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Summer Camps for Teenagers and the Teen Brain

March 28th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Activities and Programming, Development & Behavior, Podcast, Teens

teenage summer camp

Summer camps for teenagers have changed over the last 20 years that I have been running camps. When I first started, there was not much for them to do besides work or  attend the typical summer camp. Over time, we have created a highly pressurized college application process, parents and school pile on the expectations, and kids at younger ages are concerned about the “right” summer experiences to add to their college application. Running a camp at U.C. Berkeley, I get inundated with applications from teenagers for our summer camp counselor training programs. Because we are at U.C. Berkeley, the lure can be less about the camp and more about the university name on their resume. Over the last two years I have had more applications from teens who are clearly looking for the status and not the experience. These teenagers have been high achieving, in multiple organizations, play a musical instrument, and lack the level of enthusiasm and charisma required for camp. They come in for an interview and basically say, “I want to work here because it is U.C. Berkeley.” Nice teenagers, they just are in the wrong place. Is this a product of what our society has created? What have we turned our teenage culture into? Are they surviving adolescence in spite of us?

The Challenge of Teen Programming

Planning and running a summer camp for teens is challenging. First of all, there is a wide developmental range from early teenage years to later years. Second, scheduling the teenage summer requires a spreadsheet and sophisticated calendaring programs not unlike what the US Olympic planning committees uses. The modern teenager is often trying to earn money, work around other summer camps, taking a trip with their family, and participating in SAT/ACT academic test prep classes or a sports team.  Teens in low wealth areas may not have as many camp opportunities open to them and may need to work or care for siblings.  Over the years the variety of programs offered for teenagers in the summer has increased dramatically but I often see the programs associated with the striving culture like academic prep programs, sports camps for college scholarship opportunities, etc . I am not saying this is negative, just wondering if the pressure to perform and get into th “right” college were removed, would teens choose a different experience?  In the last two weeks I have heard from teenagers going to the following camps:  Super Camp, National Outdoor Leadership School, and Academic Talent Development Program at UC Berkeley.

The Teen Brain and Summer Camp Programming

My podcast stream dropped a show from All in the Mind Podcast Rhetoric or Reality? – Neuroscience’s Take on Teenage Brains.  All in the Mind is a terrific podcast from Australia hosted by Natasha Mitchell, covering all things mental – the mind, brain and behavior. This week’s show on the teenage brain got me thinking about how summer camps provide those transition skills and opportunities teenagers need to make it as an adult.

Researchers have been arguing about what adolescence is and means. Some neuroscientists argue that teens do not have the full capabilities to control their emotions because the brain is still developing the connections between the parts that control and regulate emotions with and the parts of the brain that are generating emotions. They also posit that the volume of the cortex increases in the first decade or so of life and then starts to decrease in the second decade. It is the result of the brain eliminating connections that are not useful – to be more efficient. As that teenager finds the activities he or she loves and does them more frequently, those parts of the brain are enhanced while other connections get pruned. For more on the teen brain see: PBS Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain and Scientific American Mind: The Teen Brain.


Teenagers need rich application-based experiences in the summer because the schools are failing to provide a range of opportunities. In local high performing school districts, the mantra is that all kids will go to college. The result has been more computer labs and less industrial arts, auto mechanics, etc. As we all know, all kids don’t need to go to college but we have stripped them of apprentice type opportunities and any feeling of self-worth if they are not on the college track.  There is this amazing camp in Oakland CA called The Crucible that can fill that gap the high school are creating.  The Crucible provides classes and summer camps for pre-teens and teenagers in Blacksmithing, Ceramics, Fire Performance, Foundry, Glass, Kinetics & Electronics, Machine Shop, Welding, etc. The pictures on their site are spectacular [Video About The Crucible: min 6 with a youth volunteer].  As the brain is pruning what it is not needing, how do we make sure a teenager is exposed to a variety of activities?

All our teen programs are work-based.  We bring them in for job training skills.  I believe strongly in giving teenagers manageable responsibility.  They are so capable; still in need of supervision but for the sake of providing mentorship and teaching rather than policing and harsh restrictions. There are important biological changes going on in the teenage brain and the programs and experiences we create (or deny them) are going to have long standing consequences.

What teen summer camp programs do you find the most successful in your organization?  How are you serving teenagers in summer camps?

[photo by: Mighty mighty bigmac]

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