Games and Activities That Strengthen Positive Mental Health

Jim Cain, PhD
January 2022
people in a huddle

“Remember this — every member of your staff and every camper in your program has been through a traumatic experience!”

One of my absolute favorite ACA National Conference moments came a few years ago when Bob Ditter and I copresented a workshop together. He would share a critical element related to the mental health of campers and camp staff, and I would share an activity that explored the same topic. Then I would share one of my favorite activities, and Bob would explain how participating in such activities had a positive effect on the social health and mental wellness of every participant. It was magical, and I will forever be grateful to Bob for lending his knowledge and expertise to that event.

Fast-forward a few years, introduce the effects of a global pandemic, and we are no longer in a hypothetical situation related to mental health — we are in a full-blown crisis. Luckily, summer camps are in a unique position to restore a sense of community and belonging, two much-needed elements in the battle to help both our campers and our seasonal staff recover from months of lockdowns, separation, self-isolation, social distancing, and quarantining.

Summer camps, I believe, can do more good this coming year than they have ever done before. The important thing is to be ready for the various types of COVID-related mental health issues that both campers and staff are likely to display — and to have an arsenal of games and activities that promote positive mental health to help combat these issues. Such issues include an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation as a direct result of separation, isolation, and social distancing.

For More Information

I don’t consider myself an expert in the field of youth mental health, but thanks to some careful research and an abundance of written information now available on the subject, I believe I have at least become a competent practitioner, especially when it comes to exploring the myriad of mental health-related issues dominating our society at this time. I hope you will find the following books as helpful as I did:

  • Together by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, to explore the healing power of human connection
  • The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz, to restore human connection in a world that’s pulling apart
  • 13 Things Strong Kids Do by Amy Morin, to define specific topics that you can explore at camp
  • A Year of Positive Thinking for Teens by Katie Hurley, to inject a giant and much-needed dose of positivity into your program this year

Next, understand that the field of mental health is both wide and deep. There’s a lot to unpack there, and young people’s sense of self-worth and feelings of happiness are often tied to their skills in and experiences with the following:

  • Honesty, integrity, and character
  • Social and emotional intelligence
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership
  • Grit, tenacity, and perseverance
  • Kindness
  • Trust
  • Judgment and critical thinking
  • Mindfulness
  • Exposure to natural environments
  • Positivity and joy
  • Friendship
  • Adapting to change
  • Appreciation and gratitude
  • Patience
  • Humor

Identifying Significant Themes

My advice, when it comes to identifying games and exercises to strengthen positive mental health, is to choose specific topics that connect with the theme or focus of your camp program, and then go in search of the perfect activities to incorporate these themes into your program.

“The best way to combat the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness during a global pandemic is to do something that makes you feel powerful, and the best way to mitigate the overwhelming lack of optimism during a global pandemic is to do something that makes you feel optimistic.”

There’s no question that a thorough investigation of the many mental health issues confronting our campers and staff would fill volumes. For the purpose of this discussion, however, I hope to condense my thoughts to what I consider are some of the most significant themes you can explore this year at camp.

Appreciation and Gratitude

In his book 59 Seconds, author David Wiseman touches on the topic of appreciation and says that reflecting on gratitude for even a few minutes can have a positive effect that can last for up to a month. How’s that for a return on investment? It’s been raining here at my home for the past week, and I have to admit that I’ve been a little blue. But each morning, when I wake up, I think of five things for which I am grateful, and it has an immediate and positive effect on my attitude and the trajectory of my day — and it gets even better when I share my list with others.

The Power of Connection

The findings in the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health conducted by Michael Resnick and many other talented professionals suggested that parent-family connectedness and a perceived school connectedness were protective against almost every health risk behavior measured. Simply by being part of something, teens were protected against a variety of risk factors in their communities. Connection is the key here, and camps already do a great job of this. This is my cabin, my team, my tribe; these are my people, and I am one of them. My favorite activity for building connection? I call it "Walking and Talking." Two partners link elbows (or hold opposite ends of a pool noodle if social distancing is appropriate) and take a stroll together while trying to find three world-class things they have in common. The more unusual and unique, the better. Then, after finding three commonalities, they share their findings with another group.

I sometimes noticed (in pre-COVID days) that participants would return after the activity with their arms still linked with their partners’. They had, it seemed, become comfortable with each other, and that was the whole point of the activity in the first place. Connection achieved!

Many camps encounter challenges during finding and retaining sufficient talented staff for the summer. In his book Vital Friends, Gallop Poll survey expert Tom Rath explains that 96 percent of people with three or more friends at their workplace said the quality of their work life was outstanding, and that people with even a single friend at work were seven times more likely to be positively engaged in the workplace than those with no friends at work. The bottom line here is to help your seasonal staff build positive relationships with each other at camp. Staff training should include not only team building, but team bonding as well. Both are absolutely important, and best of all, creating positive relationships increases employee engagement. And employee engagement pays dividends.

Try the game of First Impressions from the book Teambuilding with Index Cards. Each player silently guesses certain characteristics about their partners and then finds out the truth during post-guessing conversation — an excellent way to begin the process of building friendships.

Trust

Another element of positive mental health is the ability to form trusting relationships. My favorite way to explore trust is with an activity I call the Trust Drive. In this activity, partners take turns guiding each other and are instructed to have zero contact with other players or fixed obstacles. The person in front is the driver, with their hands on an imaginary steering wheel and their eyes closed. The person in the back is the world’s most perfect GPS system, with their hands on their partner’s shoulders and their eyes wide open. After a few minutes of movement and before switching places, I suggest that the driver provide feedback to their GPS partner. What did they do well? How could they improve and be even better? Then partners switch places and repeat the activity, followed by another feedback session. This simple exercise builds trust in a way that I’ve come to appreciate over the years.

“Here’s my advice for every day. A little teamwork and a lot of teamplay!”

Teamwork

No camp can be successful without teamwork. It takes an entire staff working in unison to accomplish all that camp has to offer each summer. Exploring teamwork is essential during staff training. My favorite way to conclude a training session is with an activity called the Bull Ring Community, where three teams successfully relocate tennis balls to a PVC candelabra, all at the same time. The game begins with three (or more) independent teams and finishes with these separate groups coming together as one — a suitable exploration of teamwork for the activity and a metaphor for the entire camp staff. The successful completion of the task typically leads to cheering and a sense of comradery, key elements of a team working well together.

This completes a brief and by no means comprehensive collection of positive mental health-building activities. Start with these positive skill-building games and add to your list as you explore more of the mental health issues your campers and staff are grappling with. Remember, even the smallest effort with these issues can have a tremendous effect. And what could be more fun than participating in activities at camp that on the surface are entertainment, but down deep address some of the most important social concerns and mental health issues of our time?

Additional Activities

If you are looking for additional activities to incorporate into your camp program, you’ll find an extensive collection of them in the book Connection without Contact. Choose from 50 activities to help you build connection while maintaining appropriate physical distancing and a hundred more camper- and counselor-friendly activities that you can utilize at your camp. And you can find even more activities for building positive connections at camp in the book 100 Activities That Build Unity, Community, & Connection. Both of these texts are available from ACABookstore.org.

Photo courtesy of Jim Cain.

Team building guru Jim Cain, PhD, has written an amazing 25 books filled with team and community building activities from around the world. His real-world, in-person, train-the-trainer events are legendary in the adventure-based learning community, and his virtual activities are used around the world. For more teambuilding ideas and resources, visit: TeamworkandTeamplay.com.


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