In this economically-challenged era of forced choice, I can see where parents might question whether camp is really essential. We’ve all heard the benchmark measures: experiential education, physical activity, support and encouragement, healthy nutrition…. significant, matchless, and valuable criteria for sure. But there’s more – so much more – that speaks to the development of happy and successful children.

The camp experience centers on a growth mindset, where effort is the cog in the wheel of triumph, suggests researcher Carol Dweck. In contrast, the school environment is centered on a fixed mindset. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s different at camp: the camp culture celebrates the “I can try” mentality. “I can’t do it…yet” instead of “I can’t do it.”

There are no grades, no permanent record to interfere with the feat of effort to master achievement. The experts agree that there is no stronger predictor of happiness than “how robust and positive a child’s village is” - and camp builds that village, fostering intergenerational relationships with peers and role models alike.

Research confirms that the decline of free play itself has caused a waning in sense of control, as well as a rise in anxiety and depression. Peter Gray of Psychology Today explains, “By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own… we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders.”

Extrinsic goals (rooted in other people’s judgments) rather than intrinsic goals (centered on one’s own development as a person) indicate a shift towards materialism in our culture. Studies show that children today feel that happiness depends on good looks, popularity, and material good. Camp, however, is the best demonstration of equality and moral order, because children learn that they are part of something bigger than themselves, that they can solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in the pursuit of their own interests, all while being part of a non-judgmental community that encourages an attitude of personal best.

Gray actually attributes the increase in anxiety and depression to the increased weight given to school! If you accept that hypothesis, then you can see why camp is the perfect antidote to the fixed mindset syndrome.

Dr. Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center has some great questions that parents can ask their children in order to foster a growth mindset. She suggests:

  • Model the growth mindset yourself by finding opportunities to tell your children about a time when you didn’t know the answer to a question.
  • Ask questions about their opportunities for learning and growth in the coming day.
  • Make sure to ask kids about topics other than academics or sports.
  • Talk to kids about their heroes and role models.

Two of my favorite questions to ask campers (which not only advances a growth mindset but also provoke informative answers!) are:

  • What was your favorite activity today?
  • What are you looking forward to tomorrow?

If the idea of a growth mindset, promoting motivation and productivity, resonates with you – and you agree that social connections are paramount – I have two things to recommend: make camp a financial priority and read Christine Carter’s new book, “Raising Happiness.”