“Camps impact kids — and their brains — in hugely positive ways”

Kids building robots at a summer camp outside

The temperature outside is rising, school is almost out, and summer is just around the corner. This year help your kids improve their sense of self-worth and master and develop new skills at a summer camp.

Camps can have a tremendously positive impact on the brains of your kids, but don’t just take it from us. Here’s what Tina Bryson, Ph.D. and coauthor (with Dan Siegel) of the New York Times Bestsellers, “The Whole-Brain Child” and "No Drama Discipline," has said about camps.

Two Messages for Camp Leaders

When I visit a camp and consult with the leadership team there, I usually have two main messages. Number one: Whether you know it or not, you’re significantly impacting the brains of the young people you work with every summer. And number two: If you know just a few basic facts about the brain, you can be even better at everything I just mentioned. Knowing just a little about the science of how the brain changes in response to experiences, particularly relational experiences, can help camps be even more successful — in all kinds of ways.

Camps are Good for Kids’ Brains

All the things that camps and parents say that a camp does for kids — promoting independence, confidence, friendship-building, resilience, thriving, character grit, etc. — these are undoubtedly real outcomes for kids who have quality camp experiences. But why do these outcomes occur? How do these changes happen in short periods of time, and then over years as well? How do we explain this?

The brain. … I want to introduce you to the middle prefrontal cortex. It’s right behind the forehead and eye sockets and is the front-most part of the frontal lobe. It gives us the ability to do all kinds of important things: regulate our body and emotions, have insight into ourselves and others, feel empathy, communicate in an attuned way, bounce back after failure, adapt to new situations, make thoughtful choices, and overcome fear. That’s pretty much what’s needed for a successful life with good emotional and mental health, meaningful relationships, and the conscientiousness to make things happen in the world.

Camps Help Develop that Part of the Brain

Whether camps have thought about it in those terms or not, yes — camps can help develop that part of the brain. And that’s the exciting part for the camp world: We don’t just influence kids’ minds and help them feel more confident. We actually change the structure of their brains.

Experience changes the brain. And yes, I mean the actual activation and wiring of the brain. Particularly when experiences are emotional, novel, and challenging, the repeated experiences kids have alter the actual architecture of the brain. It’s like a muscle. When it’s used, it grows and strengthens. So, when kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on, it builds this important part of the brain. And by the way, this can happen in even more significant ways when counselors are trained to handle emotional reactivity in campers in ways that reduce reactivity and promote resilience.

But the main thing to know is that when the structure of the brain changes, the function of the brain changes. This means that camps can play a role in how these kids function in the world, and ultimately who they become as adults, even on a neuronal level.

Overcoming Challenges and Developing the Brain

One thing that’s unique about camp experiences is that camp is usually fun, so kids are willing to work harder and tolerate more frustration and setbacks because they’re having a good time doing it, and they’re doing it in the context of relationship. They see their peers pushing through as well, and when staff is well trained, kids have mentors or counselors who are empathic about the struggle, but still encourage them to endure — pushing them to continue to learn and try. Then they face the frustrations and persist through the challenges. This is one way “grit” gets built in the brain.

Helping Kids be Successful

There are dozens of ways that camp traditions and activities make kids better people and help them develop specific skills, like sustained attention, overcoming fear (in safe but challenging activities), and serving others. If a camp can speak the language to make those connections, they’ll attract more parental interest. Speaking this language also allows camp directors and leaders to clearly communicate to their staff each summer that there are more things going on than just the activity itself.

I’ll say again, camps impact kids — and their brains — in hugely positive ways. Bunks are good for brains. After all, it’s experience that changes the brain. So when kids have experiences that challenge them emotionally, when they’re given opportunities to make friends that are outside their typical circles, when they have to keep working at a skill to achieve mastery — these are the kinds of experiences that change the connections in the brain regarding kids’ capacity for persistence, how they see themselves, and how healthy they can be, both emotionally and relationally.

Originally published in Camping Magazine. Reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association. ©2014, American Camping Association, Inc.

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