The Human Need to Belong: An Evolution in How We Think about Camps

Matthew Barstead
July 2012

Humans are social creatures by nature, driven by a need to belong. Camps are social institutions by definition. As camp professionals, it is critical that we take time to understand the intricacies of the human need to belong because it is a key component to summer camp success. From anecdotal evidence, we know too well that creating a sense of belonging at our camps is critical. We strive to ensure that everyone fits in and makes friends. Our industry’s recent focus on bullying shows how attuned we are to the problems of social rejection, especially in prolonged or very extreme cases. Despite our efforts as a whole, we still find outcast children in our camps, sitting on the fringe of the activity, longing for an opportunity to interact. We are sympathetic because we know in our hearts, likely from personal experience, just how devastating ostracism can be.

The pain a rejected child feels is rooted in human evolution, and in fact, over the millennia he was programmed to feel pain any time he felt socially rejected or excluded. As leaders of social groups, it is important that camp directors have a deeper understanding of how the need to belong developed, the overall negative outcomes of rejection and ostracism, how today’s world presents unique challenges to social interaction and seeking affiliation, and special issues for childhood rejection. Unit leaders, cabin counselors, and activity instructors are all social leaders, and I therefore encourage you to share parts or the entirety of this article with them in the hopes they may have a new lens through which to view the camp industry. Taking into consideration this need for social connection, it is possible that camps are more essential to the lives of children than ever in our modern culture.

Rewards and Punishments

Because of advantages of belonging to a group, such as hunting or building shelter together, evolution selected traits over time that would enhance social connections. Humans became better at understanding one another; we communicated more effectively; and, as researchers Baumeister and Leary (1995) proposed, we even developed a psychological need to belong to a social group. As with other fundamental needs, warning systems developed to indicate when belongingness needs were unmet. Pain is one of the primary warning signals in the human body. It communicates when there is an imminent threat to survival, and the experience is so unpleasant that it often motivates the sufferer to take up immediate corrective action. Studies have shown that the same neural pathways used for the interpretation of physical pain are utilized during periods of social rejection (DeWall & Baumeister, 2006; Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003). What these findings indicate is that during human evolution, people began to process rejection the same way they would process physical pain. These studies suggest that both avoiding things that can cause significant physical injury and preventing social rejection had similar survival value for our ancestors.

For centuries, cultures have capitalized on the unpleasantness of rejection by exiling or shunning offending members. Because social rejection is so painful, these punishments are seen as prompts for changing behavior and deterrents from engaging in the offending activity. These tactics are still in use today, as many camps use the removal of social interactions (e.g., time outs) to correct or reprimand undesirable behaviors. Should the offense be great enough, campers could even be asked to leave the community entirely. This does not threaten the child’s ability to survive by any means, but for those who have gone through it, the process can be distressing and emotionally draining to say the least.

The Modern Need to Belong

How does the need to belong operate within a modern context? Today’s world is far removed from the harrowing jungles and plains of our primitive ancestors, where sensitivities to acceptance and rejection might seem more obviously required. We no longer need to band together with friends and relatives to build shelters from the natural elements. Instead, we hire contractors to build our homes or rent living units from landlords. Likewise, rather than hunting for food, we drive to our local supermarket filled with all of the calories we need. Our dependency on others is still there, but we do not have the same bonds with the contractor, landlord, or store manager as our ancestors once did within their hunting and village groups.

In the modern world, interdependency has diminished, and with it the strength of many social bonds. But, millennia of evolution are hard to erase. While we may not need our friends to survive from a purely biological standpoint, we are still programmed to need them. Camp offers a unique place of social interaction in an age when interpersonal distance seems to be increasing. Camps can and should be places where the need to belong is met regularly. There are degrees to which this is accomplished, certainly. Good camps remove many of the artificial barriers to social interaction. Great camps establish a culture of social togetherness. Excellent camps are able to engage every member of their community in a positive and accepting way. This last step takes a lot of work because some children find gaining acceptance to be more difficult.

Social Rejection and Childhood

Because of our social nature and the sheer number of social interactions we experience, we have all probably been rejected at one point or another in our lives. Rejection is a nearly universal phenomenon in small doses. Perhaps a romantic partner broke off a long-term relationship or the guy at the bar never called you back. Maybe the rejections you have experienced involved falling out with friends over trivial or even serious disputes. Or, you might have really wanted to participate in a certain activity only to find yourself entirely excluded from it by others. I am even willing to wager that just thinking about these past events of rejection invokes some simple negative emotions like shame, regret, or a feeling of loss. More likely than not, most of these rejection episodes took place as a child or young adult. Certainly, social rejection does not disappear with age, but it tends to decrease as we work to surround ourselves with people who are inclined to accept us as we are.

Childhood rejection episodes are especially important because of the vital physical, social, and psychological development that takes place during this stage in life. Rejection impacts a person’s self-regulation, mood, levels of aggression, self-esteem, intellect, and levels of depression (see Gere & MacDonald, 2010 for a review). As a result of these deficits, a child suffering from extreme or prolonged rejection is less capable of interacting with her social environment — one of the primary driving forces of youth development. A lowered ability to interact with and learn from one’s social environment can lead to highly dysfunctional behavior in the long run. Viewing their extremely maladaptive behavior through the need to belong, it is no surprise that the Columbine and other school shooters often experienced ongoing and, at times, severe levels of ostracism and rejection (Leary, Kowalski, Smith, & Phillips, 2003). It may be that if these negative outcomes of rejection take root during childhood, they provide a significant barrier to living a socially acceptable life.

Most children do not turn into school shooters, thankfully. However, there is something different about modern childhood, and it is more than just nostalgia and longing for a simpler time. Youth have always faced challenges and have never lived in the childhood Eden our society has told itself once existed (Mintz, 2004/2006). Still, our culture is shifting, and feeling a sense of belongingness is taking on a different shape in the twenty-first century. Specifically, children are living their lives in increasingly programmed and monitored contexts (Mintz, 2004/2006). It may be that this increasingly adult-controlled reality leads to greater sensitivity to rejection, or perhaps it prevents the natural development of coping skills. Whatever the reason, the result is that children today seem more susceptible than ever to the negative outcomes of social rejection, and rejection has entered new dimensions like Facebook and texting, meaning that bullying and ostracism can now take place at a distance. The result of increased structure and interpersonal distance is that now more than ever children need places where they can feel they belong, or better yet, that teach them how to belong. This is where camps can play an important role in modern childhood.

Being a Part of Camp

Richard Louv (2005/2008) used the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the challenges and realities facing children in today’s world. He was able to show that as our society has drifted away from outdoor activities and unstructured play, we have seen an increase in a number of undesirable outcomes — such as more cases of ADHD and increased childhood obesity. It is also possible that part of the negative outcomes described in Louv’s work overlaps with the need to belong. Most human activities in the natural world take place with other people. Programs like Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School have long understood the value of the natural world and its role in reinforcing interdependent behaviors among groups. Interdependency inevitably leads to social bonding, as it is harder to reject someone when the group needs him to continue pursuing its goal (Leary, 2001). Fortunately, camps do not need to be endowed with great natural resources to increase their participants’ feelings of belongingness and inter-reliance.

What is more important than vast stretches of land and virgin forests is a cultural focus on inclusion. This is more than simply training and supervision. The entire context of camp — its values, programs, leadership, physical environment, staff, and campers — must be focused on increasing interdependency and group cohesion in order to increase feelings of belongingness. Camp directors have more control over some of these features than others. For instance, you can make small alterations to your physical environment, but you cannot change whether or not your camp’s property includes a lakefront or a 100-acre forest. Still, camp directors can influence important features such as the camp values and how they are understood, program design and its intentionality in fostering interdependence, and the leadership staff and how they model the values and goals of the programs. The best camps in our industry are very adept at creating a context of camp that promotes social inclusion. As a result, these camps are not only meeting important developmental needs of children, they also enjoy healthier balance sheets and endowments. People like to return to places they feel they fit in, and they like to give to causes that are close to their hearts. Belongingness, it turns out, is also good business.

As organizations, camps face real challenges going forward. Costs have skyrocketed, parents are more anxious in letting their children out of their sight, older campers have more commitments during the summer, and schools continue to encroach on the summer in an attempt to meet educational demands. Increasing the challenge is the constant struggle to explain to parents what camp is and what it does. A portion of that explanation should be centered on the theme of belonging and its developmental benefits: improved mood, enhanced reasoning, better self-regulation, increased self-esteem, lower aggression, and reduced withdrawal and depression. However, our conceptualization of the context of camp has to evolve in order to do this effectively, and it needs to go beyond simply how we choose to talk about program outcomes to prospective parents

The challenges the industry faces are real, and as with evolution, camps that offer the best experiences and outcomes will survive, while those that do not will be removed from the proverbial gene pool. One way to rapidly improve the context of your camp is to ask a simple question of every aspect of your program: How does this feature enhance or inhibit a feeling of belongingness? As change comes rapidly to the industry in the technological age and external pressures mount, the need to belong will likely remain as powerful as it has always been — so use it in your program design. Meeting this need will have more long-term benefits for both your campers and your camp than any new ropes course element or gaga pit could ever offer.


Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

DeWall, C., & Baumeister, R. (2006). Alone but feeling no pain: Effects of social exclusion on physical pain tolerance and pain threshold, affective forecasting, and interpersonal empathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(1), 1–15.

Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M., & Williams, K. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290–292.

Gere, J., & MacDonald, G. (2010). An updated of the empirical case for the need to belong. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 66(1), 93–115.

Leary, M. (2001). Toward a conceptualization of interpersonal rejection. In Leary, M. R. (Ed), Interpersonal Rejection (p. 3–20). New York: Oxford University Press.

Leary, M., Kowalski, R., Smith, L., & Phillips, S. (2003). Teasing, rejection, and violence: Case studies of the school shootings. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 202–214.

Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Mintz, S. (2006). Huck’s raft: A history of American childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Matthew Barstead is a former program director at YMCA Camp Tockwogh. He has over ten years of experience in organized camping and is still active in his local ACA field office as the complaint resolution chair. Currently, Matt is a graduate student at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he studies social rejection and acceptance.

Originally published in the 2012 July/August Camping Magazine.