Each camper and staff is different. It is one of the things camp professionals know best. We go to great lengths to make sure every camper and staff feels successful. And yet we do not always understand how to do it, or even why we should.

Many of us who have worked in schools and camps are familiar with three general types of learners: visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners. Beyond these three general categories, many theories of, and approaches toward, human potential have been developed. Among them is the theory of multiple intelligences, developed by Howard Gardner, PhD, professor of education at Harvard University.

Arguing that “reason, intelligence, logic, knowledge are not synonymous . . . ,” Gardner (1983) proposed a new view of intelligence that has since been incorporated in various educational landscapes. In his Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardner expanded the concept of intelligence to also include such areas as music, spacial relations, and interpersonal knowledge in addition to mathematical and linguistic ability. Implications for Gardner’s work in summer camps are obvious and yet often underutilized. By thinking more deeply about human intelligence, cognition, and the research about how we learn, summer camps provide tremendous opportunities for campers and staff to reach their greatest potential.

According to Gardner (2011), “In approaching the area of intellect, I deliberately averted the usual move to examining scores on tests. Instead, I put on the lenses of the proverbial visitor from another planet who was trying to understand the human mind. And I asked which factors such an ‘anthropologist from Mars’ might attend to.” Reflecting on his pioneering work, “probably most important,” he says, “I looked at the accumulating evidence about the development and differentiation of the cerebral cortex: which areas of human skill and competence were localized in which areas of the brain.”

Gardner’s Theories of Multiple Intelligence

Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory challenged traditional beliefs in the fields of education and cognitive science. According to a traditional definition, intelligence is a uniform cognitive capacity people are born with. This capacity can be easily measured by short-answer tests. According to Gardner, however, “intelligence is the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings” (Gardner, 1983).

Having created a working definition of intelligence and assembled different sources of information, Gardner then delineated eight factors of what counts as intelligence and what does not. He reviewed many sample candidates and, after considerable weighing of evidence, delineated seven candidate intelligences. The original seven in 1983 were: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Some years later Gardner added an eighth, naturalist intelligence, and ninth, existential intelligence — the intelligence that leads human beings to pose big existential questions. He predicts that there might eventually be a pedagogical intelligence, the intelligence that enables human beings to convey knowledge and skills to other human beings who have varying degrees of knowledge.

Gardner’s Theory and Summer Camps

For over 150 years, American summer camps have been viewed as important locations on the educational spectrum of young people’s development as learners (Ozier, 2010). Schools, for their part, are only as successful as their out-of-school time partners, like summer camps, in the cognitive and emotional development of the students in their classrooms. Recognizing the theory of multiple intelligences as a framework for how people think, Gardner’s theory provides one of the most reasonable bridges linking the work of summer camps and school classrooms by understanding that individuals have various learning styles.

Summer camps have long exemplified the concept of differentiated instruction, one of the most widely used pedagogical techniques reflecting Gardner’s influence. Differentiating instruction refers to changing the pace, level, or kind of activity provided in response to an individual’s needs, learning styles, or interests (Heacox, 2002). Whereas in a traditional school setting the learning goals often remain the same for all students in a class, goals are often adjusted for each camper in a group based on individual needs and the activity at hand. And, while school curricula often demand all students complete the same activities, summer camps frequently give individuals or groups opportunities to choose activities based on their interests or needs.

Camp professionals are accustomed to providing activities and support matching campers’ individual needs and learning styles. Camps can use multiple intelligences theory and differentiated approaches to support all young people — staff and campers alike — to be successful. Directors who are aware of different learning styles have better ideas about how to communicate to staff and campers more effectively; likewise, campers and staff who are well informed about their own learning preferences are better able to make good choices as they navigate the day’s program.

For example, a staff member who is a visual/spatial thinker might benefit from drawing and labeling sketches or pictures as a way of taking notes to remember important information during staff training/orientation. Similarly, dynamics are improved when the different campers’ strengths within a group are recognized; ounselors may want to divide up tasks so that each camper is working in a different strength area. In each case, counselors and campers may be more successful if everyone gets to work in a way they prefer. Alternatively, a group activity can also turn out well when all campers have similar strengths — just imagine how good a skit could be if everyone in the group was strong in bodily/kinesthetic thinking. Finally, although working in a way that is harder may be more of a stretch, campers and staff can still have high-quality experiences in these programs; the theory of multiple intelligences does not give cause for campers or staff to refuse participation in the activities displeasing to them and should never be used as an excuse for not doing their best.

Discovering Your Campers

Based on the work of differentiated instruction educator Diane Heacox (2002), here are some ideas for how to get started at your camp:

  1. Interest Inventory
    To discover what interests your campers and staff both in and out of school, and how they see themselves as learners, ask them to complete an interest inventory. This inventory might include questions about their favorite activity, activities that are easiest or most difficult, their favorite sport/game, as well as rating activities, such as dance, drama, sports, languages, computers, writing, etc., according to their interests from very interested to not at all interested.
  2. Multiple Intelligences Observations/Survey
    Think about each of Gardner’s intelligences and ask yourself which of your campers/staff have these characteristics. A great way to get to know staff’s learning styles is to use one of the many easy-to-find multiple intelligences surveys available online. For campers, you might notice the characteristics mentioned in one of these surveys that seem applicable to each camper based on your observations.
  3. Learning Profile
    Many camps have a profile of campers based on pre-season interactions and/or last season’s notes. Now that interests and intelligences data has been collected, why not include information about a camper’s special learning needs or modifications? For example, does the camper do his or her best alone, with a partner, or in a large or small group?

Keep in mind that all of these recommendations are intended to provide perspectives on preferred thinking and learning styles, not to test, label, or categorize campers and staff. In fact, Gardner suggests that intelligences are best revealed by observing people engaged in activities.

Planning for the Needs of Campers and Staff

Now that you have invested in collecting information about your campers and staff, what do you do with this data? Carefully identifying the needs of campers and staff is followed by considering the ways individuals will be successful as you plan activities and programs.


Summer camp days, including staff training/orientation, are marked by long hours and demanding responsibilities. Personalizing the schedule by allowing campers and staff choices within activities may help everyone be more successful. Might there be a choice to stand rather than sit during an activity or session? Might there be an opportunity to choose between appropriate levels or from a list of options during an activity session? For example, imagine a long day of staff training. The final session of the day covers important policies and procedures. Traditionally, this session might occur in the dining hall with everyone sitting together. A list of camp rules may be distributed or included in the staff manual and read silently or aloud. However, an approach designed to meet various learning styles might include forming small discussion groups. Groups can be comprised of veteran and novice staff members, alumni, and new staff, or any other configuration that accomplishes your goal. Staff may even self-select a particular group. Groups may be given additional options, such as:

  1. Invite each group to decide on a location. They may choose to stay inside, move outside to the porch, or sit in the shade of a tree.
  2. Provide each group with a few scenarios that are likely to occur at camp during the summer. Ask each group to first select one or more scenarios and then discuss how the camp’s policies and procedures apply to the scenarios. Encourage groups to role-play the situations so each member is speaking, listening, moving, and watching.
  3. After each group has worked through the scenarios, invite everyone back to the dining hall to share/perform how they have applied the camp policies and procedures to the camp scenarios.

Not only does this example allow you to personalize the experience for staff based on their differences, it sets the tone you expect for the summer by modeling the ways you want them to interact with their campers.


Now that you understand your campers better, you may be designing or redesigning some activities that will either add greater variety or increase the challenge level. Differentiating activities can be done by adjusting the content (what activities get done), process (how the activities are done), or product (what results from the activity) (Tomlinson, 1995). For example, imagine a fine arts activity period. Traditionally, each camper is given the same tools and resources and generally guided toward a similar outcome. Campers tend to produce different versions of the same thing. While this approach may have value and be efficient, a more differentiated session might look like this:

  1. Invite campers to select among a few different art products, each representing a distinct style or approach. For instance, within a painting activity, choices might include pointillism, cubism, abstract, pop art, etc.
  2. Allow campers to choose their own materials, encouraging them to consider non-traditional elements.
  3. While campers are working on their art projects, counselors can conference with campers to encourage those who need help and extend the activity for those who are excelling (perhaps offering an opportunity to select an additional style to try). Campers might even be paired with one another to work together.
  4. As a culminating activity, campers might share their work and explain how they went about making their creations.

Not only does this example demonstrate how differentiation can be used to meet campers’ various learning styles, but it also models positive behavior management because campers are given choices and various opportunities to be their best selves.


Focusing on the theory of multiple intelligences to support campers and staff is not simple, nor are differentiation techniques easily implemented. As with any good practice, efforts to differentiate campers’ and staff experiences should be evaluated by identifying challenges and opportunities to make improvements toward the successful experience of everyone in your camp community. Traditional debriefs come after a written survey or questionnaire. However, this interactive “inventory” approach might be useful to both reflect on your camp’s efforts to differentiate and model the opportunities for multiple intelligences to which your camp has made a commitment:

  1. At the midpoint or end of the summer, ask key leadership staff to make a list of all the specific examples of differentiation and opportunities for various learning styles in the staff training and summer camp program.
  2. Have each staff member turn to a partner and share his or her list. This exercise will help jog the memory and other ideas and examples will come to mind. Add these new items to one of the lists.
  3. Each staff member then writes each example from his or her list on a sticky note. You might even consider using different color sticky notes if you want to distinguish examples that are particular to an age group, activity area, or session. Use as many sticky notes as needed to record each example from the lists.

On a wall or on individual tables, label categories that reflect tenets of differentiation (product, process, etc.) or the multiple intelligences (linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, etc.). Each participating staff member will sort his or her sticky notes of examples into the corresponding category along with everyone else’s.

This will create a visual representation of the ways in which your camp has achieved the goal. Reflecting on areas of strength and areas for improvement will be important for deepening the efforts to differentiate for various learning styles at your camp.

Whether you choose this interactive approach or not, it is important to ask: What have we achieved? What are we still lacking? By being open and honest, and critically reflecting with transparency, your efforts will take root.

Filled with Potential

Increased standardized testing of common core standards in schools, whose very names suggest the uniformity of one size fits all, gives even more merit to work of summer camps that differentiate the experiences of young people. Still, there are those who dispute the relevance — or even the existence — of multiple intelligences, namely cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who said, “A few studies show a positive effect of accounting for students’ best modality, but many studies show no effect” (2005).

Yet, even these detractors acknowledge the wide acceptance of learning styles even though they claim there is no research evidence to support it. One factor is that it fits with a more general assumption that many who work in camps hold: There are genuinely important differences among campers in how they go about their daily program. Multiple intelligences theory gives us an easily understood way to think about the differences among campers and staff, and it offers a hopeful message — a relatively easy adjustment to activities may provide a boost to kids and young adults who are filled with potential.


Howard Gardner’s Nine Types of Intelligence
  1. Naturalist Intelligence (Nature Smart)
    Naturalist intelligence designates the human ability to discriminate among living things (plants, animals) as well as sensitivity to other features of the natural world (clouds, rock configurations). This ability was clearly of value in our evolutionary past as hunters, gatherers, and farmers; it continues to be central in such roles as botanist or chef. It is also speculated that much of our consumer society exploits the naturalist intelligences, which can be mobilized in the discrimination among cars, sneakers, kinds of makeup, and the like.
  2. Musical Intelligence (Musical Smart)
    Musical intelligence is the capacity to discern pitch, rhythm, timbre, and tone. This intelligence enables us to recognize, create, reproduce, and reflect on music, as demonstrated by composers, conductors, musicians, vocalists, and sensitive listeners. Interestingly, there is often an affective connection between music and the emotions; and mathematical and musical intelligences may share common thinking processes. Young adults with this kind of intelligence are usually singing or drumming to themselves. They are usually quite aware of sounds others may miss.
  3. Logical-mathematical Intelligence 
    (Number/Reasoning Smart)
    Logical-mathematical intelligence is the ability to calculate, quantify, consider propositions and hypotheses, and carry out complete mathematical operations. It enables us to perceive relationships and connections and to use abstract, symbolic thought; sequential reasoning skills; and inductive and deductive thinking patterns. Logical intelligence is usually well developed in mathematicians, scientists, and detectives. Young adults with lots of logical intelligence are interested in patterns, categories, and relationships. They are drawn to arithmetic problems, strategy games, and experiments.
  4. Existential Intelligence (Philosophically Smart)
    Existential intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence, such as the meaning of life, why we die, and how we got here.
  5. Interpersonal Intelligence (People Smart)
    Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand and interact effectively with others. It involves effective verbal and nonverbal communication, the ability to note distinctions among others, sensitivity to the moods and temperaments of others, and the ability to entertain multiple perspectives. Teachers, social workers, actors, and politicians all exhibit interpersonal intelligence. Young adults with this kind of intelligence are leaders among their peers, good at communicating, and seem to understand others’ feelings and motives.
  6. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (Body Smart)
    Bodily kinesthetic intelligence is the capacity to manipulate objects and use a variety of physical skills. This intelligence also involves a sense of timing and the perfection of skills through mind–body union. Athletes, dancers, surgeons, and craftspeople exhibit well-developed bodily kinesthetic intelligence.
  7. Linguistic Intelligence (Word Smart)
    Linguistic intelligence is the ability to think in words and to use language to express and appreciate complex meanings. Linguistic intelligence allows us to understand the order and meaning of words and to apply meta-linguistic skills to reflect on our use of language. Linguistic intelligence is the most widely shared human competence and is evident in poets, novelists, journalists, and effective public speakers. Young adults with this kind of intelligence enjoy writing, reading, telling stories, or doing crossword puzzles.
  8. Intrapersonal Intelligence (Self Smart)
    Intrapersonal intelligence is the capacity to understand oneself and one’s thoughts and feelings, and to use such knowledge in planning and directing one’s life. Intrapersonal intelligence involves not only an appreciation of the self, but also of the human condition. It is evident in psychologists, spiritual leaders, and philosophers. Young adults exhibiting intrapersonal intelligence may be shy. They are very aware of their own feelings and are self-motivated.
  9. Spatial Intelligence (Picture Smart)
    Spatial intelligence is the ability to think in three dimensions. Core capacities include mental imagery, spatial reasoning, image manipulation, graphic and artistic skills, and an active imagination. Sailors, pilots, sculptors, painters, and architects all exhibit spatial intelligence. Young adults with this kind of intelligence may be fascinated with mazes or jigsaw puzzles, or spend free time drawing or daydreaming.
From: Overview of the Multiple Intelligences Theory. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Lance Ozier, EdD, spent 15 summers in the Catskill Mountains of New York as a counselor and education coordinator at Morry’s Camp. From 2010 to 2016 he volunteered on ACA’s Committee for the Advancement of Research and Evaluation (CARE), and was recognized with a Hedley S. Dimock Award in 2015. Lance is also a founding instructor in the Bank Street College of Education’s Summer Camp and Afterschool Leadership online certificate program.

Photo on courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts.


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (2011). The theory of multiple intelligences: As psychology, as education, as social science. Address delivered at José Cela University on October 29, 2011. Madrid, Spain.
Heacox, D. (2002). Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom: How to Reach and Teach All Learners, Grades 3–12. Minneapolis: Free Spirit.
Ozier, L. (2010, September/October). Camp as educator: lessons learned from history. Camping Magazine.
Tomlinson, C. (1995). How to differentiate instruction in mixed ability classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curricular Development.
Willingham, D.T. (2005). Do visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners need visual, auditory, and kinesthetic instruction? American Educator 29(2): 31–35, 44.