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Why Camp?

Hint: Happiness Promotes Success far more than Success Promotes Happiness!

Teaching a Growth Mindset

I’m no good at basketball.  Never was.  Sure, I’m tall, and somewhat athletic.  But at the end of the day, I can’t shoot.  Basketball’s just not my game.

OK, so it turns out that this isn’t true. 

As Carol Dweck, Professor of Positive Psychology at Stanford, states, “More important than believing in your abilities is believing that you can improve these abilities.”  I learned this from my camp counselor, Jim Barish, when I was 9 years old.  Jim wasn’t very good at basketball either, but he told me that we’d learn together.  Five consecutive free throws later, I was a believer.

Camp is one of the greatest environments for children to change their mindset from, “I am naturally talented or not” to, “I can improve if I try.”  And just how important is this switch?  Professor Dweck, the foremost researcher on mindset, studied 373 children over two years to find out.  The grades of those who began the study with a fixed view of their capabilities held consistent GPAs, while those with a Growth Mindset consistently improved.  Some studies conclude that a Growth Mindset is more important than talent or quality of instruction.

So why is camp so important in transforming a Fixed Mindset into a Growth Mindset?  Because camp is where trained counselors model through effort and inspire through encouragement.  In the role of big brother or sister, great counselors teach how to persevere and work through disappointment to try again.  Camp’s fun “Pulls” children to try new things, while the staff encouragement gently “Pushes” them through hurdles so that campers can experience unexpected success.

Building Social Skills – the Single Greatest Predictor of Long-term Happiness

Photo by Victoria L. Jackson.“Brian”, who had only one friend at school, left camp with a group of buddies and playdates.  “Cynthia”, who was painfully shy, developed friendships that surprised both her parents and teachers.  “Daniel” learned to be part of a group and proud team member.

And me?  In the past year, I have had dinner with 12 of my camp friends (from the early 1980s!), including two who flew from Europe.

In a multitude of studies, the depth and breadth of our social connections has been shown to have an enormous impact upon our emotional well-being, sense of fulfillment, professional accomplishment and even physical health.  So how does camp promote this?

Camp’s novelty and fun help to focus children on shared experiences.  Whether the activities are group games like most sports or individual projects like many crafts, the experiences are still shared because children directly and indirectly communicate their enjoyment with one another.  And since the activities draw children’s interest (camp’s fun again acting to “Pull” attention), boys and girls often become less self-conscious and more aware of the joy of being part of a group.  Add to this attentive counselors who mentor children in how to be part of a group, build friendships, and solve interpersonal issues, and camp becomes a unique social learning environment.

The Science of Happiness

Can Camp Teach Children to Be Happier and more Successful?

Hey, let’s face it.  Some people are born happier than others.

We’ve all met these folks.  They laugh a lot, make friends Photo by Victoria L. Jackson.easily, are optimistic, and overcome challenges with seeming ease.  It’s just part of their nature.  True, right?

Well, yes.  And, more importantly, no.

Shawn Achor, Harvard Professor and 2010 Keynote Speaker at the American Camp Associations Tri-State conference, says that camp is one of the best environments for helping children learn – yes learn - to be happier.  (Interestingly, “Positive Psychology,” the science of happiness, has replaced Introductory Economics as Harvard’s most popular undergraduate course). 

Recent research at Harvard and elsewhere has clearly demonstrated that our genetic “Happiness Baseline” is far more malleable than was imagined even 15 years ago.  (“Neuroplacticity,” in academic jargon).  Children, teens and even adults learn habits and skills to become happier, with lasting effects.  And as a by-product of being happier we become more successful: more creative, better able to embrace challenges, improve social skills, and even avoid procrastination. 

One of my favorite illustrations of happiness promoting success comes from a study done at Cornell and Henry Ford Hospital.  Groups of doctors were given the task of diagnosing illnesses.  The half who were “Primed” to be happier diagnosed ailments twice as quickly and showed more than twice as much creativity.  How were they primed?  By being given a piece of candy - that they were not even allowed to eat!  Similar results were found in a study where four-year-old children were asked to think of something happy (like Jell-O) before trying to complete a series of tasks. Called “The Broadening Effect,” positive emotions release dopamine and serotonin, which both expands creativity and stimulate learning areas of the brain.  Fun, huh? 

Many, many families are surprised by how much children grow at camp.  Those of us in the camping profession are never surprised – we see this growth every summer.  Our experiences at camp lend strength to the research which demonstrates that happiness promotes success, and not the other way around.  And camp can – and should - play an important part in teaching children to be happier.

For Questions, Comments and Studies Referenced, contact ken@campmohawk.com.

Ken Schainman is the director of Mohawk Day Camp & Mohawk Country Day School in White Plains, NY.

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