An Interview with Denise Pope

Denise Pope, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She cofounded the nonprofit Challenge Success, which partners with schools and families to promote well-being and engagement with learning and transforming the student experience. She is the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, which chronicles the lives of five high school students throughout a school year. She is also the co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids.

What was your camp experience like? What do you remember most from your time at camp?

From a very young age, I went to day camps, then I went to resident camps pretty much every summer through and beyond college. My fondest memories would be of the stereotypical hanging out at the campfire and singing the songs and watching the fun skits, but also just the many different camp activities I’d enjoy and the friendships I would make.

During COVID I went to a [virtual] resident camp reunion. We were in a special program when we were going into tenth grade that culminated in our taking this huge hike through the mountains. That’s a very big wilderness experience, so you get very close with the other people. Over 50 people showed up on Zoom. Camp was 40 years ago, and more than 50 people showed up. That shows you the power of a camping experience.

You have done a lot of work that focuses on youth mental health. What got you interested in that area of work?

I started out my career as a high school teacher and saw that as hard as I tried with the students, there were definitely kids who were falling through the cracks, kids who I couldn’t reach, and I was frustrated by that. I went on to graduate school and wrote my dissertation, which is now a book called Doing School, where I shadowed five kids who, on paper, looked really great — they had good grades, and they were interested and involved in school. But as I was shadowing them, I realized they had some real issues around stress and sleep deprivation and suicide ideation and cheating —- all things that were lurking underneath this picture of success.

When the book got published, one of the heads of the health center at Stanford University where I work read the book and called me into his office and said, “Look, this is a problem beyond five kids. This is a much, much bigger problem that we’re seeing all over the US. Why don’t we create an intervention to really promote mental health and real engagement with learning in school, and why don’t you be in charge of that?”

So that’s what led to the formation of this nonprofit, Challenge Success, which is affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education. And our goal is really to transform the student experience in schools, but we work with schools, parents, community members — because we know that it’s all connected.

That’s kind of where camp comes in too. I think it’s a really powerful place for kids to have transformative experiences and for them to learn many of the skills that we know are going to be useful to them and helpful in promoting their mental health and well-being throughout the year, not just throughout the summer.

What are the trends you have seen over the last few years regarding youth mental health?

Even before 2020 — before COVID and the reckoning on race and the political division in our country — we saw kids who were stressed, kids who were depressed and anxious at a very high level. We saw kids who were cheating because they were feeling overloaded and pressured to get the grades by hook or by crook, kids who were so over-scheduled with extracurriculars and advance placement classes and honors classes in order to get into college, and kids who were just, like the title of my book, Doing School. They were kind of little robots going page by page playing the game but not really excited to learn, not really doing the work half the time, and certainly not seeing the meaning and value in it.

Then in 2020, COVID hit. The system wasn’t working before that, but since then, with the increase in isolation, with the increase in fears and the unknown, with the increase in grief and trauma that different kids were experiencing for the past 18 months, we’ve only seen these things increase. Anxiety is up. Depression is up. Disengagement is up. Exhaustion, trauma, not wanting to go to school are up. It’s bad.

What, in your opinion, are some of the things camp staff can do to help alleviate that stress for kids and teens?

I think the first thing to realize is that — certainly during last summer, and certainly in the summer coming up — our campers may have really been isolated and going through all these troubling things. And you’re not going to get the same kids you used to get. In other words, although I think kids are still super excited to go to camp, you might see more camp hesitation, more homesickness, more behaviors you would have thought they would outgrow, like little kids having accidents and separation anxiety. From a whole host of issues, both in terms of day camps and resident camps, you may see behaviors you’re not used to seeing in that particular age group. That’s certainly what I’ve heard from camp staff and counselors about summer ’21.

So you’ve mentioned how this has affected children, but how does this affect how camp staff will interact with parents?

I should say, this has definitely affected camp staff and camp administrators too. There are a whole bunch of mental health issues around the stress of questions, including: “How do we follow the COVID rules?” “What cuts do we have to make?” “What changes do we have to make but still keep our same fabulous program running?” And I have definitely heard people say, “We can’t have another summer like we just had.” They’re mentally and physically exhausted. I want to put that out there too — I understand that not just kids are feeling this way, but the staff and admin and everyone is feeling this way.

So how do we then interact with parents? I think last summer was all about reassurance, and this year will be the same. “We can keep your child safe. Wherever we are in the world with COVID and politics and mask-wearing or not-mask-wearing, as a camp, as staff, and administrators of a camp . . . health and well-being are bottom line for us.”

I saw a YouTube video from Challenge Success where you talked about some of the benefits of camp, including learning new skills and offering time away from screens — which seems even more important now after so much time spent doing virtual learning. In your opinion, what are some of the most important mental health benefits that camp has to offer?

There are so many. We’re coming out of a period now when there was a lot of time spent on screens, both in terms of school being on screens and homework being on screens . . . but also a lot of extracurriculars moving online when they could. It was really the lifeline that allowed kids to see their friends of all ages, and to see Grandma and Grandpa and all of that too. But now we have to kind of detox and use that experience to reconnect with nature, to be outside. There’s a lot of data around the mental health benefits of being in nature — getting our bodies back in motion, working on our social-emotional skills when we’ve kind of forgotten how to interact.

What we’re seeing in schools right now is more bullying, more discipline, punishment, etc., detention happening. Kids are acting out and lashing out, which is a normal reaction to the sort of trauma that everyone experienced over the last 18 months. But at camp, it can really be like the cavalry. “We’re here. You’re in a safe place. We will make you feel a part of a unit where you are known, you are respected, you are valued.”

And belonging turns out to be a really important piece of mental health and well-being. Not just getting outside, getting your body in motion, learning new skills, making new friends, how to live with other people, but also, “Hey, we’ve got you. You’re part of something here. You belong.”

Overloaded and Underprepared, a book you cowrote, says, “Our current fast-paced high-pressure culture works against much of what we know about healthy child development.” It also states, “We all want our kids to do well in school and to master certain skills and concepts, but our largely singular focus on academic achievement has resulted in a lack of attention to other components of a successful life — the ability to be independent, adaptable, ethical, and engaged critical thinkers.” Those skills, often referred to as 21st-century skills, are right in camp’s wheelhouse. Do you have any advice for how schools and camps could work together to provide a healthier learning environment for kids?

When you’re at school, you’re learning these skills but you’re constantly being evaluated. You’re getting grades. You’re getting feedback on how to do it better. You’re getting tested. You’re under pressure to perform. At the camp level you have this incredible freedom to teach these skills — adaptability, flexibility, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving — in a way that you’re not evaluating your campers, giving them a grade, and creating a transcript that’s going to go with them for life. You’re doing it in a really informal learning environment that gives you the freedom to make it not just fun and enjoyable — which we think it should be at school too — but to do it in a way that kids can learn without fear and worry. They don’t even know they’re learning. That’s the beauty of it.

You’re working on the skit for the campfire and people are throwing out ideas and taking turns and listening and problem-solving: “How do we do that?” “Where do we get the costumes?” This just seems like fun and play. But there’s an incredible amount of learning going on. I think it’s important for camps to remember that and to think about where they are infusing fun and joy and pointing out, “Hey, that was awesome. By the way, what did we learn there? Let’s be a little reflective on it.” I don’t think camps do much of that, but they should. It will not only help the kids, but it can also point out to the parents all the real learning that’s going on.

You wrote in your book Doing School that “Attempting to hear the youths’ perspectives seems vital if we are going to achieve a sense of community in our schools and if we aspire to create conditions conducive to student growth.” Along those lines, what do you think is the most important information camp professionals can glean from asking campers for feedback on their experiences at camp?

I think we don’t ask kids enough at camp. Not just for feedback on their experiences post-camp, but all the way through. Regular questions that you can ask kids include “What can we be doing better?” “What’s working?” “What’s not working?” “Where do you want to take the lead?”

It’s a tradition at many camps for kids to come up through the years, and they become counselors in training, then counselors. So in some sense you’ve already built in that feedback loop. But I would love to see it even more, where you say, “Here’s an activity that we’re thinking of doing,” instead of saying “Here’s how you do the activity.” “This is how you play the game.” “This is how we’re going to run it.” Let the campers have that kind of agency to really take it on and run with it — because it’s something that kids are not given a lot of, particularly when there’s so much worry and fear going on in the world. There’s not a lot of agency and voice. And this is how you learn how to be an adult and to make the hard decisions.

If you think the camper-run activity for the evening is going to be a total flop, there’s something to be learned in letting them run with it. They’ll learn from what worked and what didn’t — and then do a sort of after-activity reflection. “We’re going to do this again next session. What can we do better? What would you do differently?” I think you’re going to be surprised by how much better it can be.

Is there anything else you think is important for camp professionals to know?

I think they don’t realize how life-changing camp really is for people. You’re educators. I think a lot of camp staff and counselors don’t think of themselves as educators — and I mean that in a really good way. You’re teaching vital skills. But people don’t realize the magnitude of the role you play. You are taking someone who feels lonely and awkward and giving them a home. You are taking someone who doesn’t feel skilled in a certain way and giving them a chance to master new skills and take on new challenges. So don’t take your role for granted. And remember that parents like me are super grateful for all the hard work that goes into putting on camp.

This interview was conducted by Kaley Amonett, communications specialist at the American Camp Association.