Sign up

Self-Determination at Summer Camp

Parents spend a lot of time trying to motivate their kids. We use chore charts, checklists, reminders and rewards to get them to feed the dog, clean their rooms and complete their schoolwork. But these techniques don’t change behavior long-term. Real motivation must come from within.

The psychology of summer camp

Time at camp may be all it takes to spark a little self-determination in your kid. I know it sounds too good to be true. Your school-age child - the one who expects you to find their homework and pack their lunch - might start doing some things on their own. And your often-bored tween might come home with more pep in their step.

Psychologists use Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to explain why some experiences make us feel engaged and excited, while other experiences drain and deplete us. The premise is simple: When an activity meets our needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness, we are energized and empowered. Kids’ basic needs are no different from adults’.

Kids want to do things for themselves. They crave a sense of accomplishment and routinely seek feedback (“Look what I made, mom!”). And kids thrive on connections with loved ones and peers. Feelings of belongingness boost their self-worth. Summer camp offers loads of opportunities to meet all these needs. And that should make kids (and the parents who love them) very happy campers indeed. 


The need for autonomy is satisfied when kids control their own lives. At camp, your child will have endless opportunities to care for themself. Staff won’t select their clothes, organize the contents of their locker or remind them to put on deodorant. No one will delay dessert until veggies are eaten. Independence is what camp is all about. Don’t worry. The world won’t stop if your son wears the same shirt three days in a row. His peers will speak up if he gets super stinky.

During the school year, many kids jump from one regularly scheduled activity to the next with no unstructured time in between. Camp puts kids in charge of their own activities. Maybe your child will take a hike. Maybe they’ll paint pottery. It is up to them to decide how they’ll spend their free time. One thing is certain: they won’t sit around whining about having nothing to do. And if they do, you won’t be there to hear it.


The need for competence is satisfied when kids learn new things and get positive feedback about their efforts. Your kid might choose a camp focused on art, science, sports or music. Or they may opt for a good old-fashioned sleep-away experience, complete with rowboats and weenie roasts. Some camp activities may be outside your kid’s comfort zone. Stretching is good.

Your child may be unsure they can cross the slippery log over the creek. They may tremble with excitement about their role in the theatre production. Peers and counselors will coax your child along and give them constructive advice. By the end of camp, your child will be the star of their own adventure stories.

If your kid is an experienced camper, encourage them to share what they know with camp newbies. Being an ambassador or mentor affirms kids’ competence in a big way. Teaching a peer how to trim a sail or chip a golf ball out of the tall grass will take your child’s skills to a higher level. Their confidence will soar in response. 


Your biggest concerns about summer camp may centre on the social scene. Your child may not know anyone upon arrival. That’s okay. Camps create connections in many ways. Your kid will be instantly bonded with bunkmates because they share a home base. Family-style dining and friendly competitions encourage interactions too. The pursuit of shared goals - like building a robot or putting a frog in the counselor’s sleeping bag - cements kids’camaraderie.

Extroverted kids may make lots of friends at camp. Less sociable souls may not. What matters most is that kids have opportunities to talk, play and live with a diverse group of peers. They won’t all become fast friends. Learning to navigate the choppy waters of friendship formation is a big part of the camp experience. Your kid’s social skillset will expand - even if they don’t find a new BFF.

No matter what your kid takes to camp, they’ll come home with a suitcase full of memories and a renewed sense of self-determination - you’ll see it as soon as they wake up from their long post-camp nap.

Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D., is a personality psychologist and mom of two adventurous kids. She is the author of Detachment Parenting. Read her psychology lessons for real life at


Calgary’s Child Magazine © 2021 Calgary’s Child