SEL Skill-Building at Summer Camp

May 14, 2024
Dave Brown
Fence Post Learning
SEL Skill-Building at Summer Camp

Years ago, during staff training at my camp, a staff member recalled a story of herself as a young camper. She had been physically uncoordinated as a child, which negatively affected her self-worth and social confidence. One day at camp, her cabin group went for a hike in a creek, which required lots of balancing and hopping from one boulder to the next. She reluctantly made it through the hike, feeling anxious and unimpressed with herself, and moved on with the rest of her day without thinking much of it. That night, before lights out in her cabin, her counselor came to her bunk and said something to the effect of, “Remember today on the hike? I know you didn’t love that, but I saw you challenging yourself and not giving up. I’m really proud of you for that. It shows what a strong person you are.”

It wasn’t the hiking experience that made a difference for this young woman. It was the moment of reflection, when her role model shined a light on the perseverance that almost went unnoticed. From that moment on, she carried a new understanding of who she was and what she might be capable of. Now, she is that role model for her campers.

At its best, high-quality summer camp is a truly inspirational environment for social and emotional skill development. Camps in America serve 26 million kids each summer, and for families who have the opportunity to send their kids to camp, there are clear benefits. Camp offers supervision so parents and caregivers can work. Camp offers fun activities so kids can enjoy a break from school. And many camps are specialized, building specific skills such as art, music, sports, outdoor adventure, STEM, and myriad others. 

These benefits are real, and they matter. But the most valuable benefit of a high-quality camp experience for kids is social and emotional learning (SEL). Considering the power of SEL to improve well-being for kids, and the uniquely rich SEL environment that camps provide, I believe that parents, educators, and all adults supporting youth development should be working to make a great camp experience part of every child’s life.

The Power of SEL

The power and benefit of SEL skills have been well documented, not just for youth development, but across all stages and settings of life.

Denise Pope, PhD, cofounder of Challenge Success, wrote with Lisa Westrich in an American Camp Association (ACA) blog post (Westrich & Pope, 2018):

We know from existing research that social and emotional skills are critical to young people’s academic success, and that children must have the opportunity to practice and develop SEL skills such as empathy, perseverance, and collaboration, in order to thrive in careers, in family, and in community as adults.

Furthermore, research has shown that SEL skills are associated with youth well-being and increased positive developmental trajectories, regardless of race, socioeconomic background, or location (Taylor et al., 2017).

In light of our current youth mental health crisis, and the fact that marginalized groups have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, SEL at camp is an opportunity to support youth well-being across academics, mental health, and social relationships. SEL builds resilience to buffer against stressors, past, present, and future.

How Does Camp Promote SEL?

Pope and Westrich (2018) also wrote:

. . . Effective learning environments are ones where kids have a sense of physical and emotional well-being, a strong sense of belonging, and are engaged—affectively (interest, fun, enthusiasm), behaviorally (active participation), and cognitively (reflecting, making choices, having opportunities to give input).

ACA’s own research division backs this up through camp-specific studies on program quality and outcomes, demonstrating that when camps provide the right environment and opportunities for campers, they develop critical SEL skills.

Long before SEL was defined and researched as such, high-quality summer camps were offering experiences for youth based on these elements. For over 100 years, the foundation of great camps has been safety, community, belonging, and growth. Now that we have the research, language, and structure to understand the unique power and potential of the summer camp environment, the entire camp industry has the opportunity to amplify SEL skill development for youth. This happens through program design, staff training, quality assurance, and research, from the smallest local camp up to the national level, with ACA.

How do camps build SEL skills in youth?

  • Physical and emotional safety: Camps manage physical hazards to minimize the potential for injury during activities and train staff to monitor camper safety. Camps intentionally foster cultures of growth and belonging, putting practices in place so campers feel accepted for who they are and included in the community.
  • Strong, supportive, and connected relationships with peers and adults: Camps promote interpersonal connection, building friendships between individuals, within small groups, and as a whole community. Camp staff are trained to be positive mentors for campers, while simultaneously setting appropriate, professional boundaries to keep everyone safe.
  • Activities that are engaging and fun: Activities, both structured and unstructured, spark enthusiasm, joy, and offer opportunities to try new things and welcome new experiences.
  • Structure and positive social norms: Camp programs often have daily schedules and structures that support campers to be independent from home, family, and school, but to also feel supported and safe. This allows campers to step out of their comfort zone and into the “challenge zone,” where personal growth is most powerful. Camp staff set expectations and limits to guide and encourage positive behaviors and social interactions.
  • Opportunities for engagement, practice, and reflection: Camp provides constant opportunities for campers to practice skills. Not just the “hard skills” of the activity, such as archery, sports, or arts and crafts, but the SEL skills of cooperation, communication, perseverance, and emotion regulation. Camp staff model SEL skills, demonstrating attitudes and behaviors such as having a growth mindset and supporting others. After an activity is finished, campers reflect on how it went, what they learned, and how that might benefit them in the future—helping kids raise awareness of their strengths and their growth.

Camp has always had the foundational SEL elements, but with so many external stressors weighing on kids these days, I believe that summer camp should not be seen as a luxury; it should be seen as an antidote. For too long, the summer camp experience has been out of reach for many American families. May we marshal the resources necessary to offer all kids this valuable opportunity for well-being and growth. The potential benefits are limitless.


CASEL. (2023). What is the CASEL framework?

Westrich, L. & Pope, D. (2018, March 13). Summer camp: A unique environment for social and emotional learning. American Camp Association.

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, Vol. 88 Issue 4.

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

Dave Brown is a licensed clinical social worker and camp director. He is a member of the American Camp Association and a frequent collaborator on projects regarding youth mental health, well-being, and SEL. He works for Mountain Camp, an ACA-accredited residential camp near Lake Tahoe, California. Outside of camp, he runs Fence Post Learning, an online staff training resource for camps and youth development organizations. He can be found at


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