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[The following is an article I wrote for Psychology Today: Disruptive Moments. It is a little less conversational than my normal blogs, but I hope you enjoy it.]

For the past 32 years, I have worked as a summer camp professional.  As a child, camp was one of the definitive developmental experiences of my life.  As a camp director, I have seen a short 2 or 3-week sessions become transformative to a child.  When I applied to graduate school, I wrote about my camp experiences as a seminal experience.

If you know someone who attended camp, you probably wonder what the fuss is all about.  How could a short experience be so much more meaningful than 9 months of school?  You may wonder if your friend is a little delusional.  It does not make sense that 3 weeks for 5 summers could be as powerful as they insist it is.

[Note: if you went to camp, you are likely the person sharing these stories and confusing your friends.]

This article is an effort to explain partially why camp is so impactful.

Put simply, camp helps people improve their personal narrative in a remarkably efficient way.

It starts with our brain.  We are wired to become very attentive to new and unusual experiences.  Do you remember your first kiss?  How about the first time you met your college roommate? I suspect you remember both in great detail.  But do you remember your 20th kiss with the same person or your 15th conversation with your roommate?  I suspect not.

This is because familiar experiences are not threatening.  We know we will survive them because we have already survived them.  But when an entirely new experience occurs, our brain detects a potential threat and lights up and becomes highly focused.  We notice and remember more.  Our brain changes from brick-like to sponge-like.

When we are in this “sponge-state”, we will absorb and retain our memories, feelings and ideas.  The brick is slow to learn.  The sponge is a learning machine.

I call these new and unfamiliar experiences “disruptive moments”.

One of the reasons camp is powerful is because it is full of these new and unique “disruptive moments”:

  • The first time away from home,
  • Meeting an entirely new cabin of friends and counselors,
  • Ascending a 40 foot climbing wall (especially if you have a fear of heights),
  • Seeing a sky full of stars for the first time,
  • Performing in front of people in a skit

Camp has another cool advantage – camp professionals know when these disruptive moments are happening.  They know when a child’s mind is like a sponge.  This knowledge creates an opportunity.

Camp counselors and directors can provide a “powerful message” that combines with these “disruptive moments”.

When a camper’s mind is like a sponge, counselors can make sure that the sponge is absorbing lessons that will help make him/her more capable, confident, competent and successful. 

Let me share an example of combining “disruptive moments” with “powerful messages”.  Imagine a 9 year-old girl with a strong fear of heights approaching a Climbing Wall with great trepidation.  After much encouragement from her counselor, she chooses to climb, setting as her goal the half-way point.  She ascends 25% and becomes nervous, but the cheers of her friends and counselors encouragers her to go halfway.  She is incredibly nervous and is ready to come down when her counselor provides a loving challenge, “can you go one more step?”  The girl climbs “one more step” about 5 times before deciding she is done.  After climbing 75% of the wall (more than her goal fo 50%!), she rappels down and arrives on the ground.  She is shaking and proud.

Clearly, she just had a “disruptive moment” and her brain is like a sponge. 

At this point, the counselor can deliver a message that will have maximum impact.  I will give three different messages  - one common, one horrific and one incredibly powerful.

The common message would be happy and simple, “I am so proud of you!  Great job.  Give me a hug.”  This is what most counselors will say and the camper will remember the climb and the love/acceptance that followed it.  Not bad.

A horrific response would be different.  [Note: I cannot imagine anyone saying the following, but imagine the impact if she did.]  “Wow, I have been here all day long and you are the only person who has failed to reach the top of the wall.”  Words of disappointment like this might make the child believe that she is weaker or less capable than her fellow campers.  This internal narrative would likely stick with her at camp and back home.

Imagine instead the following powerful and validating comment that I actually heard a counselor use in this situation.  “Wow!  I have been here for two days and you are the ONLY camper who went 50% above her goal!  You know, many people never reach their goals.  Those who do reach their goals usually stop.  I think you are one of those rare people who can face a fear and go beyond your goals.  I cannot wait to see what you will be like when you grow up!’

This young girl practically floated around camp for the next week.  She now saw herself differently, not as a girl defined by a fear but a determined individual who can overcome challenges.

By combining enough “disruptive moments” with these “powerful messages”, a quality camp experience can change a camper’s personal narrative.  Every one of us has a personal narrative that helps us interpret the world.  Some people have powerful and effective narratives:

  • Hard work pays off
  • I am likable
  • If you treat people well, they will treat you well
  • I am lucky
  • I can learn new things
  • Inside of every problem is an opportunity

Others have dysfunctional narratives:

  • You cannot trust other people
  • No one likes me
  • Nothing good ever happens to me
  • I am not good at stuff
  • The world is full of problems that I cannot do anything about
  • You have to look out for yourself, no one else will

Once we have a narrative, we tend to hold onto it.  It takes an unusual experience to change these closely held beliefs.  Typically, we do not have many such experiences.

But such experiences are almost common at camp.  The “disruptive moments” happen at predictable times and they are naturally mated to with the right “messages”.

This combination enables camp to create an impact that is disproportional to the time spent there, creating new narratives and strong memories that continue for years.

Steve Sir