Each choice at Birch Trail is geared towards the social and emotional learning (SEL) of our campers. Once we’ve assured ourselves of their safety, we consider their SEL development our most important focus. Why? Because study after study reveals these skills as the ones that will help improve children’s lives, increase their quality of life and reduce stress, and even make them happier, more successful adults. Read on to learn what we know about how brains grow, and what feeds them best.

What is SEL?

SEL is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” *from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

Experts agree that kids with high SEL skills are
proficient in three core areas:


Emotional Skills:

  • Naming emotions
  • Recognizing emotional expression
  • Understanding connections between emotion and behavior
  • Feeling and showing empathy
  • Perspective taking

Interpersonal Skills

  • Sharing
  • Helping
  • Cooperating
  • Understanding social cues
  • Conflict management
  • Conflict resolution

Cognitive Regulation Skills

  • Intentional attention
  • Impulse control
  • Working memory
  • Cognitive flexibility

Explore Birch Trail SEL in action:

Cabin clean-up occurs every morning after breakfast, during which the campers get their daily chores out of the way before heading off to projects. In addition to gaining more practice being responsible for their own area and belongings, they also contribute to the smooth running of camp as a whole by taking on responsibilities that benefit the entire group. These chores are not just a box to be checked—they make up a crucial part of our work to ensure their future happiness and success. According to the Harvard Grant Study, the best predictor of workplace success is whether that adult had chores as a child. Further, these chores touch on the most fundamental SEL interpersonal skills: sharing, helping and cooperating.

Setting cabin rules provides an opportunity to ask even our youngest campers to think critically about how they want to be treated and how to encourage that behavior in themselves and others. Expressing each rule in a framework of positivity and collaboration strengthens the campers’ understanding of the purpose of those rules, and of the values they support. This expectation- and value-setting conversation also serves to encourage the cycle of action and reflection. This chance to write guidelines for behavior encourages campers to use their past experiences and their voices to establish a better environment for themselves, leveraging what they have already learned about group dynamics and problem-solving in school or other groups. Further, it reminds them of their right to require respectful behavior of themselves and their peers.

Working through difficult emotions often propel cognitive and emotional development in children. In his book, Homesick and Happy - How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, author Michael Thomspon writes, “It is the very challenge of camp that makes it such a life-changing experience for so many children.” For kids who have largely never been away from home longer than a weekend, and who have certainly not been asked to manage their own belongings, responsibilities, and relationships while they were, the challenges of academic life are entirely overshadowed by those of living on one’s own for the first time.

Birch Trail offers the unique opportunity to meet each girl at her own developmental level and, slowly and with support, allow her to grow into that independence. She learns how to keep track of her stuff, how to meet new people and try new activities, even dictate much of her own schedule. Summers at camp allow these changes and skills to grow in measured steps, with low stakes and surrounded by the structured support she needs

The Birch Trail Book Club provides an additional resource for campers working through feelings of homesickness. The book club is led by one of the directors, and is open to anyone looking for some extra support and guidance. The group meets every day after lunch, offering support and structure from other kids going through the same struggles. Studies have found that peer support groups are often just as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy. Groups not only help to ease a sense of isolation that often accompanies homesickness, but also give the opportunity to practice re-engaging with others. Joining the book club represents an important opportunity for campers to realize that they can take actions to improve their situation and feel better.

Meal-time announcements are a great way for campers to work through feelings of shyness or anxiety over public speaking. Each meal concludes with an “announcements” segment, where campers have the opportunity to take the microphone and announce any variety of things they deem important. Some of these announcements are silly (nominations to the “nut club” for doing something silly), while others are functional (lost or found items, scheduling meeting times and places), and some are celebratory (congratulating a friend or cabinmate on a recent achievement).

The prospect of speaking in public evokes fear and anxiety for many individuals, and the cognitive demands of delivering a speech can be considerable. Numerous occupations require people to speak publicly, at least on occasion, and for many individuals the fear and anxiety that it evokes can greatly impair performance. At camp, kids get precious practice standing in front of a large group to speak, knowing that the risks are low and the support is high. When a camper makes an announcement and receives a positive response from the audience, she gains confidence and empowerment that will remain with her well into adulthood.

Prime Time is a designated free-play hour that changes each day—or never —as each camper chooses. She has the flexibility to pick any offering that suits her, and to let that inform her decision the following day. This kind of autonomy and flexibility offers valuable practice connecting emotion and behavior, as well as evaluating her own response and experiences in order to inform future choices. Critical thinking skills will improve, as will a willingness to be open to new ideas. Further, research shows that autonomy helps protect children and teens against sadness, low self-esteem and isolation. Best of all, she’ll be less likely to expect you to schedule every moment—she will be well-practiced at finding ways to keep herself exactly as busy (or not busy) as she wants to be.

The tradition of cheering after meals brings our girls together as cabins and our cabins together as a whole community. Many of the cheers we repeat have been handed down through generations of campers, giving each returning girl a sense of belonging to a group. She will recognize the cheers of the villages she’s grown into and out of, while experiencing the excitement of advancement as she sings new ones. Research shows that, while having a large number of friends does not improve self-esteem, belonging to a group—or several groups—that she connects to her social identity does directly improve the way each girl sees herself and her own value.

A later wake-up time of 8:02 (and for real at 8:16) is part of our protocol because as children grow toward puberty, the times at which their brains release cortisol (the wake-up hormone) and other time-sensitive brain chemistry starts to change. This causes them to feel awake later in the evening, while struggling to get up early in the morning. Though we enforce reasonable bedtimes, we know that part of the fun of overnight camp involves talking and settling in after “lights-out.” We choose to let the campers sleep a little later every morning than they normally would during n the school year, ensuring that our schedule matches their internal rhythms.

Rest hour takes place every day after lunch. Can you imagine over an hour in the middle of your day to relax? This sounds like a luxury, but at Birch Trail we know it’s a necessity. Studies of daytime siestas show that they improve alertness, memory, emotional self-regulation, the ability to learn and even cardiovascular function. Further, 60-90 minutes of afternoon rest has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety in everyone, with particular benefit to children and teens.   

Walking to the showers may not seem like a profound developmental landmark, but a surprising number of new college students struggle with day-to-day responsibilities as simple as remembering their toiletries before heading to the dorm bathroom for a shower; an inability to manage such basic tasks can undermine an otherwise successful college experience. Birch Trail campers get valuable practice living “on their own” in a supervised and supported group-living experience that builds the practical and emotional skills needed for success in college and beyond. The simple exercises of thinking ahead to plan a shower, then gathering up all the necessary gear (from soap to towel to comb, etc.), and finally bringing everything to the wash house can all help​ improve a growing brain’s working memory and cognitive flexibility. ​Learning these skills at an early age gives camp kids a huge boost in confidence and competence when they leave home as students.

Campfires offer an important time to come together as one group to talk about traditions and our culture, and to sing camp songs. Singing is an important element of creating connection. Group singing has been shown to quickly and effectively bond large groups, improving not only their sense of happiness and well-being but also reducing stress and even physical pain, most of which is attributed to the release of endorphins into our brain. Maybe even more interesting is the research that demonstrates the pattern of breathing that synchronizes in community singing, causing not only breath but also heartbeats to come together. These two factors together—the physiology of breathing together and the hormone releases we experience in group singing—make our campers feel not only a sense of belonging but also helps them know that they are safe at Birch Trail.

Campers come together for color wars once each session in new, mixed-age groups to play and compete for the excitement of winning color war. Color war takes place over two days of all-camp interaction in which the girls are divided into four teams for a huge variety of activities and competitions. We choose a theme (friendship, teamwork, community, etc.) and the teams come together to decide how to best represent that theme and each other throughout the competition. This is the most direct way we can teach the ethics of teamwork and sportsmanship that camps are perfectly placed to impart. Further, color wars give each participant the chance to show her enthusiasm in ways that might feel too silly or over the top at school. This opportunity imparts what researchers call “the risk taker’s advantage” by showing each person the good that can come from getting out of your comfort zone and trying a new behavior. Much camp-based research shows the importance of using friendly competition to improve all the interpersonal and cognitive regulation skills that are integral to SEL.

Non-denominational Sunday-morning services find us gathered around a very special tree-turned-totem-pole, taking time to reflect on the days prior and the days ahead. This ritual is an important part of learning, and mirrors the well-documented benefits of mindfulness, self-regulation, empathy, and communication skills. Mindfulness in particular helps our campers learn the skills they need to combat the stresses of academic and social pressures many of them face during the school year. The strength each girl gains as she learns to recognize and accept her own emotions, while deciding how she will choose to act under stress, can be a game-changer. The abilities to calm her mind and self-reflect benefit her not only in the moment, but also as she builds the “muscle” of showing empathy for herself as well as others, and practices regulating her mood and reactions in ways that are authentic and useful to her.

Studies have shown that camp is one of the few places outside of the home where children and teens are open to accepting positive values for their own sake. As we model and discuss respect and gratitude during Sunday services, we give campers the chance to contribute to the camp experience they most want.

A special “keylog” ceremony is included in every campfire, where campers can stand before the rest of the community and throw a small stick into the fire in honor of someone important to them. Sometimes campers offer keylogs to friends at camp for overcoming an obstacle or for providing support, and sometimes they honor loved ones back home as they come to appreciate those relationships during their time away. Research tells us that people who have gratitude benefit from personal happiness, optimism, lack of stress, and tend to be more satisfied with their lives. They take better care of themselves and are more inclined to show empathy for others.

Empathy is a cornerstone of SEL and people who are empathetic benefit from having the essential skill necessary for healthy relationships and an increased desire to help and share. These two separate skills complement each other because when people are grateful, they tend to want to help others, and when people are empathetic toward others it reminds them of all that they can be grateful for in their own lives.

Dancing through personality differences, every cabin competes in a lip-syncing and dancing competition called “Puttin’ on the Hits” early in the session. This activity encourages the fun of dance parties and self-expression, but also provides an invaluable opportunity for campers to fortify their group bond as they navigate decision making “by committee.” As you know (if you’ve ever been anywhere near a committee), this involves a fair amount of conflict management and resolution. Although some campers may think these conflicts will never get sorted out, their routine are inevitably be met with wild cheers and applause as they discover that everyone else likely faced the exact same challenges. As the girls travel through this process of brainstorming, choosing one idea, and making that idea come alive on stage, they learn both the fun of meeting a challenge and also the bonding that happens when a group becomes a team working toward the same goal.

Cabin meetings allow the campers to take an active role in confronting and resolving conflicts. Groups of all ages and types will inevitably encounter conflict from time to time, and how we choose to manage that conflict often has great implications on our success at work and in relationships. When conflicts arise within a cabin group, we implement a specific protocol to help guide the campers to resolve the issue with the guidance of either a village director or camp director.

At the start of these meetings, the group sits together in a circle and sets ground rules of safe and effective communication. Yelling, name-calling, and bullying are not tolerated; campers are instead instructed to use positive language and frame their feelings in a “When you____, I feel _____” format. Each member of the cabin has a chance to share their feelings, only speaking when they hold a special “talking” stick or stuffed animal, teaching them to practice active listening and respect when others are talking. After everyone has spoken, each camper has a chance to respond or offer additional thoughts. We conclude with a follow-up meeting a day or two later to circle back on any lingering issues and ensure that all cabin members feel good about the resolution. Campers learn the values of agency, ownership, respect, empathy, and democracy through this experience, applying these lessons to future relationships and conflicts.

Instructional activities take place during the first three activity periods of the day and are based on the choices you and your daughter made the previous March. No matter which activity your daughter attends, each is designed to help her pay “intentional attention” to the learning, improve her working memory, and practice her cognitive flexibility. Camp is a place where she can identify an interest and pursue it without the pressure of having any level of proficiency; we’re here to help her gauge her own interest and work towards that mastery. This strategy of passion-driven learning (Harvard has an entire institute dedicated to the concept) has been proven to excite students about learning in general, well beyond the particular topic they currently study.

Biffer is an extremely messy version of tag we play on the second night of camp, allowing everyone to really “feel camp” as they shed their regular-life persona, get dirty, and have fun. While the benefits of messy play have been well-documented, most media outlets focus on making parents feel better about the untidiness their preschoolers create. Instead, we love to bring those advantages to our school-aged campers as we use messy play to foster curiosity, imagination and exploration, as well as the higher-level skills of intentional attention and lateral thinking. When kids—who are growing up with dozens of demands on their attention at any moment —learn to be intentional, they gain the ability to focus on what’s important rather than just what’s urgent. The skill of lateral thinking allows us to take what we’ve noticed or learned in one situation and apply it to another. Lateral thinkers can use past experiences to help them solve a seemingly unrelated question, and are the types of students who use the best of their opportunities to thrive in each area.

Our two- to eight-day wilderness camping trips are often the highlight of a young girl’s summer. Each trip is tailored to the developmental level and abilities of the girls in the group, and allows for a great deal of experiential learning and skill-set advancement. The sense of accomplishment gained from doing things on their own and in the wilderness proves to each camper that she has abilities exceeding even her own imaginings. Fostering a growth mindset, which has been proven to create in children the willingness to risk failure and to believe that working harder is the key to unlocking ability, makes our kids stronger and more likely to succeed in the face of future challenges.

Each trip forms a unique, shared bond that comes from obstacles faced and overcome together. These wilderness trips are functional examples of the benefits documented in the most cutting-edge research on building self-esteem and life skills. Studies of students (even those considered at risk) find significant improvement in overall motivation, life skills, interpersonal relationships, capacity for hope, self-confidence, and emotional control—both at the end of such a unique experience as well as six months afterward.

We serve meals “family style” with campers sitting together along with counselors (most often by cabin group) where they pass and eat the food at their table. As outlined in the Institute of Medicine’s 2001 Prevention Policies, this method teaches children self-awareness of hunger and allows them to practice self-regulation as they serve themselves foods they’d like to try, knowing they may get more if they so desire. Listening and storytelling are constant around the table, and the counselors model openness to new ideas, empathy, and making connections, while honoring each girl’s participation. As the campers learn the rhythm of taking turns, answering and asking good questions, supporting each other in their ideas and emotions, they become more confident communicators with higher self-esteem, all while improving the self-esteem of others.

The power of downtime has long been documented, so we’ve curated programming to offer more opportunities for respite from the demands of highly structured activities. We know that these chances to “chill” lead to improved moods and a stronger ability to focus and concentrate intentionally when those skills are required in more structured moments. Research demonstrates that free-choice opportunities build students’ ability to demonstrate autonomy as they grow, and strengthen their problem-solving skills, simply by giving them chances to determine their own antidotes to boredom. Further, the moments of solitary quiet time alone provide opportunities to think about their friendships and the behaviors that surround them.

Birch Day provides the girls a “buffet of play” for an hour or so several times each week. The campers all converge on one large area with a multitude of options for spending their time. As they choose the ball or craft supplies or area that most appeals in that moment, they have the chance not simply to join an already established, structured activity, but to improvise—to create, conjure, or coordinate whatever they think might be fun. There are no rules about which ages do what, about who can interact, or what they can try.

Play is essential to development by contributing to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Among other amazing benefits, play quite literally makes the brain grow! Younger children and teens improve language skills and nonverbal communication through play, as well as practicing creative problem solving. Further, they develop something called counterfactual reasoning, which is the ability to create a new world or game with a set of agreed upon guidelines, and exist in both that world and the real world, reconciling and exploring how the two cross and interact. Children make inferences about events and created stories, even when they haven’t actually occurred. The benefits to later academic reasoning and learning are profound.

Evening programs are camp- or age-group-wide activities designed to promote BT-style goofiness and fun. We love that brain science reinforces what our instincts already know, which is that the lifelong advantages of spending time in a pro-silliness, teamwork-oriented, anti-bullying space are vast and lasting. Evening programs improve understanding of social cues, self-expression, communication, impulse control, perspective taking, and cognitive flexibility. Perspective taking teaches us to see things from another’s point of view and is a crucial component of both resilience and the capacity to have an open-minded discussion with people of opposing opinions. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously. This mental skill is developed as we tackle questions and solve problems, a practice that happens often at Birch Trail and is widely held as one of the biggest benefits to a summer spent at camp.

Tech-free life at Birch Trail gives campers priceless unplugged time. Every camper must learn to use technology in their lives, but most adults wonder about the mental health of a generation who has never been without constant access to the internet and all it brings. Summers at Birch Trail represent a chance to experience extended periods of time without such access, when campers cultivate an appreciation of modern technology, while learning that they can live without it and might even choose to do so at times in their lives. Research on the harmful effects of constant connectivity encourage us to forgo the online interactions of social media and texting in favor of real- life, face-to-face communication and relationship building. Campers can choose, create, and refine relationships that build their self-esteem and protect them even after they return to the world of technology.

Reviewing camp rules among ourselves and with the campers is crucial to maintaining a healthy camp community. We interrogate our own rules each season, studying and evaluating the “why” behind each guiding principle to ensure that it continues to represent not only our mission and values, but the campers and their changing needs as well. None of our rules exist solely to make a staff member’s life easier—this is one of the fundamental concepts covered in staff orientation, during which they must pass a rigorous review to prepare them to fully support our safe environment and educational goals. Our transparency about all of this is not to teach campers to push back, but to encourage their own emotional expression and communication skills, while holding them accountable for impulse control.

Our Big sister program gives each of our younger campers at least one ready-made big sister at Birch Trail, (and often more than one). These older girls take an active role in ensuring that the younger girls are comfortable and having fun. Camp activities and evening programs create another venue for the older girls to mentor the girls coming up behind them. The younger campers have always looked up to older campers and this program codifies our unique tradition and culture of phenomenal inclusion. The benefits of this program extend to every participant, with little sisters witnessing how positive behavior is socially desirable, and knowing that their emotional expression is heard and valued. Older girls learn the fun and importance of being a mentor—including increased patience, attention control, listening, and communication skills. Each camper receives the proven benefits of the relationship on both sides, including better self-esteem, and widening their peer group to people that might be socially off-limits in school.

“Near-peer educators” can teach life-lessons in unparalleled ways. These are people 3-10 years older than a camper or student who have similarities in interests, background, or goals. Some of the documented benefits of these relationships include:

  • Approachability: Girls have a relatively easier time asking big and small questions of their counselors compared to adults of their parents’ generation.
  • Recent experience: Camp counselors have much more recently gone through the same friendship, school, and decision-making challenges faced by their campers, which adds to the credibility of their empathy and advice.
  • Increased self-esteem for both counselor and student: Hearing success stories as well as the very real emotions that accompany struggles can validate a camper’s experience, while offering the support of a mentor who has navigated similar challenges to come out feeling recovered and often stronger. In this type of relationship, having the attention and interest of a person we admire, or are admired by, builds confidence for people of any age.
  • Increased motivation: Having an ally to listen and encourage her to develop a plan to handle a challenge provides the added advantage of knowing that ally is watching as the camper enacts her plan. This creates accountability and support for the process of trying different solutions until one is successful.
  • Emotional support and modeling: Campers seek role models they can admire and interact with in order to further refine the kind of person they each want to become. That focus and attention brings the best from our counselors, who as young girls also carefully watched mentors and who understand the power and responsibility that comes with their role.

Each choice at Birch Trail is geared towards the social and emotional learning (SEL) of our campers. Once we’ve assured ourselves of their safety, we consider their SEL development our most important focus. Why? Because study after study reveals these skills as the ones that will help improve children’s lives, increase their quality of life and reduce stress, and even make them happier, more successful adults. Read on to learn what we know about how brains grow, and what feeds them best.


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Resources for Birch Trail Brain Science Project