Looking for a Summer Program That Includes Academic Growth for Your Student? Consider a Summer Boarding School Experience

As I read Bunks Are Good for Brains: The Neuroscience of Sleepaway Camp, an interview with Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, I’m struck by what a great combination of camp and school that many summer boarding programs provide in terms of teaching and personal growth. Much of Bryson’s piece speaks to camp professionals, but I think a couple of her answers speak powerfully to the notion of creating a purposeful, engaged, academic, or a least, learning oriented summer for kids.

In most cases – actually I know of no exceptions – summer boarding schools are a balance of camp and school with one of the differentiating factors in choosing a summer boarding program being the tilt of each toward school or camp/recreation.

But, I get ahead myself. Back to Dr. Bryson’s interview. Why camp? What lessons does the camp impart on developing brains?

Your first point is that camp builds the brain?
Right. Bunks are good for brains. All the things that camps and parents say that camp does for kids — promoting independence, confidence, friendship-building, resilience, thriving, character, grit, etc. — these are undoubtedly real outcomes for kids who have quality camp experiences. But why do these outcomes occur? How do these changes happen in short periods of time, and then over years as well? How do we explain this?

…I’ll briefly introduce you to one part of the brain that’s responsible for these skills and character qualities, and show you how it relates to the good, meaningful work that goes on at camp.

I want to introduce you to the middle prefrontal cortex. It’s right behind the forehead and eye sockets and is the front-most part of the frontal lobe. It gives us the ability to do all kinds of important things: regulate our body and emotions, have insight into ourselves and others, feel empathy, communicate in an attuned way, bounce back after failure, adapt to new situations, make thoughtful choices, and overcome fear. That’s pretty much what’s needed for a successful life with good emotional and mental health, meaningful relationships, and the conscientiousness to make things happen in the world.

And camp can help develop that part of the brain?
Whether camps have thought about it in those terms or not, yes. And that’s the exciting part for the camp world: We don’t just influence kids’ minds and help them feel more confident. We actually change the structure of their brains.

Experience changes the brain. And yes, I mean the actual activation and wiring of the brain. Particularly when experiences are emotional, novel, and challenging, the repeated experiences kids have alter the actual architecture of the brain. It’s like a muscle. When it’s used, it grows and strengthens. So, when kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on, it builds this important part of the brain. And by the way, this can happen in even more significant ways when counselors are trained to handle emotional reactivity in campers in ways that reduce reactivity and promote resilience.

But the main thing to know is that when the structure of the brain changes, the function of the brain changes. This means that camps can play a role in how these kids function in the world, and ultimately who they become as adults, even on a neuronal level.

It’s so great that camps that are intentional about all facets of the camper experience and how they train their counselors already inherently provide the kinds of experiences that activate and build this “character” part of the brain. That’s why we can see significant changes in kids who have camp as part of their lives.

So you’re saying that camp aids in this development because of the challenges children face when they’re away from home?
Yes, that’s part of it, but it’s about much more than just the challenges, because kids have lots of challenges in their everyday lives as well. One thing that’s unique about camp experiences is that camp is usually fun, so kids are willing to work harder and tolerate more frustration and setbacks because they’re having a good time doing it, and they’re doing it in the context of relationship. They see their peers pushing through as well, and when staff is well trained, kids have mentors or counselors who are empathic about the struggle, but still encourage them to endure — pushing them to continue to learn and try. Then they face the frustrations and persist through the challenges. This is one way “grit” gets built in the brain.

As Michael Thompson argues in his 2012 New York Times piece Why Camp Counselors Can Out-Parent Parents:

“…College-age students possess a completely different kind of authority than do parents, and they put it to good use getting children to set tables, make beds, keep track of their clothes, take showers, take turns and, more important, take risks and accept challenges that would melt parents into a puddle of anxious empathy. These young adults often teach complex, challenging life-and-death skills: sailing, horseback riding, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and survival techniques. They also teach character and community, caring and sacrifice. And they do it all in an environment free of electronics: summer camp.

Children love to learn, but they get tired of being taught by adults. Children want to learn from older children, and, at a camp that means older campers, C.I.T.’s (counselors in training) and camp counselors. They want to live with them, emulate them, absorb them. In our age-segregated society, camp is the only place in America where an 11-year-old can get the sustained attention of a 19-year-old. In return for the attention of these “older children,” campers will make sacrifices. They will follow all kinds of rules and adhere to all kinds of rituals that they would likely fight at home.

When children return home from camp, parents are amazed. “She is so grown-up,” they observe. “He is so responsible!” a startled father exclaims. “He cleans up after himself.” Another mother, amazed at her child’s growth in only a month, remarks, “He tries so many new foods!”

There’s just no contest between parents and counselors. The college students are vastly better looking than we are; they are truly cool and they have dazzling skills. When children need a summer filled with growth and change (not to mention fun and glory), I tell their parents to give camp a chance.”(NYT)

As hybrids between camp and school, families can find the lasting, life-long benefits of camp and boarding school in summer boarding programs. Like year round boarding school, finding the best summer boarding school for your student involves finding the summer boarding school that provides the environment that will grow your student the most during his/her summer. That might mean a program with a great tilt toward academics, a junior summer boarding school, a single gender summer program…you get the idea.

Learn and explore summer boarding school options

Summer Boarding School Programs Offer Something for Everyone
Summer Boarding Schools

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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