How does Camp Impact the Adolescent Brain? Hear from John Tilley

So how can just a couple of weeks of summer camp change a person’s brain?

In 2023, 96% of campers and staff positively reported feeling supported, accepted and cared for. This wasn’t the first time we tried to measure friendships at Camp. Relationships at Coniston have been measured several times beginning in 2003, always with similar results.

Meanwhile, the human brain is wired through interactions with other people. Put in another way, the relationships we have create the brains we develop. In the longest running study of human lifespans which has more than 85 years of data, it was proven that positive relationships keep us happier, healthier and help us live longer. Yes, you heard that right. Relationships help us live longer. More than career achievement, money, exercise and even a healthy diet.

Numerous studies actually point to similar conclusions. And when you combine this research with the knowledge of the reported state of mental health and loneliness in society, the role of Camp comes into a much sharper focus.

Let’s talk a little bit more about the brain and Camp. Campers and staff both cite overwhelming feelings of support, acceptance and care while and after their Camp experience. This positions us to play an outsized role in the adults participants become. This is a bold thing, but again it is based on the scientific consensus that brains are literally wired through the relationships we make.

Here’s how it works: Because Camp is fun, because campers feel supportive, because the culture is based on respect, campers and staff are in a space where they learn about and learn how to be themselves. Now this can sound trite but it’s the basis of being a healthy, thriving adult.

Developmentally as a person works to hone a self-identity, works on being themselves, that identity is used to express their differences and value to a group. Many young people try different versions of themselves and being in a place where you feel supported and protected is a key component in making those choices.

The safety and support cited at Camp allows children to take healthy risks with manageable stress, which is important in learning resilience. This casts a completely different light on a child making it through homesickness, overcoming a fear of water, spiders or even the dark.

Alternatively, if a child is constantly living in threatening or unsafe situations, the brain will be wired in a different manner due to toxic stress. However, even in that case it was noted that continuous positive experiences rewire negative experiences. Again, through good relationships.

One more thing. There are few places outside of Camp where an adolescent gets to hang out and share time with positive college-aged mentors. This staff-camper or near-peer relationship is another key ingredient in what builds an earnest culture of safety, respect and caring for each other. As staff model this for campers, campers imitate and again brains are wired.

There’s a sign at Camp – “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future”. At age 58, my first instinct is to take the face of an old friend and superimpose it over that sign.

Camp is designed for campers to connect with others. Marcus sat and listened, Anna cheered me on when I learned a new swim stroke, Tommy ran out of the dining hall with me to meet a new group of friends. Human beings imitate. It’s the wiring that occurs during those actions that becomes your future.

Our brains are selecting pathways they will regularly use, because we know relationships; good and bad, are the basis for that selection. The surroundings and how we respond becomes very important and leaves an explanation for why Camp is so incredibly impactful for so many participants.

John Tilley