Changing Places, Changing Paces: Recharging, Reconnecting, and Reflecting at Summer Camp

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed
May 2016
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While the academic year holds ample opportunity for what are commonly referred to as “the three R’s” of reading, writing, and arithmetic, a job at summer camp offers unique experiential learning opportunities not only for your campers but for you as well. In fact, it’s a perfect breeding ground for three other R’s too often lost in our fast-paced, always-on, hyperconnected world: recharging, reconnecting, and reflecting.

Each is important for the campers — and the counselors!

Recharging

No doubt the rigors of school bring about a palpable need for de-stressing come summer break. According to a 2014 report commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA), young people are experiencing stress at a rate comparable to, and in some cases exceeding, that of adults.

And they know it.

Indeed, many youth say that their level of stress during the school year exceeds what even they believe to be healthy (APA, 2014).

The cause of all this anxiety? Predictably, such things as grades, tests, expectations, pressure to do well, social issues, and college, according to a survey conducted by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (Adolescent Interest Group, 2013).

More recently, in a January 2016 New York Times article, Vicki Abeles, author of the book Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation, recounted the story of Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician and professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, who found high rates of anxiety and depression among medical students there. Extending such inquiries into the secondary school space in Freemont, California, Slavin revealed that more than half of students tested (54 percent) exhibited “moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety” (Abeles, 2016).

Abeles goes on to cite “a growing body of medical evidence” linking long-term childhood stress with a higher risk of depression and anxiety in adulthood.

Perhaps it’s no wonder then that the article cites the National Survey of College Counseling Centers 2014 in stating that 94 percent of counseling directors say they’ve seen an increase of students with severe psychological disturbances.

Although the work of a summer camp counselor is not devoid of external expectations or internal desires to perform optimally, the very nature of camp lends itself to an alternative state of mind championed by practitioners of “positive psychology.”

What is it? In a word, “flow.”

Flow, defined as a state of complete immersion, leads to increased positive affect, performance, and commitment to long-term, meaningful goals.

According to PursuitofHappiness.org, “If we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state called ‘flow’” (Pursuit of Happiness, 2016a).

As described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (Pursuit of Happiness, 2016b). He has identified nine elements that, in combination, create the necessary conditions for flow (This Emotional Life, 2009).

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way — you know exactly what to do next.
  2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions — when you’re in flow, you can tell how well you’re doing.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills — the task is not so easy that you get bored, but you have enough mastery to be engaged and successful.
  4. Action and awareness are merged — you’re concentrating completely on what you’re doing.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness — you’re so absorbed in the activity that you’re not aware of other things.
  6. There is no worry of failure — you’re too involved to worry about failing; you know what to do and just do it.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears — you’re not thinking about yourself or protecting your ego because you’re too wrapped up in the task at hand.
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted — you may look up after being in a state of flow surprised at how much time has gone by.
  9. The activity becomes an end in itself — rather than a means to an end.

Helpful guidance for counselors, and through them for their campers, to make the most of a summer camp experience far removed from the fast lane.

Reconnecting

Achieving a state of flow requires the relinquishment of unnecessary distraction, perhaps especially those engendered by technology. And therein lies the challenge.

It seems readily apparent that, of all the types of technology available at your fingertips, the most prevalent in your everyday lives are smartphones, according to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (Madden et al, 2013).

Some have asked what is driving this obsession with smartphones. A sense of having to “do it all,” according to author and speaker Ana Homayoun, who presented at the American Camp Association’s 2015 national conference (Homayoun, 2015).

That same sentiment showed up in newly released research sponsored by Liberty Mutual Insurance. More important, it linked what is commonly referred to as “fear of missing out” — or FoMO — to dangerous driving behaviors by young people more concerned about keeping up with their friends than with keeping their eyes on the road. Such reliance on technology to keep pace socially was also associated in the same study with a significant lack of sleep. More than half of young people (52 percent) reported they get less than six hours on weeknights during the school year (Liberty Mutual/SADD, 2015).There is a growing consensus that all of this connectedness may be not only unsafe but also unhealthy, a point made by Tony Schwartz in his November 2015 New York Times opinion piece “Addicted to Distraction.” He quotes Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, saying, “The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention, and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive” (Schwartz, 2015).

Summer camp may very well offer a remedy to the addiction that is the overreliance on technology. Why? Because camp stresses real relationships in real time and an almost singular focus on the children, who, by and large, do not typically have access to technology themselves while at camp.
Madeleine McArdle, a veteran camper and counselor and a student at Dartmouth College, explains, “Camps should definitely remain primarily technology-free zones. That allows everyone to fully commit to interacting face to face, building strong relationships, and preparing them to be successful later in life.” McArdle, who is a member of the national advisory board of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), acknowledges that for both children and staff, some degree of FoMO may exist when thinking about friends at home. But she adds, “What is vital to remember is that the time spent at camp is incredibly valuable and, for many, is worth so much more than spending lazy days at home doing nothing.”

Similarly, Jesse Bajaj, another student member on the CARE board and a junior at the University of Miami, reflects on his time as a camper and counselor, stating, “Camp is the ultimate stress-free environment because it eliminates the normality of everyday life such as phones, traffic, and classes. Camp gives you a completely new routine that ultimately serves the purpose of creating a loving place where campers and counselors enjoy doing fun activities together. It’s a sort of alternate universe where it doesn’t matter where you’re from, who your friends are, or what you enjoy doing because everyone is a part of the same tight-knit community. It’s the best feeling in the world to see some of your closest friends throughout the day unexpectedly, without texting to meet up or making some sort of extensive, ever-changing plan. You become so actively involved at camp that you almost forget that the real world even exists.”

Reflecting

One of the many unique value propositions of summer camp is the opportunity to try new things, new roles, and new relationships. Each offers the promise of success or failure, both viewed as important milestones in developing resilience and self-efficacy. Each, in turn, can prompt reflection that aids self-awareness and is key in establishing new strategies to accomplish goals.

At Camp Rising Sun in Rhinebeck, New York, where learning is predicated on exposing youth to real problems in a diverse social setting, an intentional “Do-Reflect-Redo” approach is used in training young leaders from around the globe (Wallace, 2014).

In truth, young people (and adults) of all ages benefit from reflection, or mindfulness — “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). Indeed, a January 2016 article in The Boston Globe reported on mindfulness approaches being employed at nine schools in the community of Reading, Massachusetts, as a way “to help put students at ease and get them more in tune with their emotions, and one another, so they can concentrate on learning.” The article goes on to point out ancillary benefits related to such issues as bullying, mental illness, and substance abuse (Vaznis, 2016).

A Summer Solstice

For campers and counselors emerging from academia, camp may serve as a refuge from stress and anxiety, offering a chance to slow down and unplug. A much needed antidote to an ever-faster, technology-obsessed world.

Change places and change paces — and find time for recharging, reconnecting, and reflecting at summer camp.

Discussion Questions

  • What are the sources of stress in your everyday life?
  • Do you believe technology, especially smartphones, contributes to or reduces stress for you?
  • How do you feel about your camp’s policies regarding the use of technology by staff and campers?
  • In what ways do you think you can help your co-workers and campers recharge, reconnect, and reflect at camp this summer?
  • How would you like your camp experience to differ from your life at home or school?

Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Surf, Imperial Beach, California.

References

Abeles, V. (2016, January). Is the drive for success making our children sick? The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2016/01/03/opinion/sunday/is-the-drive-for-success-making-our-children-sick.html?_r=0
Adolescent Interest Group. (2013). What stresses teens out? Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Retrieved from pamf.org/teen/life/stress/whatstress.html
American Psychological Association. (2014, February). American Psychological Association survey shows teen stress rivals that of adults. Stress in America. Retrieved from apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/02/teen-stress.aspx
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Homayoun, A. (2015). Ana Homayoun is a noted teen and millennial expert, author, speaker and educator. Retrieved from http://anahomayoun.com/about
Liberty Mutual/SADD. (2015, August). New study finds teens’ “fear of missing out” is proving to be dangerous. Retrieved from prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-study-finds-teens-fear-of-missing-out-is-proving-to-be-dangerous-300123037.html
Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Duggan, M., 
Cortesi, S., & Gasser, U. (2013). Teens and technology 2013. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Pew 
Research Center and Berkman Center for Internet & Technology at Harvard University. Retrieved frompewinternet.org/files/old-media/Files/Reports/2013/PIP_TeensandTechnology2013.pdf
Merriam-Webster. (2015). Mindfulness. Retrieved from merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mindfulness
Pursuit of Happiness, Inc. (2016a). Flow. The Pursuit of Happiness. Bringing the Science of Happiness to Life. Retrieved from pursuit-of-happiness.org/science-of-happiness/getting-in-the-flow
Pursuit of Happiness, Inc. (2016b). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The Pursuit of Happiness. Bringing the Science of Happiness to Life. Retrieved from pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi
Schwartz, T. (2015, November 28). Addicted to distraction. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2015/11/29/opinion/sunday/addicted-to-distraction.html
This Emotional Life. (2009). Flow. Have you ever been “in the zone?” NOVA/WGBH Science Unit and Vulcan Productions, Inc. Retrieved from pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/creativity/flow
Vaznis, J. (2016, January 5). In Mass. schools, a focus on well-being. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/01/05/mass-schools-focus-well-being/m4d2GADYQEor4qApNf8JQM/story.html
Wallace, S. (2014, July 9). A happy camper. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from huffingtonpost.com/stephen-gray-wallace/a-happy-camper_1_b_5570839.html

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. He is also an expert partner at Risk Assistance Network & Exchange (RANE) and was national chairman and chief executive officer at SADD for more than 15 years. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.

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