Every summer when I hear a camper say, “Camp is a place where I can truly be myself,” I smile. The power of the camp experience can be difficult to explain because the context of camp is so unique. Children, young adults and older adults, from various communities, come together to create a distinct community away from their homes. Camp becomes the place where they can bring their unique selves, share more about who they are, meet new people, challenge themselves through activities, enjoy the outdoors, work cooperatively in small groups, and navigate the expectations of the social network.
Supporting the social and emotional development of our campers is a priority. At camp we provide an opportunity for every girl to feel a sense of belonging to community, to practice bravery, and to have pride in herself. The National Education Association identifies Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) as a process where youth develop competencies to regulate or control his or her own feelings and behaviors, understand and empathize with the feelings of others, get along with other children, and build relationships with caring adults.
These social and emotional skills are critical for academic success as well as the ability to contribute positively to the community. Having a sense of belonging and positive relationships are also important factors for learning in school and in life. To be successful at camp, the camper and staff member must be willing to demonstrate empathy and understanding to others, as well as taking care of themselves by meeting their physical needs, like drinking water, eating balanced meals, getting restful sleep, etc., and emotional needs, such as feeling safe and cared for. Each camper and staff member also have distinct needs depending on their personality, behavior, environment and situation. Models for human health are abundant, and in the camp setting we strive to support as many elements of well-being as possible, so each community member can fully experience the benefits of camp.
The American Camping Association is a professional organization that not only offers accreditation but also provides resources and support for camp professionals. Over the last several years camp professionals have been assessing their role in addressing the mental, social, and emotional needs of campers prior to camp and during camp. The camper evaluation data from 2017 offers evidence of the benefits of camp. It showed 89% of girls felt respected for who they are and 76% of girls were more likely to take responsibility for their actions. Because of their camp experience, 86% of campers want to help others, 76% will listen to others even when they don’t agree, and 90% want to help others feel better. Consideration of others, solving problems, resolving conflicts, and building social capital by getting to know others from diverse areas are a fundamental part of the camp experience.
Over the past 20 years working with youth in outdoor settings, I have seen the impact a Girl Scout summer camp experience can have on a girl’s social and emotional skill development. Through outdoor exploration, cooperative learning, risk-taking and living in community, camp can support a girl’s self-worth, help build her social skills and contributions to the community. So, when a girl tells me she can really be herself at camp, I know we’ve successfully created a nurturing environment that promotes social and emotional learning and growth.
Michelle Balfe-Keefer, or Juniper, as campers affectionately call her, has been Camp Director at Willow Springs Program Center in Prescott for the last eight years and involved in outdoor education for youth for the last 20 years. She sees, firsthand, the power outdoor experiences have in shaping girls’ lives.
Michelle has a BA in Recreation Administration, an MS in Outdoor Program Administration and has done advanced work in nature awareness study and primitive living skills.
• Missouri Department of Mental Health. Early Childhood Mental Health. Retrieved from https://dmh.mo.gov/healthykids/parents/socialemotional-development.html
• National Education Association https://www.nea.org/assets/docs/Social%20and%20Emotional%20Learning%20Response_Bkgdr%20v3.pdf