SEL & Summer Camp – Part 2

We’re continuing our conversation with social and emotional learning (SEL) expert, Jennifer S. Miller. She’s the author and illustrator of the Confident Parents, Confident Kids blog and she’s sharing tips on how to incorporate SEL in the summer camp experience.

LN:  Summer is right around the corner and many children will be attending summer camps and programs. What can these programs do to incorporate SEL in their activities?

JSM:  Summer camps and programs offer a unique opportunity to advance children’s social and emotional skills because of the spirit of exploration and fun that are expected to accompany the summer sunshine. Staff can:

  • Explore ways to play daily name games,
  • Offer regular personal sharing opportunities,
  • Play cooperative games offering ways to deepen trusting connections between, and among children and staff and to exercise teamwork and collaboration skills.

Some camps bring kids together from a variety of neighborhoods, offering them a chance to deepen their social awareness and relationship skills as they form new friendships and experiences through socialization with others they may not normally encounter in their own schools and neighborhoods. Exploring nature is another opportunity to build empathy. Staff can lead studies of trees, plants, and animals and how best to care for, and become, stewards for the environment.

One study compared a group of preteens who spent five days in nature with no screen time with a demographically similar group of preteens at home who engaged in regular activities including daily screen time. That study showed that the children who spent the time in nature after only five days were more skilled at taking social cues including nonverbals and understanding each other’s emotions. That short time spent with peers in nature enhanced their abilities to connect and communicate with one another.

Study Reference: Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., Greenfield, P. M., (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387-392.

And what about the big feelings that happen at summer camp — for both campers and staff members alike? There will be skinned knees and hurt feelings. So instead of merely packing a first-aid kit, why not plan for those big feelings? Questions to keep in mind…

Is there a comforting-spot where campers can choose to go when they feel upset and need some time to calm down?
Is there a buddy plan between camp staff in which one staff member who is frustrated can call on their buddy to take over while they take a moment to calm down?

Planning ahead for the big feelings that happen when we are working with children is not a sign of weakness but of strength. We’ll be ready to respond with our best, most emotionally intelligent selves in those tough moments. Introduce campers to those plans so that they are aware in advance and can build their self-management skills by self-selecting the calm down spot and taking care of their needs.

LN:  Can SEL be incorporated in to play (playtime)? If so, what are your suggestions for doing so?

JSM:  The mere setting of a collaborative goal with children helps set a mindset for teamwork. The same is true for competition, if that goal is set by adults. So why not build the ability to work together by reflecting on what collaboration looks like in play and setting a goal for it? Then, when playtime is over, reflect on what they did well and what they could improve upon for next time. Play naturally involves the building of social and emotional skills so while children are playing – aside from providing imaginative tools and toys and a safe environment – staff can stand back and let children do their thing.


Jennifer S. Miller, SEL expert and author of Confident Parents, Confident Kids blog.

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