Developing Grit At Camp

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By Allison Hodges, Director of Camp Webb


It’s a common sight at camp… the camper stuck halfway up the climbing wall, legs shaking, nose sniffling, and a small voice saying, “I don’t think I can do this!”  Then, suddenly a ray of sunshine bursts through the trees highlighting the next hand hold, a small group of angels begin operatically singing, and the camper, still trembling, slowly reaches her hand to the next handhold on the wall.  Gaining confidence with every move, she makes her way a little higher.  Below, friends and counselors are cheering.  She smiles and her success is that much sweeter because she was fearful, but pushed forward.

We just witnessed “Grit.”  Camp is Grit.

Grit is seen in campers the moment when frustration or failure is experienced and they make a decision to carry on.  This decision can result in making them more resilient.  People who have grit find a way to respond to setbacks positively.  They see the good in failure, learning from their mistake. 

Grit is not something that everyone is born with.  It must be fostered through experience.  In order to have grit, we must fail, get back up, and try again.  Life requires grit; no one’s life is devoid of troubles and hard times – no matter how much they’ve been protected from difficulty. Those who handle these hard times well, enjoy life more than those who turn around in the face of an obstacle.

More and more, parents are trying to protect their children from failure.  By doing this, they are taking away the child’s ability to persevere or be tenacious.  Failure is temporary.  Life…and camp, give us the gift of good failures, though it may not feel like it in the moment. If a child does not have the opportunity to fail, and then additionally, the opportunity to change for the better because of that failure, he or she will crumble in the face of a challenge.

Grit is seen in campers the moment when frustration or failure is experienced and they make a decision to carry on.

Where did you learn your grit?  Sports? Playing an instrument?  Ironically, I learned mine at camp.  For many years, I attended a girls horseback riding camp in West Virginia (Camp Rim Rock).  This camp was known for bringing in top notch, hard-nosed riding instructors from England.  Yes, I had played sports and attempted to play the piano, but nothing challenged me like those British riding instructors who pushed me towards excellence. And I failed. I failed repeatedly, I failed publically …in front of my cabinmates, and I cried about it.  As a young girl, I thought those instructors were so “cool.” I wanted to be just like them: gritty, tenacious, hard working, but loving at the same time. 

Camp is a place where grit is demonstrated, found, and taught.  Camp accomplishes this through role modeling and experiential learning.  Campers are challenged on the climbing wall, on the drama stage, in the riding ring, or on the playing field.  Fostering grit requires the camp counselors to be encouraging while simultaneously getting the campers to step out of their comfort zone.   

Counselors must be able to judge a camper’s emotional readiness for frustration and failure, and be supportive during a setback. Camp is a fun place to struggle, and a joyful place to try new things. There will not be many times in life when challenging yourself to succeed can be done by dressing up like a banana and attempting to learn how to tread water for more than 30 seconds. The people and the culture of camp make it a safe place to foster grit.  Camp is Grit.

I’ve gathered my thoughts about this from watching it happen, realizing the importance of it and reading about it (mostly in a book by Thomas R. Hoerr called “Fostering Grit” ASCD product  #SF113075). If you’re interested in reading more about grit, here are some resources Mr. Hoerr shared in this book:

A 2011 New York Times article by Paul Tough titled “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?” He also wrote a book How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007) by Carol Dweck

A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Education titled Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Maya Angelou


Allison Hodges lives here in Knoxville and has been the Director of Camp Webb at Webb School of Knoxville for 14 years.  She grew up attending camp and has been in the industry professionally since 1997.  She is passionate about what camps can do for children of all ages and encourages everyone to spend some time at a summer camp.

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