written on Feb 28, 2022 by Anna Gerson

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which individuals can acquire and practice the skills, understanding and attitudes that help them to understand and manage their emotions, feel and show empathy, build and maintain positive relationships, work towards goals and make responsible choices. It is easy to see how this learning helps set children and youth up for a bright future - and create a brighter, more connected world. At camp, we have the wonderful opportunity to guide and support campers as they build positive relationships with their peers. It is so empowering for children to learn to live respectfully and have fun with a group of new cabin-mates! Counsellors and coaches help campers to feel heard, help them identify their emotions and manage those emotions in healthy and helpful ways. With such a close, caring, connected environment at camp, there are constant opportunities for campers to practice and hone their developing skills in a supportive space - and to feel valued as a contributing member of that community. That experience can have such a powerful impact on building a positive sense of self.

I didn’t grow up going to summer camp, so I first experienced the ‘magic’ of overnight camp as a camp counsellor at Canadian Adventure Camp. Throughout my teenage years I had many jobs and experiences working with children as a tutor, volunteer and leader. I had built trusting, supportive relationships with individuals and groups of children, but there was something different about overnight camp. I was blown away by the power of the community to make such a difference in a very short period of time. Children and staff formed deep connections in just a few weeks, and left as more confident, competent people. It was amazing to see! Camp provides the chance for micro moments to build momentum: we greet our new campers by name, make eye contact and immediately begin learning about them; we play games to help cabin-mates learn about each other; we make sure that everyone feels welcome and valued; we co-create agreements to live by in our cabins; we encourage each other to try something new; we set goals and congratulate each other when we achieve our goals; we demonstrate acceptance… Before long campers and staff feel safe enough to be themselves and know that they will be supported as they get to know themselves better and in turn connect more positively with others.

I now understand that this camp magic is actually the result of intentional social and emotional learning. I might have made it sound a lot less magical, but this understanding for me has made it much easier to purposefully apply, train staff to skillfully apply and share with camper families. Knowing what the magic is does not make it feel any less magical, in fact it allows us to make even more magical moments. It brings me a huge sense of purpose and joy to know that even in a few short summer weeks our camp community can help develop happier, more ‘successful’ and fulfilled people.