Camp Harlam: An Exercise for the Body, Soul, and Brain

by Lori Zlotoff

Those of us who have had the great privilege to go away and work at a sleepaway camp as a grown-up get a unique window into just what the heck in going on all summer when you send your kids away to camp. And from my perspective as a parent and a clinical social worker, I can tell you that it is much more than having fun. Just by being away from home, campers live in an environment that is literally surrounded and enveloped by peer relationships. Campers and counselors are challenged to stretch, grow, and exercise their brains in a way that would not be possible while living at home. Campers learn to be self-reliant and independent, making decisions and regulating their emotions all on their own. This type of growth is excellent exercise for brain development. If we didn’t need another good reason to send our children to camp for the summer, we can include “it’s good for their brains!” to the list.

Lori's daughters, Abigail and Liza (left to right) expand their brains at camp, with staff member Amy Zuckerman.

Lori’s daughters, Abigail and Liza (left to right) expand their brains at camp, with staff member Amy Zuckerman.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, the keynote speaker at the upcoming American Camping Association (ACA) National Conference shares her perspective in an interview conducted for the ACA website. Dr. Bryson confirms what we know to be true at Camp Harlam: when counselors are in tune with their campers and their emotions, and help them build resiliency, both the counselor and camper are exercising a part of their brain called the “middle prefrontal cortex.” According to Dr. Bryson, “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.”

At Camp Harlam, the professional staff are committed to training and supporting the counselors on keeping the campers safe – both physically and emotionally. When kids feel secure and protected in their environments, they are able to engage themselves socially.   Relationships with peers and counselors are a buffer for homesickness and the other stressors that prevents kids from fully engaging themselves at camp. Counselors are constantly striving to be the best they can be, and camp is committed to supporting that growth and development. All of that ultimately means that every camper is getting the care and attention they need to be able to fully develop their brains while at camp.  So when your kids come home from their session exhausted and sleep for a week, know that they are resting their bodies and minds from all of the vigorous exercise they got while they were at Camp Harlam!

Lori Zlotoff, LCSW, is a Social Worker with the FEGS Health and Human Services System and the Mothers’ Center of Southwest Nassau. She spent the last two summers working at Camp Harlam as a member of our Camper Care team.

 

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