Camper Wellness: A Different Perspective

May 2007

Meet Ben. He was a regular kid who did OK in school, had his fair share of friends— some more friendly than others— came from a single-parent home, didn’t have money to burn but certainly had all the basics in place, did his chores with coaxing, and enjoyed doing the things regular kids did: a little baseball, hanging out with friends, and pizza once in a while.

He came to camp one summer. His parents had never gone but heard it would be good for Ben. Some of Ben’s classmates had been to camp but none of his close friends. Ben kind of liked the idea; in fact, he helped pick out his camp, one just a couple hours from home. He’d be there a week and could play ball every day if he wanted.

Opening day went okay. One of the counselors said hello as soon as Ben got out of the car and, when he found out Ben’s name, told him where to find his cabin. Ben’s name would be on the door so he’d know he was in the right place. Other counselors were in the cabin area; one of them introduced Ben to another boy from his cabin and told the kids how to get moved in. It wasn’t long before Ben’s counselor appeared, handing each boy their own cap with a place to write their camp name, something the group decided upon together. That was great fun, figuring out names; they quickly learned something about one another! Their counselor had worked with a couple other counselors to set up a scavenger hunt for the kids, one that had them mixing up with more people and doing fun things like, “Smell the chocolate chip cookies? Follow your nose, meet the cook, and have a treat.”

By supper Ben was feeling pretty good about things. He found a place at the table, got great “kid-friendly” food, and enjoyed the evening’s campfire, especially the game they played to learn about tomorrow’s schedule and some of the camp rules. His cabin mates knew a lot about one another and their counselors by the time they headed off to bed. Ben was introduced to cabin council that evening, a time when the counselors sat down with the boys and talked about the day, how things were going, how each person felt about being at camp, what it was like to be away from home, and what to expect tomorrow. Ben slept well that night.

The world of youth development focuses on strategies that support the efforts of young people to reach their potential. “Be All You Can Be” and other slogans pepper the media. As camp professionals, we work diligently to shape camp programs that enable this, and we coach counseling staff to use strategies in their work with campers to achieve this kind of outcome.

But sometimes we forget a critical element. Growth—reaching toward one’s potential—is only possible if basic emotional needs have been met. First articulated by Maslow, these emotional needs are not something a person can attain on their own; attaining them is only possible through interaction with others. Beginning at birth, it is through interaction with the influencing people around us that we attain, or fail to attain, our basic emotional needs. A baby cries and a caring adult responds to that cry. A toddler’s grimace of frustration gives way to a grin while trying to “do it myself” and receive the accolades of mom or dad. Efforts at self-expression are met with listening ears, the kind that double-checks to be sure the received message was actually the intended message.

Each of these experiences provides an emotional reinforcer to the child, a sense of being valued by others, heard by others, esteemed by others. As children, we begin to form our sense self-esteem and self-worth based on the results of interactions like these.

What Are the Basic Emotional Needs?

For many children, their camp experience is also emotionally formative. Like Ben, they arrive quite unfamiliar with what will happen, often by themselves, and without a trusted adult walking with them through the day. Even returning campers can feel uncertain. If we provide an opening day experience that satisfies each person’s basic emotional needs—similar to what Ben experienced—campers will then be ready to engage in the magic of the camp program, a growth experience. Failure to meet the needs results in people unable to move forward; they must focus on satisfying the basic needs first.

What are these basic emotional needs?
The first is a sense of belonging. A person gets “comfortable” if they, as a person, are acknowledged and fit in: the cabin door lists their name among the kids living there, the cabin counselor knows something about them and connects that to camp, their name is spoken and remembered, and space is made for them at the dinner table, around the campfire, and when standing in line. Campers feel like they belong because others did something to make that feeling occur.

Another basic emotional need is economic security. This simply refers to adequate food, clothing, and shelter, enough that the individual doesn’t need to focus on subsistence but can use that energy for other quests. This is a “given” when most kids get to camp; they have food, someone makes sure they have appropriate clothing, and there’s a sheltered place to sleep. Others provided it at camp, even if this may not be the case at home.

Love and affection come paired as an emotional need. As humans, we seek to be special to some people. We want to feel loved and experience the affection that goes along with that. In the camp world, unconditional positive regard for each person is often the way “love” is shown. Affection spins from there as cabin groups get “tight” and secret handshakes or greeting rituals evolve. We feel loved and experience affection as a result of our interface with others.

Freedom from fear, fear that’s debilitating, comes next. Fear steals energy and makes a person focus on survival rather than growth opportunities. In an effort to minimize fear, camp staff focus on making camp a safe place. Given the reports from recent research, however, we need to focus on the fears that campers identify, things like being afraid of walking down paths because someone might be hiding in the bushes or not knowing how to tell an adult that another kid is bullying someone. Sometimes freedom from fear is as simple as having a swim counselor hold one’s shoulders those first few tries at doing a back float.

Understanding and being understood is another basic emotional need. Campers want to know; they ask questions ad nauseam until they understand. But they also want to be understood. They need adults who spend time with them, who learn what they’re like, and—just as Ben discovered—are more interested in listening. Being understood includes clarifying that what one thinks was said matches what, indeed, the other person meant to convey. It’s often called “active listening,” a repertoire of communication skills that include clarifying, restating, and use of silence. Good counselors are masters at active listening.

Another basic emotional need is freedom from guilt. Guilt paralyzes the human spirit, especially a child’s spirit. It makes us demean and constantly second-guess ourselves. If not relieved, persistent guilt results in a pervasive feeling of unworthiness. Some campers arrive quite resilient; they are used to doing well, at least often enough to feel capable. Others appear programmed with guilt: they’re never good enough and assume they’ll fail before even trying. The “can-do” approach of our camp environments are great guilt-relievers and confidence boosters. But the kids need to get that from their staff.

The final basic emotional need is self-respect. When all the other needs are met—love, economic security, affection, freedom from fear, belonging, understanding and being understood, and freedom from guilt—our self-respect begins to flourish. Only because others care, because they bother to meet our emotional needs, is it that we, in turn, feel worthy of respect.

How Does Our Camp Measure Up?

Ben comes to all of our camps each summer. The base from which our Bens launch their interface with camp is predicated by how well their basic emotional needs have been met both at home as well as while at camp. For some kids, their camp experience is so powerful that it overshadows what happens when they aren’t at camp and is a reason that many come back season after season.

Since basic emotional needs (BEN) must be met before a person moves into growth needs (like learning the activities at camp), consider your campers’ experiences during their first day or two. Assess it from their perspective, validating what you think may be going on with what is, in fact, occurring. If a camper’s emotional needs are truly met, they will be ready for everything else camp has to offer. If, however, the needs are frustrated, even one of them, the individual will make it a priority to meet that need, consequently not taking advantage of the camp’s growth opportunities. Challenging campers make a great barometer for emotional needs; just like the camp dining room, they’re noisier when stirred up.

Linda Ebner Erceg, R.N., M.S., P.H.N., is the health and safety coordinator for Concordia Language Villages and the executive director of the Association of Camp Nurses. She can be reached at

Originally published in the 2007 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.