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Curative factors in the camp experience.

Promoting developmental growth

When young people attend camp, they automatically experience beneficial psychological curative factors that help them move toward healthy developmental growth. These curative factors naturally exist at camp. By focusing on these factors, camp staff can intervene in and initiate situations that actualize curative factors.

Dr. Irvin Yalom's book, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, presents a list of curative factors that exist in group psychotherapy. Most, if not all, of these factors can be found at camp.

Curative factors

Dr. Yalom describes curative factors as an intricate interplay of various guided human experiences. In camp, this interplay involves campers as they participate in a variety of camp activities and human relationships. Curative factors can result from either planned programs for camper learning and growth or from conditions conducive to learning and change.

Young people grow through positive and negative experiences in their lives. As the result of negative experiences, they may develop feelings of pessimism. Negative experiences can include failing a school exam or class, witnessing a violent accident, parental job loss, parental separation or divorce, a family member's alcoholism, abuse, moving to a new city, death of a parent or family member, and attending a school where some students carry weapons. Numerous negative experiences can cause pessimism; as a result, young people enter a behavior pattern guided by passivity, characterized by sadness, hopelessness, lack of belief in their positive self, regression or fixation in developmental tasks, drug abuse, gang involvement, and violence.

Camp can have varying degrees of therapeutic impact on this pessimism and resultant passivity. Curative factors are important because they help young people move into the realm of happiness, hopefulness, self-belief, and pride. Developmentally, campers move forward in separation-individuation and in incorporating more trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, and identity clarification.


Cohesion is the sense of belonging and the desire to belong; it involves feeling accepted by others. A variety of activities and experiences throughout the camp session foster cohesion. In group therapy, cohesion is curative and allows the therapist to work with the participants to achieve growth. At camp, cohesion is curative and can positively affect campers' development. Cohesion also fosters group processing. With counselor guidance, campers can become more involved in resolving problems and making decisions.

How to foster cohesion

Counselors and other frontline staff can foster cohesion in many ways:

* Lead activities with passion. Campers catch the enthusiasm, creating cohesion.

* Work toward having a consistent and positive relationship with each camper. Appropriately show concern, acceptance, genuineness, empathy, and generosity. Modeling this behavior encourages others to do the same.

* Give positive reinforcement when campers indicate through their actions or conversation that they feel they belong to the group. Encourage high levels of involvement.

* Stimulate and reinforce interactions between group members. Form buddies for certain activities and change partners for others.

* Encourage a willingness to share by having daily sharing sessions. Campers talk about what they enjoyed about camp that day along with their feelings. Thank them for sharing and be open to dealing with conflicts.

* Find times to appropriately share your thoughts and feelings with campers. You could say something such as, "I really felt good, happy, and proud when we made our cabin banner."

* Find other ways to share daily news with your group, even if there is a camp newsletter. Deliver it during rest periods and be sure to include some recognition of every camper.

* Recognize and deter events that may threaten cohesion. The scapegoating of one camper by other campers destroys cohesion. Another detriment is excessive and constant subgrouping.

* Accept and admit your own fallibility.

Camps can encourage cohesion by continuing programs and creating new traditions, ceremonies, and rituals.

* Incorporate rituals into camp by developing opening, closing, and dining room traditions.

* Create everyday traditions: singing announcements, counselor riddle telling after meals, assembly before meals, singing, and more singing.

* Make a group plaque or banner.

* Have campers create a daily newspaper with staff assistance.

* Create an end-of-camp "session book."

Interpersonal learning

In the first few hours of camp, young people generally show their best behavior. As time passes, they begin to be themselves and interact with others as they learned to in their respective social worlds. Interpersonal styles may serve campers' psychological and developmental growth in either useful or not so useful ways. Useful interactions should be reinforced. Less useful ones can be processed, resulting in opportunities to learn new skills.

Utilize interpersonal learning

Camp staff can use the following steps to utilize interpersonal learning, both in problematic and positive interactions:

* Be attentive to interactions between campers.

* Focus on interactions in which some learning can take place.

* After observing an interaction, decide on the appropriate time to act. If talking about it immediately is threatening, try waiting. If a person hesitates to focus on the issue, she may be telling you to hold off. Try again later.

* Deal with the immediate situation. If the interaction involves a physical risk to the camper, act to safeguard his safety. As soon as possible, discuss the situation with the individual or group. Reflect on what occurred during the interaction. Ask campers to share how they feel. Ask for "I" messages: "I feel betrayed and hurt." Avoid "you" messages: "You made fun of me." Encourage campers to express their feelings. Do not be judgmental by making comments such as, "That shouldn't bother you."

* Move away from the present to process the interaction. Start analyzing and reflecting on what happened. Talk about the impact of the camper's behavior on the feelings of other campers, how her behavior causes others to feel about her, and how she feels about herself as a result of the interaction. This process helps everyone gain insight. With this insight, the camper can explore alternatives that might bring answers and more beneficial results to the camper and her pride.

Camps can help counselors by offering increased training about interpersonal learning.

* Dedicate an adequate amount of time in staff training to discuss interpersonal learning. Invite mental health professionals to provide training.

* At staff meetings, allot some time for case conferences and focus on interpersonal learning.

* Provide backup and support for counselors as they help campers learn new behaviors.

* Find a mental health professional, paid or volunteer, who will work with counselors as the need arises and provide ongoing training and supervision.


Altruism allows campers to focus on helping others, putting others' needs in front of their own, and giving of themselves for others. Altruism is simple to encourage and has a powerful curative value. When people give of themselves to help others, they feel a great sense of pride. Being proud of their actions positively affects the core of campers' self-esteem. At camp there are many opportunities for altruistic acts.

Encourage altruism

Counselors and other frontline staff can encourage altruism in many ways.

* Think about, accept, and use this saying, "The best way to help someone (including a camper) is to let that person help you."

* Look for opportunities to encourage campers to help other campers and camp staff.

* Let the group know that you value it as an important source of knowledge and assistance by looking for help from within the group. Make the campers feel useful.

* If you see a camper having difficulty, ask the other campers if anyone would be willing to help.

* Ask campers to help the camp. Subtly define chores as a way to give to the camp. Lead a special project that benefits the camp and emphasize its importance.

* Discuss feelings when someone is altruistic.

The camp can help counselors encourage altruism by:

* developing a tradition in which experienced campers volunteer to be brothers or sisters to newer campers.

* developing a tradition of special activities that utilize campers in appropriate leadership roles.

* developing a core of campers who, with supervision and guidance, become peer counselors.

By understanding the curative factors of camp, staff can genuinely come to feel and believe in its immensely beneficial impact on campers' developmental growth. The curative factors that occur in camp are the same ones that have been proven to work in group therapy. A camp that consciously incorporates these curative factors into its atmosphere can offer a positive and exciting experience that benefits campers and staff.


Yalom, I. D. (1975). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

Dr. Yalom presents eight other curative factors in his book. They are: instillation of hope, universality, imparting information, the corrective recapitulation of the primary family group, development of socializing techniques, imitative behavior, catharsis, and existential factors.

John K. Durall, M.A., MFCC, is a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor and has a master's degree in marriage, family, and child counseling. He has worked at camps as a junior counselor, counselor, program director, and director.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Camping Association
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Durall, John K.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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