Highly regarded child, adolescent and family therapist, and regular contributor to Camping Magazine since 1987, Bob Ditter will be speaking at the 2015 ACA National Conference. In an interview with ACA, Ditter explores how camps can do a better job of helping their campers thrive by supporting what he calls "the primary colors of psychological need."

Please explain the primary colors of psychological need.

Like pigment or light, there are three "colors," or needs that are not only universal, but also that transcend race, class, and just about any other classification we can make. That's big news. There's such diversity in the population that it's rare to come upon things that apply to everybody equally. That's one of the beauties of indentifying these psychological needs, which are connection, or having meaningful relationships with other people; mastery, the opportunity to work at something and gain a sense of effectiveness or competence; and autonomy, the emerging sense of oneself as separate from his or her parents and friends, with one's own values, experiences, aspirations, creativity, and ideas.

Whether you are a camp counselor dealing with urban kids or privileged kids or rural kids, every one of your campers has these basic psychological needs.

How do these needs impact children if they're being met?

When we give children the opportunity to make significant, meaningful friends; coach them in getting better at both physical and emotional skills; and support their emerging sense of self, kids thrive. That means kids are happy, energetic, and buy in to that which supports or nourishes them — and they grow.

How about the flip side? What are the dangers of kids not developing these emotional skills?

Kids are less likely to go out on their own. It's about equipping them to leave the nest. It's about having the confidence to go out and make friends, to have the tools to master a challenge, and to have the emotional skills to recover from a setback. Basically, if children don't get these three psychological needs met they won't have the confidence as young adults to go out in the world and be successful from most any vantage point. I also believe that the challenges in this world will be greater, not less, in the future. What I am talking about here is resilience. If children don't get these needs met, they won't know how to persevere. The three psychological needs are directly related to resilience.

Are camps adequately nurturing connection, mastery, and autonomy in their campers and counselors?

Camps do a good job of helping campers make friends, but this is mostly a passive exercise — campers show up and by virtue of the fact that they are grouped with other kids their age who get to share their interests, they end up making friends. The campers actually do most of the work.

The other important ingredient of camp which makes it special and different from any other enterprise for children is the fact that we put youngsters in the company of interesting young adults just a few years older than they who can serve as inspiration, role models, and help children aspire to ever greater achievements in terms of self control, mastery, gaining a better sense of self, and so on.

I think camps do a mediocre job of helping campers with mastery. Too often arts and crafts or woodworking projects are kits or projects on which the staff does much of the work. Kids don't get the chance to learn how to use either their hands or tools. I also think camps tend to focus on supporting and celebrating physical skills (sports, etc.) but not emotional ski l ls (overcoming fears, supporting others, asking good questions of others, collaborating and so on).

Then there is autonomy, the most difficult psychological need for many people to grasp. People often think of it as independence. Autonomy is one's sense of self (values, preferences, beliefs, interests — identity) as separate from others. In children it emerges slowly over time. Camps usually don't do such a great job of supporting a child's autonomy. A camp program is largely the compilation of activities the adults have put together, with little input from the campers. This is also true of the schedule, the pace of the day, and so on. I'm not suggesting that campers run camps or have ultimate input; I am saying that many of the choices at camp are made for the campers, who have little opportunity to experiment.

You mentioned that campers do most of the work when it comes to making friend connections at camp. What do you think camps can do to be a little more proactive in that regard?

Among other things, I would love to see a camp brother/camp sister program where older kids "adopt" a younger camper with whom they'll hang out and participate in cross-age activities. Some camps already do this but I would like to see it in all camps.

At Boston Explorers (an urban camp for children), for example, kids are mixed with all ages. Older kids are surprised when younger kids like them. The older campers suddenly have this sense of protecting and guiding the younger campers, and the younger campers look up to and admire the older ones. There is this whole sense of mastery and a different kind of relationship that kids don't always encounter.

How can camps better nurture mastery?

When it comes to mastery, I think camps are still way too focused on physical skills and not enough on emotional skills. Camps typically go, go, go and don't reflect enough. I like the "list of firsts" activity. The camp counselor asks the kids everyday, "Tell me something you did today at camp that you've never done before," whether it was making it to the top of the climbing tower or venturing into the deep end of the pool or getting a part in a play.

Campers get the chance to reflect on their achievements. Counselors, if trained properly, can then comment on what emotional skill it might have taken to reach these achievements — like perseverance or overcoming a fear and so on. In this way counselors can help deepen their campers' sense of mastery.

You indicated autonomy is often the most difficult psychological need to understand, which must create a challenge for camp professionals. What can camps do to better foster autonomy in their campers?

Camps don't really give kids enough choice. Adults need to be willing to go off their agenda for the sake of their campers. For example, camp professionals could do a better job of providing free play opportunities at camp. It has been clearly shown that children who do experience more free play as youngsters have much better executive function (planning, organizing, prioritizing, tracking work). Free play doesn't mean unsupervised play. If camps do allow campers more free play time, they need to be prepared for the fact that counselors won't know what to do. When overseeing free play counselors are often at a loss for what to do. "What's my role? You're telling me I'm just supposed to sit here and watch?" It's like being a lifeguard. You don't have to be a part of the play, just observe. In fact, the more adults get engaged in free play, the less kids want to do it.

For example, baby animals play fight all the time. My cats do it. They practice their hunting and fighting skills. When boys do that — make swords in woodshop and play fight — adults get bent out of shape. "That's too aggressive." I disagree. Play fighting is just that, it's play. For boys it is important practice for self-control and knowing how to fight hard without going too far. Play fighting is an experiment with aggression in a safe way (supervised). It's practicing selfregulation (i.e.: I can control myself; I don't need someone to do it from the outside).

Any advice to camp directors for further nurturing connection, mastery, and autonomy in their campers and staff?

Camp directors are great at wanting to learn new ways of understanding children and their needs. At the same time camps are also very traditional and want to adhere to rituals — to the past. These things are not mutually exclusive. What I'm asking camp directors to do is think of some of the day-to-day ways that camp staff engage with kids. You don't have to compromise your traditions — backwards day, camp song, campfire, etc. Campers and staff alike love those crazy hallmarks of camp. It is the way counselors support mastery, encourage friendships, and help campers increasingly do for themselves that feeds the three psychological needs.

Also, in terms of nurturing meaningful, significant relationships; opportunity to feel masterful; and their sense of self, what works for the campers, works for the staff.

For More Information
For further details on connection, mastery, and autonomy, as well as the importance of free play, check out these additional ACA resources:
Autonomy, Mastery, and Connection: True Gifts of a Quality Camp Experience, by Bob Ditter

Talking about Youth Development: Helping Campers Grow into Successful Adults, by The National Youth Development Information Center

The Values of the Traditional Camp Experience: The Power of Play, by David Elkind, PhD


Photo courtesy of Camp CAMP, Center Point, Texas.

Originally published in the 2015 January/February Camping Magazine.