Lessons from Camp - Social-emotional Learning

"Free from school-year demands, summer camps are a key venue for social-emotional learning"

The article “Lessons from Camp” from Leah Shafer with the Harvard Graduate School of Education has been popular in the summer camp universe for several years now, and the whole article, linked above, is well worth the read.

It covers some research which backs up what many in the camp community have known for many decades finding that “camp staff, parents, and children reported increases in children’s self-esteem, independence, leadership, friendship skills, social comfort, and values and decision-making skills, from the beginning to the end of a session.” And we know that “These skills are increasingly understood to be central to success in school and in professional life beyond.”

She also notes that camps that have some of these goals built into their philosophy and program, rather than just as a nice “side effect”, see even bigger gains in these important areas of growth.

So how does Mondamin stack up in the key areas that she mentions in the article? Here they are:

“Introducing children to an entirely new group of peers.” I clearly remember being a very young camper and hearing an announcement on a Saturday night that “If you are Catholic and want to go to Catholic Mass in the morning, sign up after dinner.” I ruminated on the “If you are Catholic” part for some time. Growing up in little Thibodaux, Louisiana and attending a Catholic school, my question was “what does he mean, IF you are Catholic!” I eventually whispered this confusion to my counselor, who after a good-natured laughing spell, helped me take my first steps into seeing the bigger world around me right there in the Mondamin dining hall in our tiny spot in North Carolina.

I would in time, just as boys still do here now, make a great many friends of all different faiths, backgrounds and several other countries.

“Setting up opportunities for children to find their own friends.” This is very much by design at Mondamin. We arrange cabin groups to have a broad mix of geography (who wants their school homeroom in their cabin?) and of new and returning boys. We design the activities such that boys are not shuffled around by cabin group but rather by their interests, thus meeting many more kids. And we still allow for actual “free time” where the boys learn, some for the first time, how to make friends in unstructured time.

“Creating a space where silliness is accepted, and bullying is not.” Easier said than done! For a young camper in particular, the line between silliness between willing peers and entertaining their peers by putting someone else down can be a gray one. Our job is to have the counselors and older campers role model silliness and horseplay when everyone involved is in on the fun while also shutting down any move towards using an unwilling person as a “prop” on the excuse that they “were just joking.” Many of our kids can recite the part of our Honor Code that says that something is only a prank or a joke if everyone involved finds it funny.

“Taking a break from technology.” In recent years, I’ve watched as some teenagers each summer have to adjust the first few days to making eye contact at the dining hall table and how to entertain themselves at free time without using a screen. And more and more, I have seen boys who will openly admit that they are enjoying taking a break from their phone and the pressures it can bring.

“Modeling teamwork and sportsmanship.” This is a huge part of what we do, and much of it can occur without making it a lecture. Activities are set up so that individual achievement is usually tangible, but always in the context of a reaching a goal collaboratively, and never at the expense of someone else. Teamwork is required in everything from setting up a campsite, paddling a tandem canoe, manning a sailboat, dividing up the food to carry on a trip and endless other aspects of camp. The boys learn that all of these things are more fun and more successful when they are working for the group before self. And sportsmanship is reinforced by a non-competitive program where the boys are competing against themselves rather than each other which is much more like adult “real life” than regular team sport competition. And it is further reinforced when their extremely cool counselor shuts down any trash talk of someone else’s failings in a skill. A simply “nope, that’s not cool” from a 20 year-old goes further than any lecture from an older adult could ever do.

“Requiring children to solve day-to-day problems on their own.” This is one of the hardest things for a new Mondamin counselor to get the hang of. We teach them of course that problems approaching bullying or a safety issue needs a fast intervention. But we also coach them to recognize when problems are less than that and it is vital for them to hang back, observe, and coach when appropriate, when they see boys trying to learn how to problem solve disagreements on their own. As parents, we all struggle with that too!

“Offering kids the chance to set and accomplish daily goals.” and “Presenting activities that are new to everyone.” If you already have experience with Mondamin, then you know that goal setting is built into the program whether a camper is 7 or a 17 year-old Counselor In Training. We teach them at an age appropriate level how to set goals in the activities that interest them the most and then learn how to go about trying to reach those goals. For a new 7, 8, or 9 year old that goal might be as simple as trying a new activity each day for several days. For an older camper, it might be trying to attain the most advanced skills and trips we do - a goal that might take 5 weeks or multiple summers to accomplish.

“Helping children uncover new skills.” This is one of many reasons that we prefer outdoor based activities over standard school year team sports. It is often the case that a new camper will have never done many of the skills we teach, which is both fun and pushes boys out of their comfort zone at the same time. We know that our brains at camp age can be successfully wired to be willing to learn new things and to get pleasure from expanding our boundaries in healthy and safe ways.

“Providing time for reflection.” Some people hear that boys at Mondamin will have time for “reflection” and will wonder what boy is wanting to reflect! This is often however because they’ve not spent time at a place where the value of occasional quiet and enjoying the calm of the outdoors is encouraged and often available. Whether it is a structured setting like our campfires together or boys sitting in that same campfire circle on their own during freetime, or or gazing at the stars on a clear night in the middle of the Smokies, boys can learn that sitting with their thoughts or in a quiet conversation is something to learn to enjoy, not to avoid with technology.

Do you remember any counselors, activities, or other aspects of Mondamin that helped you grow in some of these key ways? We’d love to hear about it!

About Robert Danos

I first came to Mondamin from South Louisiana as a camper in 1979 and spent the next 9 summers here all the way through our Counselor In Training program. While attending Tulane University, I was a counselor each summer and have now been on the year-round staff for over 30 years. Before joining the year-round staff, I spent time both in teaching and child psychology. .

My wife, Susan, spent eight years on staff at our sister camp, Green Cove, and we have two girls and a boy all of whom have attended Green Cove and Mondamin, respectively.

Robert Danos