It’s Brain Science!

Psychologists have now learned that the brain is more like a muscle — it changes and gets stronger when you use it. If we take a peek inside the outside layer of the brain — called the cortex — we find billions of tiny nerve cells, called neurons. These nerve cells have branches connecting them to other cells in a complicated network. Synaptic communication between these brain cells is what allows us to think and solve problems. When we learn new things, these tiny connections in the brain actually multiply and get stronger.

Summers have always belonged to children whose school vacations often carry the connotation of being unlikely places for learning. Yet, camps and the summers they occupy have served as landscapes for learning for many generations of campers. While schools have traditionally been charged with academically enhancing our capacity to live and work in an ever-changing society, camps are vital venues for growing the brain, most notably because, as Bill Gates has recognized, “research illuminates how our beliefs about our capabilities exert tremendous influence on how we learn and which paths we take in life” (2015).

The Mindsets

In fact, scientists have been able to show just how the brain grows and gets stronger when you learn, and we now recognize that intelligence can be developed. Carol Dweck (2006) is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of psychology. Her findings suggest that almost every moment of your and campers’ experience this summer can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. According to Dweck, people with a fixed mindset — those who believe that abilities are fixed — are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset — those who believe that abilities can be developed. In other words, the brain is malleable, and doing challenging activities is the best way to make the brain stronger and smarter (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). At camp, every moment of every day of every summer contains challenges — big and small — for children and youth to develop new friendships, resolve conflict with others, and take responsibility for their camp community.

Four Ideas to Promote a Growth Mindset

Here are four ideas to consider as you promote a growth mindset for yourself and your campers this summer.

Explore Your Own Beliefs*

This inventory helps us understand we all have both fixed and growth mindsets about different abilities/traits/skills. Here’s a list for you to consider as you imagine your campers this summer.

Ask yourself, “Do I think ______ is something that can be improved?”

  • Creativity
  • Artistic ability (i.e., drawing or painting)
  • Math
  • Singing
  • Intelligence
  • Grammar/writing
  • Sports/athleticism
  • Extraversion/shyness
  • Ability to control impulsivity (or to stay focused)
  • Empathy (ability to think about others’ feelings)
  • Ability to pay attention
  • Rebelliousness
  • Emotionality (ability to regulate/manage one’s emotions)

We are often confused about the genetic predisposition and the malleability of traits. While the two are not mutually exclusive, think of the swimmer Michael Phelps, who is well known for having the ideal body for swimming. On the other hand, another swimmer, Katie Ledecky, who has broken many records, is actually noted for not having the ideal body. Similarly, a camper’s success this summer can result from being incredibly passionate and relentless in learning how to improve. Obviously, Michael Phelps has body mechanics in his favor, but genetics alone is not what determines success.

*Activity modified from Stanford University’s Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS)

Enjoy the “Maze Moments”*

Some creative teacher friends of mine have coined the phrase “maze moments” to recognize real problem solving is inherently messy. These teachers give their students traditional pen and paper mazes, much like the ones we all enjoyed as children. Mazes provide us with a fun experience with encountering dead ends, roadblocks, and hurdles. “Our culture, however,” as John McCrann wrote in Education Week, “attempts to smooth the rough edges of life. We Google a question and the answer pops up. We are accustomed to easily accessing results, so uncertainty and messiness often lead to anxiety” (2015). However, there are times when this is not the case. There are activities where you expect and enjoy the feeling of getting stuck. For campers, the maze can be this kind of situation.

According to Dweck, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over” (2008). Setbacks, mistakes, and failure are devastating experiences and are avoided at all costs. On the other hand, intentional camp communities that emphasize youth development and safe risk taking are ideal locations for normalizing struggle and promoting a growth mindset where obstacles become opportunities.

You can reclaim the feeling of getting stuck this summer. Instead of triggering hurt feelings or embarrassment, challenging camp experiences can trigger the happy feelings of playing in a maze. “Instead of being tentative and fearing failure or confusion, try to embrace the awe and mystery of it all and joyfully make a mess,” said educator Nate Dilworth (McCrann, 2015).

Maze moments in three easy steps:

  1. Spend ten minutes on a rainy day, during rest hour, or any downtime working to solve printed mazes with campers.
  2. As campers solve the maze, discuss the strategies they used and the feelings they had as they got stuck and unstuck.
  3. After completing the mazes, develop a list of strategies that are helpful in getting unstuck from a camp maze moment: Retrace your steps. Take a deep breath. Get a drink of water. Talk about the problem with a group mate. Approach a counselor.

* Activity modified from “A Strategy for Moving Through Math Anxiety: Maze Moments,” by John T. McCrann in Education Week

Praise the Process, Not the Person

As campers engage in program activities, growth-minded language guides and motivates them to ensure they remain persistent, resilient, and focused on the process of learning. It is important to give campers feedback about their progress and their results so they can specifically see their growth.

According to Dweck, we also need to remember that effort is a means to an end to the goal of learning and improving. “Too often nowadays,” she says, “praise is given to young people who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment: ‘Great effort! You tried your best!’” It’s good that they tried, Dweck points out, but it’s not good that they’re not learning. The growth-mindset approach can help campers feel good in the short and long terms by helping them thrive on challenges and setbacks during the summer on their way to learning. When campers get stuck, counselors can appreciate their work so far, but add: “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next” (Dweck, 2015).

Praising campers’ abilities suggests that innate talent is the reason for success, while focusing on the process helps campers see how their effort leads to success. Try modifying your language with campers to focus on the process instead of the person. Praise campers when they work hard to accomplish a difficult task.

Instead of This

Try This

Great job! You must be good at this. Great job! You must have worked really hard.
See, you are good at swimming. You passed your last test. You really practiced for your swim test, and your improvement shows it.
You got it! I told you that you were good at this. I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that basketball shot until you finally got it.
You are so good at fine arts! I love the way you stayed in your area, you kept your concentration, and you kept on working. That's great!

*Chart is modified from a lesson located on

Realize the Power of Yet

While remembering to offer the right type of praise to your campers is a good starting point for promoting growth mindset, there is one specific and simple approach you can use at camp this summer.

In her now famous TED Talk, Carol Dweck (2014) shares a story about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn’t pass a course, they got the grade “Not Yet.”

“And I thought that was fantastic,” she says, “because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘Not Yet’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.”

While camps aren’t the place for classroom grades, this summer you’ll have similar opportunities to set students on a learning curve as they struggle and succeed at every turn.

Campers commonly think many things are not possible for them. Think about some of the statements you might hear this summer:

  • I don’t know how to do this activity!
  • I am not good at basketball.
  • I don’t have the voice to sing at the talent show.
  • I can’t kick the soccer ball from the corner.
  • I don’t know how to make a friend in my group.
  • I can’t eat only one cookie!
  • I can’t learn to solve problems with words instead of fighting.
  • I can’t get my area organized.

Often, what determines the difference with the mindsets comes down to one little, powerful word: “yet.” Look at those camper statements again. They all sound much better and less intimidating with the simple addition of the word “yet” at the end. This summer, you have the opportunity to imply that something is achievable, putting campers back in charge of their destiny. “Yet” hints that there is work to be done to get to the desired place.

Mindset experts acknowledge this may sound like a bit of a trick of the mind, but reminding your campers that they haven’t accomplished something “yet” really can make them feel better about where they are currently and makes the pursuit of their goals, even the very lofty ones, seem less daunting.

Mindsets Matter

Despite struggles, a growth mindset recognizes failure and setbacks as a natural and normal — an almost essential — element of learning. The more the mind is challenged to overcome obstacles, the more our brain cells grow, which is what makes camp the ideal location for building our brains.

There is dialectic between recent research that supports normalizing struggle and embracing challenges on the one hand, and traditional classroom and school structures that prioritize standardized curriculum and assessments over mistake making on the other. Therefore, the camp program need not be academic in nature for the learning to establish new neurological structures that we then use in other environments to access new information and ideas. Over time, as the brain grows new structures, campers’ persistence amid challenges to learn new skills and acquire additional abilities — such as the 21st-century skills of communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking — becomes easier. This summer, the result can be a stronger, smarter brain.

A Growth Mindset Icebreaker to Help You Get Started

Start with some warm-up rounds:

  1. Gather campers (or fellow staff members during orientation) in a circle, and select a “talking piece.” (More information on talking pieces can be learned from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility at
  2. Practice passing the talking piece around the circle by having each person say their name when holding the object. Then, practice tossing across the circle by calling recipients’ names to catch the talking piece.

    The next two rounds will reflect elements of the fixed mindset:
  3. As the talking piece is passed around the circle, each person says something “you think you’re already good at.”
  4. Next, toss the talking piece across the circle by naming a person who will then say something “you don’t think you’re good at.”

    The last round will emphasize the important shift from having a fixed mindset to believing in what’s possible:
  5. Finally, pass the talking piece around the circle as each person names something “you don’t think you’re good at, yet.” Notice that by simply adding the word “yet,” the statement changes from reflecting a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Photo courtesy of Camp Tawonga, San Francisco, California.


Blackwell, L. A., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S., (2007, January). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention, Child Development, Volume 78, Number 1, pp. 246–263.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Dweck, C. S. (2014). The power of believing that you can improve. TED. Retrieved from

Dweck, C. S. (2015, September 22). Carol Dweck revisits the ‘growth mindset.’ Education Week. Retrieved from

Gates, B. (2015, December 7). Mindset over matter: What you believe affects what you achieve. GatesNotes.

McCrann, J. (2015, September 15). A strategy for moving through math anxiety: Maze moments. Education Week. Retrieved from

Project for Education Research that Scales (2018). Resources. PERTS, Stanford University. Retrieved from

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 an instructor in the programs of Youth Studies and English Education at The City University of New York. Contact the author:

Discussion Questions
  1. Is there a talent or ability you would like to have but don’t? How do you know you don’t have it — what’s the evidence? Can you name one or two things you could do to develop that ability?
  2. Do you know someone who has a fixed mindset? How does it show itself? What could you do to model a growth mindset for that individual?
  3. Think about the last time you had a major setback, failure, or rejection in your life. Did you hear the fixed mindset voice in your head? What did it say? Now, how would you answer it with a growth mindset voice? How can you create a similar dialogue with struggling campers this summer?
  4. Think about the ideals, standards, and expectations you are setting for your campers. Are these the kinds of ideals that will make your campers feel judged and afraid of disappointing you? Or are these ideals that will inspire them to learn?

Questions modified from