and the ability to wait, listen, cooperate, share, and work well with others—are actually better predictors of adult success and happiness than traditional IQ scores. In “Emotional Intelligence,” clinical psychologist and author Daniel Goleman makes two important assertions. He reports on new research showing that children whose Emotional Intelligence skills are well developed tend to be more successful at school, have deeper and healthier relationships, grow up to have more fulfilling work lives, and become valuable and contributing members of their communities.

Goleman’s second assertion is that these Emotional Intelligence skills can be taught under the guidance of thoughtful and aware adults, such as parents, teachers, and youth leaders. Parents have long tried to teach such skills to their children, but they were never sure their teaching could overcome inborn capabilities. A group of researchers, led by Howard Gardner, a psychologist at the Harvard School of Education, have proved otherwise. They have shown that thoughtful teaching, conversation, modeling, and practice can develop and nurture these skills, especially when that teaching is consistent throughout a child’s day and year.

Learning Through Experience

Great camps have been teaching Emotional Intelligence since they began. Camps not only have decades of practice in this area, but they also are free of the demands of curriculum and academic testing, which means that camp professionals can focus on those intangibles that are part of the Emotional Intelligence cluster.

Children away from home who are making new friends and facing the new challenges of camp can learn much about themselves, their strengths, and their abilities. Perhaps the canoe does not head where it should at first, or a cabinmate is unwilling to be friendly. Away from the familiarity of home and school, campers can test their own perseverance and, with thoughtful help, can build new life skills for themselves. Meeting these challenges brings true self-esteem, the kind that is earned. Talking about self-esteem or trying to bolster it in kids does not work without real challenges in safe and supportive communities. Social skills also grow exponentially at camp. A campfire marshmallow roast is an exercise in sharing sticks and campfire space. When campers take turns carrying the lunch to the top of the mountain, they learn firsthand how wonderful working together can be. A good counselor will gently remind her young hikers of this lesson during the climb, when the message is fresh.

Parents See Progress

Counselors at camp teach archery or pottery or swimming while showing children the value of the varied skills and talents of their friends. And with no formal curriculum, a lesson may be “interrupted” for a chat about sharing or about any of the Emotional Intelligence skills when the time is right.

Parents are amazed at the clear progress their campers make during even a relatively short time at camp. However, given that Emotional Intelligence is at the very heart of the camp experience, this progress is not surprising. A parent of a 10-year-old boy comments in a camp evaluation: “Living in such close quarters was not without its challenges for Roger, but he is much more able to handle social challenges at school since his return. And he came home just generally a nicer boy in all respects.” Another explains: “Of course I am glad my girls had fun and learned some new skills, but their newfound maturity and caring for each other was really what I had hoped would happen.”

Counselors As Mentors

Summer camps work hard to train staff in modeling and teaching Emotional Intelligence skills. Camp directors hire staff with strengths in these areas over candidates who are merely athletes or coaches. Camp counselors can be wonderful role models for children. They are often closer in age to the children than teachers, and the informal atmosphere of camp encourages relaxed conversations at picnics or bedtime. There also are usually more counselors with the children than in a regular classroom, allowing more interaction than one lone teacher can possibly supply. Every one of these interactions is a potential teaching moment for essential life skills.

When children find adult friends at camp who model perseverance, listening, teamwork, and appreciation of differences, they set new and high standards for their own behavior. When they feel appreciated and valued by these friends, they are more sure of their ability to live happily away from home. Successful camp summers can help smooth the transition to college in later years.

Camp is a key opportunity for growth, both for children who thrive at school and for those who struggle. Talented students can develop their abilities to cooperate and share in a community where they do not worry about grades and academic competition, and children whose school lives are difficult find real rewards in new opportunities to shine.

Bringing The Lessons Home

When campers return home from camp, parents can help them continue building their summer skills throughout the year. Chores, for example, are often a great teaching opportunity. Parents who model working together as a family to get jobs done are reinforcing vital lessons from camp.

Parents also can make sure that teachers and caregivers understand the importance of teaching Emotional Intelligence skills. Do teachers, for example, set up such strong competition in their classrooms that kids do not feel encouraged to care about their friends? Do coaches reward only the most aggressive players and talk of winning at all costs?

Parents who build a year-round program to teach Emotional Intelligence skills to their kids will find that the lessons reinforce each other in wonderful ways. And summer camps, where these lessons have been taught for years, are a key part of the reinforcement. With the spotlight finally where it belongs, on Emotional Intelligence, the quality summer camp will not be a secret much longer!

Posie Taylor serves as president of the American Camp Association, New England. She is the executive director of the Aloha Foundation Inc., and oversees the Foundation’s camps and outdoor education programs in Vermont. For more ACA camp, York region).

Camp Directors Q&A

Peter Corbin Director of Corbin’s

What’s the best hidden perk of your camp?

To be in an atmosphere that is in a beautiful setting – we have a running waterfall and lots of trees. And, also being so close to New York City is great.

Pam Wolf Founder of New York Kids

What sort of child flourishes at your camp? We have really not seen a child who doesn’t flourish. We’ve taken in children who won’t separate and who are very shy and they love our program based on the quality of our teachers. And then we’ve had the most outgoing theatrical type children who love the adventure of our program.

Craig Woodcock Summer Camp Director, Chelsea

What’s your favorite camp memory from growing up?

My interactions with my coaches and counselors. I attended hockey camp as a child, and I remember looking up to them, how they encouraged you to try harder and to become better.

Sarah Natchez General Manager, Super Soccer

What sort of child flourishes at your camp?

All children do, that’s the beauty of it! Our low child-to-coach ratio ensures that each child improves at his or her own rate while having fun.