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Jeff Brown, Psy.D., ABPP
Jeff Brown Psy.D., ABPP

Birdhouses or Brains: What is Your Kid Going to Build at Summer Camp?

Is your kid's summer camp brain friendly?

Bug spray, swimsuits hanging on clotheslines between cabins, the chirp and clatter of campfire songs and painful homesickness that eventually turns to camaraderie. I still recall my own time at summer sleep-away camp: The wooden rafters above my squeaky bunk bed, names and dates carved by campers who'd survived before me. I bet the bottom of the old concrete swimming pool is as rough as it ever was and that Mosquito Bite Trail is still slick and slippery after an afternoon rainstorm.

For kids, summer camp is something to look forward to all year long. Diving off the dock, trying new sports and venturing deeply into unknown woods certainly whet the appetite for independence. For parents, it's an opportunity to give their kids wonderful learning experiences and a break from routine. While most summer camps provide the opportunity for physical activity and a timeless shared experience, finding a camp that provides the right environment for developing brains and growing minds might take a little more digging than the picture on the front of a camp brochure first suggests.

Here are five tips for spotting a brain-friendly summer camp for your child:

Check out the dining-hall menu. For a healthy brain, it should include fresh, leafy vegetables and fruits. Some fish to get plenty of Omega fats is a good idea, too. (Maybe your child will get to catch his own dinner?) A recent study at the Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics in Washington, D.C. once again highlighted the importance of Omega-3 fatty acids in maintaining healthy brains. It's a bonus if the dining staff educates their charges about what they should be eating, or offers the chance to do some gardening. It's never too early for kids to learn that what they feed themselves goes straight to their brains. Be sure to check out what's offered at the afternoon snack bar to ensure there are healthy options like fresh juices, veggies, fruit and high fiber whole grains. Just in case, you can always tuck some brain boosting snacks in their duffle bags. Nuts and dried berries will do the trick--plus your kid will fit right in with the chipmunks.

Do the lights really go out @ 9 PM? Even though late-night cabin raids are fun, a 2009 study from Harvard Medical School reinforces the conclusion that good sleep is critical to learning and memory consolidation-especially for kids. The kid who stays up too late on Tuesday night won't be a happy camper on Wednesday morning. (Haven't you always wondered where that term came from?) By bedtime, your child should be physically tired from good aerobic exercise. Exercise releases growth factors that are critical for forming new synaptic connections, and the sleep that follows helps consolidate the memories your kid is creating. Learning, memory and positive experience won't be optimized until sleep is prioritized. Helping kids establish a bedtime routine at home that they can also use at camp is a good way of teaching the importance of quality rest year round.

How is the curriculum different from last year? If your child is an alumnus of a camp, the routine may be very familiar from year to year. How many bird houses do you really need, right? While tradition is important and a refresher on the camp cheer is essential, it's a reasonable expectation that your child will be introduced to new, novel experiences. While your child has probably been using memory tricks to regurgitate facts and formulas in school, it's now time to build a proactive brain. Neuroscientists such as Harvard Medical School's Moshe Bar have shown that the brain is capable of applying life experiences to successfully and efficiently navigate future experiences and dilemmas. Providing a variety of new and stimulating experiences is exactly what the brain needs to accommodate future challenges. If your camp offers alternatives like learning to play a musical instrument, let your child experiment. While brain researchers have long suspected the powerful effects of music, current research suggests that actively participating in music provides greater benefits than passive listening. So find a camp that encourages your kid to ditch the headphones and take a go at a new instrument instead.

Do the counselors give honest, constructive criticism when it comes to skill-building? Whether singing, acting, macramé or taking aim at an archery bull's-eye for the first time, your kid is going to need helpful guidance. Neuroimaging studies have shown that the brain is able to learn more efficiently when it's provided with reliable feedback, e.g., when the counselor isn't handing out false praise like bug bite kits. Your camp tuition is going toward helping your child learn proficiencies and develop new interests, not toward a pay-for-praise model centered on shallow "atta boys and atta girls." Positive, age-specific guidance and encouragement is critical for learning, and when well-timed, can help a kid through a moment of frustration or self-doubt. More importantly, though, is the mastery of skill to a level where a kid can eventually feel competent. By the way, watch for a low counselor-to-camper ratio. Why? Not because your child will get more attention from a leader, but because that makes it more likely they will develop closer relationships necessary for building trust and intimacy.

What about nature? Marc Berman and colleagues at the University of Michigan suggested in 2009 that attention is positively influenced and restored when communing with nature. Hiking, tide pool explorations, river rafting or star gazing shouldn't be a tall order to fill, and will be exactly what the brain is looking for (and a brain-friendly camp will have safety headgear ready for the risky stuff, too.) What can this mean for parents? According to Berman, attention is also restored by viewing images of nature. So regularly clicking through the pictures posted to your kid's camp website or changing your own screensaver to a favorite outdoor pic will do you some good, too. I changed mine last week.

If you're interested in more strategies for building a better brain, I encourage you to pick up The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success which I co-authored with Mark Fenske, Ph.D. Be sure to join the Facebook Fan Page here or watch an ABC News clip about The Winner's Brain here. I'd also like to know what other efforts your kid's summer camp is doing to prioritize brain power? Share your ideas here or on our Facebook fan page. Enjoy your summer!

About the Author
Jeff Brown, Psy.D., ABPP

Jeff Brown, Psy.D., is co-author of The Winner’s Brain.

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