Director’s Commentary 2016: How Camp Builds Grit

Annual Director’s Commentary: How Camp Builds Grit
By Rob Wipfler

A popular buzzword in education these days is “grit”. The theory, proposed by researcher and author Angela Duckworth, states that perseverance and passion towards one’s goals –grit– is more of a determining factor for success than is raw talent. And the good news: grit can be cultivated, or strengthened like a muscle group on a good exercise regimen.

In our annual post camp commentary, we explore some of the approaches Kingswood Camp takes in promoting grit.

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Find and Fuel Passions

According to Duckworth, the first step in building grit is to find and fuel passion. She tells parents: Let go of what you want for your children and watch for what they care most about. Then, simply support their enthusiasm.

It is easy to see this phenomenon at work during Kingswood’s morning clinics, certification process, and supervised free time- arenas that often spark a child’s genuine interest in the activity at hand. Here’s how it works:

Each week, boys get to choose three morning clinics from a wide menu of options- everything from waterskiing to rugby to guitar. Gone are potential pressures from home: the push from mom and dad to get ahead of the pack along with the tension on the child for desiring to belong to the pack.  At camp, boys are attracted to activities that are well presented and have a reputation for being spirited, fast-paced, and fun.

Clinics at camp are about trying new things and enjoying the moment- there’s no test at the end and no one cares if at first campers do not succeed.  A week’s worth of daily one-hour clinics is usually more than enough to spark an interest in an activity and give a youngster the basic skill set he needs to pursue that interest to a higher level of proficiency. Boys quickly realize that they are in a supportive and low-risk environment where they feel safe regardless of outcomes.

Many clinics culminate with a camper becoming “certified,” which qualifies him to practice that activity on his own during supervised free time. Example: windsurfing. A certified boy can check out a windsurfer during open waterfront every day if the spirit moves him. And here’s the catch: independent time is when boys really get good at something- when they are “playing” with their activity on their own. Sure, that novice windsurfer fails here and there- maybe falling off the board or steering way off course downwind- but eventually he figures out how to readjust his stance on the board and soon he reaches a new plateau of skill.

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The satisfaction and confidence that comes with this improvement drives the boy to come back and “play” some more and the cycle continues. The Kingswood staff feels that is only a matter of time until every boy discovers at least one activity that blossoms into more than just a passing interest. Plus, the process is genuine and organic, factors which often lead to the interest growing into a full-blown passion.

Expand Comfort Zones

Youth is the time to expand comfort zones- before the fault lines of adulthood set in. Comfort zones at home may include a static peer group all through elementary and middle school, neighborhood friends, fellow members of sport teams, and even a comfortable bedroom to which he can retreat. Let’s not even get started on the magnetic draw of computer or cell phone screens as comfortable places for escape! Yes, it’s important to have consistency and creature comfort- but success in the familiar confines of home is not a good predictor of success in an environment like, say, college. Again, enter camp to provide an experience where social dynamics are new and the scaffolding of parental support is not as evident. Camp is a place to gain experience with new peer groups, to develop flexibility and stamina, to be exposed to new potential interests, and to learn basic skills not likely to be offered elsewhere.

Learn to Tolerate Some Discomfort

Another way to develop grit is to learn to tolerate discomfort. Parents, obviously, don’t want to intentionally manufacture discomfort so that children can grow their grit- that would be completely counter to parental instincts. However, to find a safe, nurturing environment where children naturally encounter a bit of situational discomfort- and where this temporary hardship inevitably is tolerated successfully- is a great strategy to help kids mature. Going to camp is one way to present a child this challenge.

Situational discomfort varies for each boy according to his age, temperament, physique, and experience. A young camper learns to tolerate swimming in lake water that is cooler than he has experienced before; his arms get tired while canoeing across the lake; or even the task of making his bed and organizing his clothes is a new challenge. An older, more experienced camper chooses a three-day trek over the Northeast’s highest peaks, carrying a heavy backpack loaded with supplies for the group, pushing his stamina to new levels, all the while dealing with unpredictable weather.

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At Kingswood we have learned that many young campers return home after camp a bit more independent- and they even keep their rooms a bit cleaner too; the older campers recount hiking trips as epic adventures where hardship was conquered and they are among the heroes.

Another kind of discomfort is emotional. At Kingswood we want every camper to feel like camp is his home away from home; each boy’s physical and emotional safety is central to our mission. Emotional discomfort is not at all tolerated by the camp when wrong has been done to the child, but learning to cope with a bit of unhappiness or distress can be an extremely important life experience when it is an appropriate challenge and is conquered by the child.

A great example of emotional discomfort is homesickness- an area where we help boys succeed to some degree about 99.9% of the time. In fact, homesickness is often a camper’s first opportunity to develop grit. The easiest thing to do at the onset of homesickness would be to quit and go home. But campers learn to persevere, and eventually they overcome this initial emotional response to being away from the nest. This gives them the confidence to expand their comfort zones in the future. Another example is the forging of friendships in a community where at first a boy knows no one. Sleeping in a strange bed, eating new foods, trying a new activity where a guy has to put himself out there as a novice – all help to strengthen emotional grit.

Counselors are trained to be supportive, engaged, and empathetic, without immediately swooping in to completely eliminate any camper’s discomfort. In fact, when struggling campers are insulated rather than having to face the challenges of camp, they become conditioned to being saved by others, and in turn they lose a little faith in themselves. On top of being uncomfortable, they now feel incompetent.  At Kingswood, we are not guilty of over-protecting our boys and we do, indeed, look forward to parents’ reporting of miraculously cleaned rooms and the spinning of heroic tales!

Celebrate Genuine Progress

This generation has been called the “praise generation” because current vogue suggests that children need to feel good about themselves as the starting point towards accomplishment.  Fair enough, but at Kingswood we insist that some strategy is involved. We assure our novice canoeists that the fun is in the trying; we urge boys to pretend the cold lake is a warm bathtub; we tell our young mountaineers that “Kingswood hikes with a swagger,” meaning that we collectively agree beforehand not to complain or whine. We also acknowledge to the boys that learning is a process- one where failure is expected at points along the way in the journey towards success.

Then, once measurable headway has been achieved, we commemorate the actions as the big deal they really are. The Kingswood name for these public recognitions of success is “kudos” which are usually given the in the dining hall during announcement time after meals or at evening campfires. Just about all kudos highlight situations where campers impressed the staff with their grit: a camper who passes the swim test after weeks of practice; the waterskier that fell four times but got up his fifth try, campers who endured an especially cold morning for the Polar Bear swim; a hike which encountered inclement weather but powered through triumphantly, etc. In so doing, we recognize the temporary situational and emotional discomfort experienced along the way and herald the perseverance used to overcome them.

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By helping children find and fuel their passions, expand comfort zones, learn to tolerate some discomfort and celebrate genuine progress, the adults in their lives are providing the scaffolding, and environment that build grit.  Armed with grit, youngsters have a huge leg up on success. And, here’s the icing on the cake-  boys at camp are usually having so much fun in the process that they are scarcely aware of the resolve and fortitude blossoming within them. What a win-win for all! What could be better than that?