Happy Campers

9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults


By Audrey Monke

Foreword by Tina Payne Bryson, PhD

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Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, mother of five and camp owner-director, shares nine powerful parenting techniques-inspired by the research-based practices of summer camp-to help kids thrive and families become closer.

Research has proven that kids are happier and gain essential social and emotional skills at camp. A recognized parenting expert, Audrey Monke distills what she’s learned from thousands of interactions with campers, camp counselors, and parents, and from her research in positive psychology, to offer intentional strategies parents can use to foster the benefits of camp at home.

Our screen-obsessed, competitive society makes it harder than ever to raise happy, thriving kids. But there are tried-and-true methods that can help. Instead of rearing a generation of children who are overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, and who struggle to become independent, responsible adults, parents can create a culture that promotes the growth of important character traits and the social skills kids need for meaningful, successful lives.

Thousands of parents attest to the “magical” benefits of summer camp for their kids, noting their children return more joyful, positive, confident, and resilient after just a few weeks. But you can learn exactly what it takes to promote these benefits at home. Complete with specific ideas to implement the most effective summer camp secrets, Happy Campers is a one of a kind resource for raising happy, socially intelligent, successful kids.


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I never expected that I’d become such a big fan of the camping experience. I didn’t grow up going to camp, and I didn’t know kids who went. I’m a mom to three boys, and I didn’t intend to let any of them be away from me for any extended period of time during their childhood. It took some research, a big leap of faith, and some self-soothing skills before I could even seriously consider it. It helped, too, to have several conversations with a trusted, respected, dear friend who had grown up going to camp in the north woods of Minnesota each summer, and who eventually went on to be a counselor and even a camp director. As he talked about how his summers at camp had impacted who he became as a man and father, my resistance shifted to openness. The final nudge I needed to move from openness to investment came from this same friend, as he revealed that when he faces setbacks, heartbreak, or other adversity in his life, he has a deep knowing that he can handle anything because of the strength he grew by weathering the challenges of his wilderness trips at camp.

So I let my boys go—initially for two weeks at a time. It felt excruciating that first summer. But each summer as they came home, I easily observed the rapid and dramatic benefits of camp in them, as they showed more independence, confidence, flexibility, resilience, character, grit, and responsibility. And even as part of me hated letting them go, it thrilled me to know that they were in nature, that they were playing, that they were away from screens, and that they were having the time of their lives, even though they occasionally felt homesick or faced some challenges. What’s more, I came to see that it wasn’t just these experiences or environment that made a difference, but it was also the relationships and connections that the staff made with my children by encouraging them, amplifying positive moments, supporting them as they struggled, and evoking the curiosity and courage that changed them.

Fairly quickly, then, I moved from being an anxious mom—my son’s camp director that first summer can attest to that—to a cheerleader for the camping experience. I began to write and speak about the importance of camp, and I met more and more of the amazing camp directors all over the United States and the world.

One of those people was Audrey Monke, and when I met her, I knew she was someone special. It’s a rare thing to find someone who is not only a ninja when it comes to successfully and positively working with kids through any kind of issue that comes up, but who also knows the science of child development and child-rearing, and who can be authentic and practical when advising parents. Audrey sees challenges with kids as welcome opportunities. She is gifted—grounded, creative, and informed—and she approaches these struggles as invitations to build skills so that kids come out stronger and more resilient on the other side. She helps her staff and parents find the caregiver’s sweet spot—where kids are supported enough to tolerate the challenge in front of them, but still empowered to become competent, confident, and resilient problem-solvers who valuably contribute to the world.

In writing this book, Audrey offers powerful and practical advice, which she has gleaned from working with thousands of kids and by guiding numerous counselors in developing relationships with, and encouraging growth in, the children they serve.

The abilities kids need to be successful are often things that parents recognize automatically. But sometimes we need help to recognize what we’re doing right and to see the impact of our investment. Audrey helps illuminate the building blocks of development that happen in our everyday interactions, and in the “Bringing Camp Home” section at the end of each chapter, she helps us become more intentional by giving us strategies to make our family time transformative, as development unfolds.

What Audrey is doing here is so important. As a child development specialist with expertise in mental health and interpersonal neurobiology, I’ve spent a lot of time considering how camp experiences influence brain development, particularly the middle prefrontal cortex (the MPFC, which is right behind the forehead and eye sockets and is the frontmost part of the frontal lobe). The MPFC gives us the ability to do all kinds of crucial things: regulate our body and emotions, have insight into ourselves and others, feel empathy, communicate in an attuned way, bounce back after failure, adapt to new situations, make thoughtful choices, and overcome fear. That’s pretty much what’s needed for a successful life with good emotional and mental health, meaningful relationships, and the conscientiousness to make things happen in the world. And the good news is that since it is the last part of the brain to finish development, it’s the most open to the influence of experiences and relationships throughout childhood and adolescence and even young adulthood. So parenting and life experiences don’t just influence kids’ minds—or character, or help them feel more confident—they actually change the structure of their brains.

When I say that experience changes the brain, I mean the actual activation and wiring of the brain. Particularly when experiences are emotional, novel, and challenging, they literally alter the architecture of the brain. Like a muscle, when it’s used, it grows and strengthens. So when kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on, it builds this important part of the brain, the MPFC.

What’s more, when the structure of the brain changes, so does the function of the brain. This means that camp is one place that can play a role in how our kids function in the world, and ultimately who they become as adults, even on a neuronal level.

The way I like to say it is that bunks are good for brains. Quality camps—those that are intentional about all facets of the camper experience and how they choose and train their counselors—inherently provide the kinds of experiences that activate and build this character part of the brain. That’s why we can see significant changes in kids who have camp as part of their lives. When kids have experiences that challenge them emotionally, when they’re given opportunities to make friends that are outside their typical circles, when they have to keep working at a skill to achieve mastery—these kinds of experiences change the connections in the brain regarding kids’ capacity for persistence, how they see themselves, and how healthy they can be, both emotionally and relationally. This is the magic and the science of camp experiences.

Whether your kids go to camp or not, Happy Campers is a guidebook to bring some of that magic and science of camp home. As parents, the way we create family rituals and traditions and the way we create a rhythm of daily life for and with our children are experiences that impact how their brains get wired, what kinds of skills are built and become automatic, and ultimately who they become.

Audrey distills decades of wisdom that we can readily use to make changes in ourselves, in the way we interact, and in our home environments, so that we bring out the best in our kids and help them build skills at the same time. She humbly calls her strategies “positive psychological interventions for children,” and they are that, but they are more. With each chapter focusing on a social or an emotional skill area, character trait, or parenting practice, her recommendations offer a path to cultivate the most important life skills kids need, like self-advocacy, resilience, optimism, problem-solving, endurance, kindness, social intelligence, empathy, and independence—all of which are essential for success, mental health, and a happy life.

Our need to be connected to each other has been wired into our brains since the earliest of days. Our brain and nervous systems are automatically, instinctually primed to value, seek, and find reward in our connections to others because, at the most primitive level, it increases our odds of survival. And even though there are so many distractions and obstacles to connection in our modern lives, it turns out that this primitive need is as essential as it ever was. In fact, across many decades of research from many fields, we see that it is the quality and degree of relationships we have that significantly impact our well-being, including our mental health, our physical health, and even our happiness. We also know from decades and decades of research that the quality of the relationships with our first loves, our parents or caregivers, is one of the most important influences on who we become and how we turn out. These relational experiences have a dramatic influence on how our brains get wired and what becomes automatic in how we function in the world and in our relationships.

Certainly, there are many factors outside of parents’ influence. Genetics, environment, peers, life events, experiences, and many other variables impact development and how the brain wires as development unfolds. But the science is also very clear that parents matter. The quality of the relationships we have with our children—what we do and how we are with our children—matters very much. So when we devote ourselves to connecting in more effective, fun, and deeper ways with our children, we not only become the recipients of the tremendous joy of having strong relationships with our children, but we are investing in their development as well. This book helps us do just that.

Parents are now privy to many gems of wisdom from Audrey’s many years of intentionally fostering the best outcomes for kids at camp. In a time when our lives are often structured in ways that hinder connection within our families, I’m thrilled that Happy Campers—full of practical and powerful tools that can be immediately put into practice—lights a path to help parents nurture a culture of connection in our homes so that we can all keep working together to help our children become their best selves.

Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, LCSW


What Parents Can Learn from Summer Camp

My time at camp has changed me in ways I never could have expected. I have grown into a completely different and happier person. I have become so much more confident in myself and have learned to always be true to what I believe in. I have learned how to make genuine connections and have face-to-face conversations with people I have never met before. I’m so much more easygoing and positive because of my time at camp. Camp has taught me how to be the best version of myself every day.


As a mother of five and the longtime owner of Gold Arrow Camp in California’s Sierra National Forest, I have spent the past three decades researching and implementing specific strategies to create a warm, supportive culture for children. My goal is for campers’ lives to be enriched because of the positive relationships they form as well as the life skills and character traits they develop. While doing this important work at camp, my husband and I simultaneously created a nurturing, growth-focused family culture for our own kids. Many of the strategies I learned and implemented at camp were easily transferable to my own parenting.

I am passionate about learning what is required to help kids thrive and grow into flourishing adults, and I have been researching and learning about positive psychology for many years. My deep curiosity about how summer camp and family life can promote positive growth in children led me back to the classroom to complete a master’s degree in psychology. My research focused on the impact of camp experiences on campers’ well-being (the positive psychology term for happiness) and social skills.

During the summer of 2014, I collected data from 167 families—campers and their parents—at six participating summer camps.1 Of the campers surveyed in my research, 80 percent reported that their camp experiences made them feel “a little” or “a lot” happier.2 Campers, as well as their parents, also reported statistically significant improvements in their social skills. I finally had the data to prove what I have observed and known to be true for years: kids really are happier at camp. Happy camper is not just a glib idiom, but a real description of the affective changes children experience at summer camp.

Thousands of grateful parents have sent me letters, marveling at the impact camp had on their children, and I’ve witnessed the positive changes in campers’ outlook and demeanor myself. The wonderful benefits of camp that children and parents report affirm the good work we do. Sadly, our kids’ need for the transformational camp experience is a troublesome commentary on the difficult social environment they must navigate when they are not at camp.

Our kids have been born into an anxious, high-pressure world. Overscheduling, high-stakes academics, lack of free-play time, and other cultural factors are having a negative impact on them. In 2017, 11 percent of youth ages twelve to seventeen reported suffering from at least one major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year. MDE is characterized by pervasive feelings of sadness associated with suicidal thoughts.3 Anxiety disorders affect 25.1 percent of youth ages thirteen to eighteen and, when left untreated, often lead to substance abuse problems.4 Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for five-to twenty-four-year olds.5 Ever-rising statistics about depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide can cause even the calmest and most level-headed parent among us to worry about our children’s future.

Among the factors being blamed for adolescents’ increasing mental, emotional, and physical health problems are increased screen use, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, poverty, and the overparenting style that has become increasingly common, especially in economically privileged families.6 The evidence is mounting that we need to make changes in order to help our kids thrive both during their youth and in adulthood.

It’s no wonder that—with screens safely stored at home, less focus on competition and more focus on collaboration, and lots of fresh air and outdoor fun—campers feel that camp is a haven, a safe place to relax and be themselves. Without the pressures of academics, athletics, social media, and their parents’, teachers’, and coaches’ expectations, kids—many for the first time—experience living in the moment, enjoying each other’s company, challenging themselves, and figuring out who they truly are and what they really like. Many campers feel healed, restored, or changed by their camp experience and don’t want to leave. Parents, too, feel relieved to give their children the gift of a few weeks of bliss in the midst of their pressured, stressful lives.

I have watched many kids struggle with leaving camp because they treasure their time at a place where they feel happier and more relaxed. Witnessing their heart-wrenching sobs as they cling to their counselors and cabinmates before boarding the buses home, I’ve felt sad for them and also a bit guilty. I’ve talked with my good friends and fellow camp directors Sara Kuljis (Yosemite Sierra Summer Camp) and Maria Horner (Catalina Island Camps) about this phenomenon, as well as with colleagues I meet at camp conferences and workshops all over the country. We all feel some of the same ambivalence. On one hand, we are thrilled to have created a positive environment where kids thrive, discover a different way to live, and treasure their time with us. But we also feel a sense of responsibility to help our camp families maintain the positive momentum for our campers, who spend most of their year away from us. As we watch our campers head back into the real world, we worry that the culture they are reentering won’t do much to sustain the positive changes they have experienced at camp.

Many camp directors share the same concerns about the changes we’ve witnessed over the past decades in the campers we serve, the Millennial and Gen Z counselors who come to work for us each summer, and the anxious parents frequently on the other end of our phone lines. Camp director Brooke Cheley Klebe (Cheley Colorado Camps) says, “I find myself talking with many parents who need to update me on mental health challenges their preteens and teens are facing. Not feeling anxious is starting to seem like the exception, not the rule.” Just as schools are experiencing new and unique challenges, summer camps are also experiencing a worrisome rise in the frequency and severity of our campers’ mental, social, and emotional issues.

I want the kids we work with during the summer to thrive all the time, not just during the two weeks they’re at camp. This book is my way of spreading the research-based wisdom and methods behind the magic of camp. The overarching reason for the transformational changes campers experience at summer camp is not, in fact, the fresh air and the fun. It is the culture, and that culture is intentionally created through very specific, planned practices. The nine secrets of summer camp that I share in this book can help you create a happier, more connected family culture. When we provide kids with this kind of environment, they thrive. The research (mine and the experts on whose shoulders I stand) proves that we can improve our kids’ lives by changing their environment.

My experience using these secrets isn’t limited to my job at summer camp. I have used these camp techniques in my own home, so I have seen that they’re applicable not just around campfires in the mountains, but also at home while living our day-to-day, ordinary family life. I am honored to share these ideas with you in the sincere hope that you can create the positivity and happiness of summer camp at home and have your own happy campers. By implementing these ideas, you can create a family culture where your kids feel connected, capable, confident, and loved in that most important and sacred of all places: home.

The “Magic” of Summer Camp

Dear Sunshine,

I don’t know the child who was returned to me on Saturday. It definitely wasn’t the child I dropped off two weeks earlier. The only logical explanation is that your camp is magic. Magic transformed my scared, sad boy into a confident, smiling, laughing young man. My son had a hard year in school. He was stressed, worried, and anxious. He came out of his two weeks loving the mountains, loving activities he never would have tried in a million years, and, most importantly, believing in himself. He has never been a kid who in almost nine years of life has ever believed in himself despite everything we’ve tried, and you changed that. Magic!

With gratitude,


Parents often share the positive changes and increased maturity they notice in their children when they arrive home from camp. Years later, those who were regular campers and their families continue to testify about the lifelong, positive impact camp had on their children’s social skills, character development, and emotional well-being. Kids often meet their best friends at camp, gain newfound confidence in their own abilities, discover lifelong recreational passions, and even pursue careers based on interests and strengths developed at camp. Campers describe experiencing their first feelings of belonging and acceptance and of discovering their true selves while at summer camp. I’ve had the privilege of watching two generations of campers return as camp counselors and even as camp parents. Our loyal, longtime campers consider their time at camp the most important and pivotal part of their childhood. Many call camp a “second home” and often use the word magic to describe what it feels like to be part of the camp community.

Those of us who have dedicated our careers to working at summer camps know that no one actually has a magic wand. The transformations that happen at camp are the direct result of the research-based, intentional strategies we’ve implemented to create this positive environment for nurturing optimal growth. Of course, it’s super-fun for children to live in a tent, enjoy the beautiful outdoors, learn adventurous recreational skills, and gather around a nightly campfire roasting marshmallows, but there are important principles behind the work we do. While teaching a child to water-ski or rock climb, we know they’re gaining far more important skills, like the courage to try something new and the perseverance to do it over and over, despite failure.

As parents, we can look at the skills we teach our children in the same way. When we have our child help with a regular daily household chore, like washing dishes, they are learning more than just kitchen hygiene. They’re gaining a sense of responsibility, a work ethic, and an understanding of how each family member contributes to running the household. When we think about our parenting choices, it’s important to remember that our end-goal is helping our kids develop life-changing skills and character traits that will help them thrive as adults. With this framework, it’s clear that washing dishes is not just about having a clean kitchen.

Young people require much more than intellectual growth and physical health to become happy, successful adults, and yet much of our time as parents is focused on their academic, athletic, and other endeavors. This is why summer camps work so well to produce profound changes in a such a short time; the camp environment fosters connection and is one of the only places where the culture is focused primarily on kids’ social and emotional development.

Just like children practice important social skills at summer camp, at home kids can gain those same important relationship skills. When we sit around the family dinner table, sharing our ideas and dreams or talking about our highs and lows from the day, our children are developing important social skills like better listening, learning to ask questions, offering compliments, and sharing appropriately. Regular opportunities to practice engaging translate into our children being better able to navigate social interactions at school and in other settings.

The close connections children feel to parents and siblings have a profound and positive impact on the way they successfully navigate relationships outside the family. Knowing that social skills, positive relationships, and character traits like kindness, grit, and optimism are so closely linked to our children’s present and future happiness and well-being, in Happy Campers I share the tools I’ve developed at camp to foster these and other important traits so that you can provide the same guidance to your kids at home. Camp experiences, I have determined, can be accurately viewed as a positive psychological intervention for children, contributing both to their social skills development and their overall wellness.1 In this book, I’ll show you how to create that intervention in your own home, where the benefits last not just two weeks but a lifetime. Magic!

They Call Me “Sunshine”

My time at camp has made me realize the version of myself I’ve always wanted to be. Camp made me feel like I was spending my time in a way that I was going to remember. Camp reminded me I have the power to live my best life. Camp has inspired me to take my aspirations and happiness into my own hands.


The transformative power of summer camp is, for me, very personal, because I experienced it myself. In the 1980s, while my Stanford University classmates dressed in suits and pursued internships at Oracle and Coca-Cola, I spent my final three summers of college working as a camp counselor at Gold Arrow Camp. During those summers while I drove a ski boat, taught kids to water-ski, and led cabin group games and discussions around the campfire, I learned several things that would shape my future. First, I realized I did not have the same career ambitions as most of my classmates. In fact, although I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I wanted to do postcollege, I knew what I did not want—a job that required me to work in a cubicle or wear a pencil skirt and heels. Second, I discovered that although I had long thought of becoming a classroom teacher, the kind of teaching I really loved did not happen in the confines of a classroom. Back then, the career of “life coach” hadn’t been invented, but looking back, I loved being a life coach for my campers. I relished the chance to talk with kids about their dreams and struggles, and I appreciated having ample, unrushed time in the outdoors to get to know them and hear their stories.

I knew the life skills I could teach and the positive influence I could have were exactly what I was created to do. Before passion had become a buzzword, I had found mine. My sense, from my very first summer as a camp counselor, was that I was teaching children so much more than how to water-ski. Overcoming fears and experiencing multiple failures were, for many of my campers, their first lessons in perseverance. I was hooked. Their accomplishments felt like my own.

Another positive outcome from my summer camp counseling experiences came from the sense of community I felt. I had never been in a setting where the values were so in line with my own. Being outdoors and chatting around the campfire with my campers and fellow counselors, I felt a sense of belonging. I enjoyed being with people who were unconcerned about appearance, accomplishments, or material belongings, which was a big cultural shift from what I had experienced outside of camp. Having been on the academic treadmill of a college-preparatory high school followed by attending a competitive college, with the level of academic pressure and expectation not too dissimilar to what many kids are experiencing today, I had never stepped off the prescribed path long enough to figure out what I was actually interested in. No one had ever asked me or encouraged me to think about my real strengths and interests. I had always felt a bit like a fish out of water at Stanford University, and the difference was even more striking after I had experienced camp. Once I had lived in the supportive, familial, noncompetitive community of camp, and experienced the calming simplicity of living in a tent with a few old T-shirts and some hiking boots, I—like the campers we serve today—spent my school year counting down the days to summer. It turns out I had found what I was meant to do.


  • "HAPPY CAMPERS--full of practical and powerful tools that parents can immediately put into practice--lights a path to help parents nurture a culture of connection in our homes...to help our children become their best selves."—Tina Payne Bryson, Ph. D., LCSW, and New York Times bestselling co-author of The Whole-Brain Child and The Yes Brain
  • "HAPPY CAMPERS offers the big dose of positivity parents need! Make your parenting far more enjoyable and effective by adopting the practices camp counselors use to create fun, life-changing, and character-building experiences. The Bringing Camp Home Section at the end of each chapter provides proven ideas and practices to raise kids who are more capable, kind, resilient, and optimistic--and who have the skills to thrive as adults!"—Jon Gordon, bestselling author of The Energy Bus and The Power of a Positive Team
  • The recipe for...connection, positivity, independence, and perseverance that can turn any kid into a his or her best self.—Jessica Lahey, teacher and author of the New York Times bestseller The Gift of Failure
  • HAPPY CAMPERS is a joyful and wise parenting book...I have never read a more optimistic and well-grounded guide to parenting.—Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, school consultant, international speaker, and bestselling author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys
  • With this book, parents can bring home the magic of camp and learn all the simple secrets the counselors use to build meaningful relationships that will help your child grow and meet their fullest potential as young adults.—Dr. Jim Sears, pediatrician, camp doctor, and co-host of The Doctors

On Sale
May 7, 2019
Page Count
272 pages
Center Street

Audrey Monke

About the Author

Audrey Monke has a master’s in psychology and has worked with thousands of parents and campers as owner and director of Gold Arrow Camp in Lakeshore, California, since 1989. Known by her camp name “Sunshine,” Audrey is a speaker and writer about positive parenting techniques for raising successful children. She is a former president of the Western Association of Independent Camps, as well as a regular contributor to Camping Magazine and the American Camp Association’s Camp Parents blog. Visit her website at sunshine-parenting.com.

Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., LCSW, is the New York Times bestselling co-author (with Dan Siegel) of The Yes Brain, The Whole-Brain Child, and No-Drama Discipline (Random House). She’s a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting consultant, and the director of parenting education and development for the Mindsight Institute. A frequent lecturer to parents, educators, and professionals, she lives near Los Angeles with her husband and three children.

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