More than s’mores…

February 3rd, 2014

Why do we offer 4-H camping programs?  The main reason is to get kids outdoors where caring, trained adults create a safe environment for high quality educational, recreational, and creative experiences. It’s expensive—but we believe it’s worth the investment. Because we know 4-H camping programs influence campers’ development. The camp “community” setting is a very powerful way to help campers develop social skills—being more independent, confident, resilient, and adept at building friendships—all those things that parents say kids get out of going to camp. Engaging kids in quality educational content helps them to learn about topics they are interested in. And the physical activity of camp can help develop young people’s bodies.

But did you know that camp can have a positive influence on the structure of kids’ developing brains? Dr. Tina Payne Bryson maintains that’s exactly what happens when young people go to camp.

Dr. Bryson was the opening keynote speaker for the national conference of the American Camp Association, held last week in Orlando, FL. She is a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist, co-author of the best-selling book The Whole Brain Child, and, by the way, the mother of 3 children who attend summer camp. In an interview with Bryson published in the January/February issue of Camping magazine, she explained why camp can have such a profound influence on brain development. I’m not going to try to get into the details (you can read the interview), but the bottom line is this: experience changes the architecture of the brain—the actual pathways used as the various parts of the brain communicate with each other in response to a situation. The more often an experience occurs, the stronger the pathway becomes.

The types of situations that campers encounter at camp (overcoming fear, facing challenges, handling emotions, being flexible, being persistent, and having empathy) bring into play the area of the brain located right behind the eyes. And as Bryson noted in the interview, these are pretty much skills needed to have a successful life with good emotional and mental health, and the conscientiousness to make things happen in the world.

Bryson sums this all up by saying “bunks are good for brains.” That’s the first point to remember and to communicate about 4-H camping programs. Camp can have an effect that lasts throughout one’s life. That’s what we have to offer families. And it’s why the significant investment that ISU Extension and Outreach is making in 4-H camping programs can be worth it. But it’s only worth it if in turn significant numbers of youth are impacted by 4-H camping programs.

Spread the word. It’s more than s’mores.