While the academic year holds ample opportunity for what are commonly referred to as “the three R’s” of reading, writing and arithmetic, time at a summer camp offers different – and unique – experiential learning opportunities for children and teens. 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 young minds!
No doubt the rigors of school bring about a palpable need for de-stressing come summer break. And the kids know it. In fact, according to a study done by the American Psychological Association, many young people say that their level of stress during the school year exceeds what even they believe to be healthy.
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. And when it comes to mood disorders, it’s often a small skip and a jump from anxiety to its close cousin depression.
In a January 2016 New York Times article, Vicki Abeles, author of the book “Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation,” revealed that more than half of secondary school students tested (54 percent) exhibited “moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.”
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.
Although the daily routines of campers are 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.’”
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.” He has identified nine elements that, in combination, create the necessary conditions for flow.
- There are clear goals every step of the way – you know exactly what to do next.
- There is immediate feedback to one’s actions – when you’re in flow, you can tell how well you’re doing.
- 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.
- Action and awareness are merged – you’re concentrating completely on what you’re doing.
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness – you’re so absorbed in the activity that you’re not aware of other things.
- There is no worry of failure – you’re too involved to worry about failing; you know what to do and just do it.
- Self-consciousness disappears – you’re not thinking about yourself or protecting your ego because you’re too wrapped up in the task at hand.
- 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.
- The activity becomes an end in itself – rather than a means to an end.
Sounds to me like a summer camp experience far removed from the fast lane.
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 to young fingertips, the most prevalent are smartphones, according to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
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 2015 national conference of the American Camp Association. Or, in youth parlance, “fear of missing out” – or FoMO for short.
Not surprisingly, there is a growing consensus that all of this connectedness may be 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 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.”
This summer, camps across the country are providing a remedy to the addiction that is the overreliance on technology. How? By stressing real relationships in real time and an almost singular focus on community, which, by and large, does not typically permit broad access to technology by the campers.
Madeleine McArdle, a veteran camper and counselor and a student at Dartmouth College, explains, “Because camps tend to remain primarily technology-free zones, everyone is able 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), 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 days at home addicted to technology.”
Similarly, Jesse Bajaj, another student member on the CARE board and a rising senior 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 enjoy doing fun activities together. It’s a sort of alternate universe where it doesn’t matter where you’re from 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.”
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.
In truth, young people 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.” 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.
For campers having emerged from school, camp may be serving 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.
Just imagine … millions of untethered minds finding the time and space for recharging, reconnecting and reflecting at summer camp. Right now.
Reprinted in part from an article in the May/June 2016 Camping Magazine, by permission of the American Camp Association; copyright 2016 by the American Camping Association, Inc.