True Grit

Experts agree that summer camp builds tenacity, resilience and grit


Resilience is “the capacity to rise above difficult circumstances, allowing our children to exist in this less-than-perfect world, while moving forward with optimism and confidence,” says Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and author of the groundbreaking book, “Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings”. Penn psychologist and professor Angela Duckworth, CEO of Character Lab and the world’s leading expert on grit, defines what she calls the secret to outstanding achievement in the title of her bestselling book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”. While both resilience and grit are now highly valued by parents and educators alike, the question of how to develop these character traits in children is an ongoing source of research and debate. 

Michael Ungar, PhD, co-director of Dalhousie University’s Resilience Research Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is one of the many experts who credit summer camps for producing positive outcomes that include building resilience. “Camps immunize children against adversity by giving them manageable amounts of stress and the support they need to learn how to cope effectively. The better a child succeeds at finding the experiences that bolster his well-being, the better he will be able to cope with life stressors,” says Ungar.

At Elbow Lane Day Camp in Warrington, Pa., directors Bob Lester and Adrian Hazell have seen how camp helped children cope with the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19. Elbow Lane was one of the few camps that opened during the pandemic in the summer of 2020, strictly following guidance from state and federal agencies. “We totally rewrote our policies and procedures so that we could offer the safest opportunity for our campers to not just survive the summer, but to thrive every day,” says Lester. “We did our best, but we could not predict how the season would feel, until the first day when we saw the happy faces (even through their masks). After three months at home in virtual school and on the computer for hours a day, socially isolated with minimal opportunity for outside play – they needed camp!  Their excitement bubbled every morning.  Their resiliency was evident as they bounced back from time sequestered at home. Camp was here, swimming was here, sports, crafts, and ceramics were here, archery, nature and adventure was here, but most importantly friends and new friends were here at camp.”

Hazell adds, “COVID-19 made us change everything—arrivals, schedules, program offerings, how we ate—but the campers adapted and showed remarkable flexibility. They grasped the concept that this virus thing was serious. They embraced our adaptations and procedures. They understood that in order to continue the things that made their camp summers so rewarding and fun, and remain safe, they had to make changes, too.”

To build resilience in children, parents need to practice letting go — a practice made easier when you know your children are protected. Because summer camps create communities where children are supported by nurturing adults, camps are well-positioned to help kids of any age develop grit and resilience skills. Traditional summer camps give kids the freedom to encounter success and failure on their own, in a safe environment where they can learn from their experiences, and where the focus is on the effort instead of the “win.” No matter your skill level at any given activity, you can’t fail summer camp.

“In any summer camp season, the opportunity is there to practice perseverance and tenacity in the numerous, fun, safe activities that the days encompass,” says Hazell. “During a pandemic, the ability to bounce back is tested even more, but in the non-threatening, challenging, creative environment of a summer camp, the chance to try new things, with little fear of failure, leads to success and growth.”

Ellen Warren is Coordinator of the Bucks Camp Expo.

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