Why do we emphasize skill building at camp? I have worked in different disciplines at different camps in different parts of the country – I have attended specialized sports camps & general camps, teen programs & theatre trips. In every case the camp or program placed a great deal of importance on teaching specific skills to the participating children and teens. As any counselor or trip leader will tell you, this is not done expressly for the campers’ enjoyment. Most kids or teens would be much happier to play a game of knockout than to learn how to make a left-handed layup, and similarly most would prefer to paint a subject of their choice rather than working on specific landscape techniques. And as most of these programs are not training the next generation of superstar athletes, Picassos, or a-list actors, why do they bother to emphasize instruction over simple enjoyment?
The answer is simple: because it’s good for the kids.
The Atlantic recently published an interview with Carol Dweck, in which she discusses the differences between two core beliefs: growth mindset and fixed mindset. These two mindsets affect how people handle challenges and obstacles – fixed mindset is “the belief that one’s abilities were carved in stone and predetermined at birth”, and growth mindset is “the belief that one’s skills & qualities can be cultivated through effort and perseverance”. Unsurprisingly, children who exhibit greater degrees of growth mindset are more receptive to challenges, and are more able to psychologically persevere and eventually overcome daunting obstacles.
The emphasis that camps & teen programs place on instruction and skill-building allows children and adolescents to learn to perform skills that might have seemed unattainable. More importantly, it teaches children and adolescents that they can learn to perform daunting tasks, and develop new skills and abilities. This promotes a growth mindset in children, which will only benefit them as they grow and mature. If a child perceives him or herself as un-athletic, but learns how to catch a fly ball, not only will their confidence be bolstered, but their perception of their own abilities may start to shift as well. Similarly, learning all of the steps to a challenging dance routine, improving breaststroke technique during swim, or developing fluent Spanish language skills on an immersion program, are all ways that children or teens can develop a growth mindset during the summer.
Of course, paramount to this development is the presence of quality instructors who will be able to help these children & teens develop skills and increase their confidence levels. If a camp or program does not have a quality baseball or softball instructor, the un-athletic child might never learn to catch a fly ball. Similarly, if the teen on a Spanish program receives inadequate instruction, they may not drastically improve their Spanish.
At this point, negativity might promote a fixed mindset, and excessive praise might promote what Dweck calls a “false-growth mindset” where the child doesn’t actually develop a growth mindset because they don’t actually witness the growth through experience. The difference between false-growth mindset & growth mindset is the difference between an instructor who says “keep trying”, and one who says “make sure you use both hands”. The second instructor promotes growth mindset, because they maximize the possibility that the child will learn to catch the ball, which in turn provides evidence to the child that this ability (and others) can be developed.
The primary goal of most camps & teen programs is the development of the child or teen. This is why instruction is of such paramount importance to the camps & programs that are tasked with this responsibility. Each camp or program may have a different philosophy or focus – a sports camp is not an arts camp, and an adventure trip in Alaska will be very dissimilar to an art history course in Italy. However, no matter the camp or program, they will hopefully be able to teach specific skills to their campers or participants, and help them develop a growth mindset that will serve them well as they continue to develop and mature.