The child/mentor relationship between campers and counselors in a quality summer camp is quite different than that of students and teachers in most school settings. With the emphasis placed squarely in the social/ recreational realm, summer camp staff can provide a more social specific mentoring role to children far beyond that of teachers who are required to focus in much more detail on mandated academic curricula. Both settings, school and camp, are extremely charged social environments that play pivotal roles in the social emotional development of children. Both have opportunities to integrate social skill and character education into programmed curriculum. However, the camp setting is one in which the intentional approach to instruction of these critical life skills is a priority whereas in more academic settings, state mandated curricula must take precedence.
Consider the following: Social skills are much like athletic or artistic skills. They are similar to the learned vocational skills that determine one’s success or lack thereof as we enter into our adult lives. Those individuals that have achieved the greatest success in any area of expertise most likely share two common factors:
- A predisposition to a specific skill or attribute
- Opportunity and desire to practice their craft.
Ask any successful physician, welder, athlete, writer, lawyer, teacher, electrician, banker etc… did their success just happen or did they have to learn a set of skills and then dedicate a significant amount of time to honing their application of those skills? Furthermore, do they need to continually practice their skills in order to maintain their level of competence? Of course, their answers will be a resounding YES!
Perhaps a third, and typically neglected during professional development, attribute for success beyond the aforementioned two would be:
3. Ability to function in a social community.
This is where, unless we take great care and actively seek opportunities for growth, we let our children down. A well-practiced and predisposed superstar scientist, secretary, journalist or any other vocationally gifted person that is not able to understand the social dynamic of the workplace and is unable to relate to others will most likely have great difficulty succeeding in life. Functioning in a social community (meaning any time two or more people are together for any reason) requires a set of social skills that must be developed and practiced. There are some children that have a natural ability to function in a social environment. There are some that can learn these skills with little guidance and minimal practice. However, the overwhelming majority of children can greatly benefit from specific social skill instruction and enhanced/supportive environments in which these skills can be practiced.
Social skills must be taught, reinforced and practiced before they are internalized and performed successfully. The environment in which this is done most efficiently is a social one. These skills cannot be learned effectively in a vacuum from a purely theoretical perspective. Can one learn to fly a plane by simply reading a manual or in a discussion group? There are few environments better suited to teach social skills than residential summer camps!
Camp counselors play a pivotal role in the process of acquiring age appropriate social skills. As campers experience the vast range of activities and social scenarios throughout the course of their day, counselors are able to continue a constant social dialogue. This constant process of providing feedback to campers allows staff to highlight the successful use of social strategies as well as redirect campers if their choices/actions are not appropriate. Critical to this process is the act of identifying successful strategies. All too often, we as adults focus solely on correction of negative behavior. This clearly is not as fun for either children or adults and tends to lead children to think of the learning process as more punitive as opposed to a discovery process.
In a summer camp environment, every aspect of the daily routine can be treated as a vehicle for addressing social development. Furthermore, the potential for exposure to multiple social skill sets is endless. Consider the fact that the patterns and unwritten rules for socialization vary depending on many factors. Size of group, age of participants, coed vs single sex, social activity etc… are just a few of the factors that determine appropriate conduct in social settings. When teaching social skills, this micro-specializing must be taken into consideration and opportunities to practice these various skill sets must be frequent. In a camp setting, with a staff trained to promote social skill development, quiet time in cabins, walking back and forth to activities and meals provide an opportunity for campers of a similar age to reinforce social skills in small group single sex or coed settings. Sporting activities, talent shows, free swims and dances create opportunities for coed groups campers, of all ages to socially interact and hone their social skills in large group setting. When the activities of camp are viewed as opportunities to reinforce social skills, and the actual goal is providing a quality social experience first and exposure to the specific activity second, staff are able to modify each experience to maximize the social potential of the activity. Imagine a physics teacher regularly giving up on lesson plans so that the class can have impromptu discussions related to strategies for dealing with various social scenarios!
The healthy development of our children requires intentional consideration to many factors. Academics, independence, socialization and vocational training are just a few topics that must be addressed to give our children the best foundation on which they can build a meaningful life. Through academic and vocational training/exploration, schools aid students in finding their predispositions to specific skills and foster a desire to excel in these areas of interest. Unfortunately, there is no “Mall of Life” where one stop shopping can provide quality instruction in each critical area and phase of development. Furthermore, there is no doubt that the social aspect of a child’s development is the catalyst that can foster greater degrees of success in each of these developmental factors and I would encourage each and every parent, mentor and educator to consider that perhaps camps can play a meaningful role in this one specific area. Recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, what we can and cannot do is critical to any organization or industry. In the realm of social development, camps can make a difference!