This Is Your Brain…at Camp
A couple of weeks ago over a thousand people gathered in Orlando to hear about neurons, synapses, and pre-frontal cortexes. There were discussions of how the brain works, how it changes, and how to influence its growth. It wasn’t, however, a meeting of neuroscientists. Instead it was the annual American Camp Association National Conference. Camp professionals, including more than 20 United Methodist camp colleagues, spent four days exploring a wide range of topics related to camp leadership. A central theme heard frequently at the conference was the growing importance of brain research.
Over the past decade research on how the brain functions has exploded, driven primarily by advances in technology. Researchers have been able to map the brain and gain valuable insight into how it works. This new knowledge is having a profound impact in a number of fields including child development, education, and training. New strategies are rapidly emerging to take advantage of this new knowledge.
At this year’s ACA conference, camp professionals were challenged to begin integrating the new insights on the brain into their work. Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, co-author of The Whole-Brain Child, shared the importance of moving beyond the traditional either/or approach to left- and right-brain thinking to adopting strategies for integrating these two different, but complementary areas of the brain. She also provided strategies for promoting the development of the critically important pre-frontal cortex in campers.
This summer we’ll be looking at integrating Bryson’s work on left brain/right brain thinking into how we do Bible study. We’ll be working to ensure that we engage both the logical left brain and the emotional right brain in how we present and how we discuss the stories from the Bible that we use to support our theme. We want to create a more holistic approach that fully utilizes the entire brain.
Bryson also highlighted new research showing the direct link between the development of resilience in youth and two important aspects of camp, strong relationships and reflecting on experience. Several camps are now highlighting this research in their promotional materials targeted at parents. Parents looking for opportunities to help their kids grow need to hear the message that the relationships that camp fosters and the reflection-based, experiential model we use build resilience and grit. Measures of resilience and grit correlate strongly with success. “Look, parents, at the ways camp can help your kids succeed!”
Other conference sessions applied brain research to working with staff. New strategies integrating brain research are being implemented at all levels of the education system and are finding their way into how organizations are training their employees. These new brain-based strategies offer opportunities for camp leaders to significantly improve their training. Using the growing body of knowledge of how the brain learns, camps can accelerate learning, improve the retention of content, and increase the likelihood staff will use what they’ve learned. Knowing that the operation of the brain is all about connections, researchers now believe that linking new ideas to previous knowledge is critical to learning. As we prepare for staff training we’re planning to be very intentional in helping staff make these connections. Each time we present a new concept, our goal will be to link it either to something we’ve already covered or to knowledge that staff members obtained through life experiences outside of camp. We want to help staff members understand and retain new material by creating connections between the new and what they already know.
Brain based research is also suggesting new approaches to leading summer camp staff. As the understanding of how the brain works evolves, new insights into how to communicate with and motivate staff are emerging. Strategies for coaching and mentoring staff are being adapted to the new understanding of how staff process feedback and change their behavior.
Over the next several years, camp professionals will likely see an increasing number of opportunities to learn more about brain-based approaches to working with both campers and staff. In addition, a number of resources are under development to provide hands-on strategies for using the new insights into the brain at camp. Camp staff can find some great resources on how brain research is changing approaches to teaching (both campers and staff) on-line at web sites such as Edutopia.
Adopting brain-based strategies at camp offers the opportunity to strengthen the positive impact of the camp experience on both campers and staff. These strategies don’t require us to fundamentally change who we are or what we do. They just help us understand campers and staff (and ourselves) in a way that allows us to tweak what we do to be more effective. It’s an exciting time as we take this new cutting edge knowledge and find ways to use it to help us be more effective in our ministries.
John Erdman is the Director of Camp Wesley Woods, a ministry of the Holston Annual Conference, located in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. John has also served as the director of faith based camps in New Hampshire and Ohio. Prior to moving into full time camp ministry, John worked in training and leadership development positions in corporate, higher education, and government settings.