Camp’s Secret Weapon: Emotional Intelligence and Your Child

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.




There is, however, an even more compelling reason. It’s the new buzzword in educational theory that’s been at work in quality summer camps for years: emotional intelligence.




Observers have found 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, the ability to wait (delayed gratification), the ability to listen, cooperate, share and work well with others – are actually better predictors of adult success and happiness than traditional IQ scores.




And they are the very skills fostered at quality summer camps.




"The very basis of camp structure is social community," says Andrew Townsend, director of Camp Kennolyn, a traditional summer camp nestled in the Santa Cruz redwoods. "Camps don’t sit down and say, Let’s develop some emotional intelligence. But it’s part of the whole process – making friends, learning to figure things out for yourself and not having your usual support structure, like family and school."




"I can’t believe anyone ever developed an archery program to develop emotional intelligence," Townsend continues. "But that’s what it does."




How? By making kids wait to take their turn, figure out who and how to ask for help, show interest in others. These skills – self-control, empathy, delayed gratification, cooperation and shared learning – are, in the long run, more important than hitting a bull’s-eye in the archery target.






Nature or Nurture?




In his 1997 international bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, clinical psychologist Daniel Goleman reported that children with these skills are not only more academically successful, they also enjoy deeper and healthier relationships, grow up to have more fulfilling work lives and become valuable and contributing members of their communities.




Goleman furthermore asserted that emotional intelligence could be taught.




"That’s always been the emphasis at the better camps – even before the term took hold," declares Jim Politis, director of Mountain Camp Woodside.




"We believe in the idea that a good camp experience can help lead to a happier, healthier life," he continues, distinguishing between traditional and specialty camps in the values they espouse.




"For example, we’ll use soccer as a vehicle to go and have fun," says Politis. "We may teach some skills, but the emphasis is on kids participating and having a good time. The development of emotional intelligence is one of our primary focuses."




Parents and teachers often assume that the patience children typically display is the limits of what they can muster, that they are good or bad sharers, gentle friends or playground bullies from birth.




A group of researchers, led by Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard University School of Education, has shown otherwise. According to their studies, 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.






Real Challenges Build Resiliency




The best-kept secret in American education is that summer camps have been teaching emotional intelligence since they began.




Children away from home with new friends and the new challenges of camp can learn much about themselves, such as their own strengths and abilities. Perhaps the canoe doesn’t head where it should at first, or a cabin-mate is unwilling to be friendly. Away from the familiarity of home and school, campers can test their own perseverance and, with caring and thoughtful help, build new life skills for themselves.




Meeting these challenges brings true self-esteem – the kind that is earned. Social skills, too, grow exponentially. A campfire marshmallow roast is an exercise in sharing of sticks and the front row around the campfire. When campers take turns carrying the lunch to the top of the mountain, they learn how to work cooperatively.




"It’s important, especially now that so much communication is not face to face," notes Townsend. "When kids are at camp, it’s all face to face; it’s all interpersonal, all the time. It’s almost like boot camp for emotional intelligence.




"You want to climb the trees and do the ropes course? This is how you get there. And it’s amazing to see the kids in just a short period of time. Really, kids have good built-in emotional intelligence. They just need a place to practice it. When you just stick them in a setting where there are good adults around who’ll step in where there’s a problem, it’s very natural to them."




Parents are often amazed at the clear progress their campers make during even a relatively short time at camp. 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 new-found maturity and caring for each other was really what I had hoped would happen."






Teachable Moments at Camp




Camp counselors can be wonderful role models for children. They are often closer in age than teachers, and the informal atmosphere of camp encourages relaxed conversations at picnics or getting ready for bed.




There are usually more counselors with the children than in a regular classroom, allowing more interaction than one lone hard-working teacher can possibly supply. Every one of these interactions is a potential teaching moment for essential life skills.




Says Politis of Mountain Camp Woodside: "We pick our counselors on the basis of whether they’re good people – versus whether this guy is a soccer star or this girl can teach gymnastics. What it comes down to is this: Who would I want my kids to be with?"




Posie Taylor serves as a board member-at-large of the American Camp Association. She is also the executive director emerita of the Aloha Foundation, Inc. Bay Area Parent associate editor Sara Solovitch contributed.




Reprinted from CAMP Magazine by permission of the American Camp Association; ©2005 by the American Camping Association, Inc.