Camp ASPIRE returns to empower students with essential life skills

ASU’s Department of Psychology teaches elementary, middle school students how to manage stress and grow in social settings


Young women looking at an open laptop screen

Led by clinical psychology graduate students at ASU, Camp ASPIRE returns for its fourth year, offering a virtual summer program that equips children and adolescents with the tools they need to navigate life’s challenges. Sessions begin on June 12 and July 10. Photo courtesy Unsplash

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Camp ASPIRE, a virtual summer program at Arizona State University that combines strength-based skills training and engaging activities to empower students and foster the development of essential life skills, is returning for its fourth year. 

Led by clinical psychology graduate students, Camp ASPIRE (ASU’s Skills Program Inspiring and Reinforcing Excellence) aims to equip children and adolescents with the tools needed to navigate life’s challenges and embrace their full potential. Through interactive sessions full of activities, collaboration and reflection, participants learn to manage emotions, build social skills and develop problem-solving abilities, all in a virtual setting accessible to anyone with an internet connection. 

“You won’t find a summer camp that has more qualified camp counselors,” said Matt Meier, clinical associate professor and co-director of clinical training. “On top of their expertise, our graduate students are just a bunch of good people. They’re counselors that are excited to be interacting with kids, and they have the skills needed to do so effectively.” 

Camp ASPIRE provides students with the tools they need to respond and participate fully in their lives, so that they can show up as the best versions of themselves. It’s not therapy — instead, it’s a program designed to help students from all backgrounds learn to positively approach life experiences and challenges. Programming and activities look different for various ages, and students are grouped accordingly. 

Rising third- through sixth-graders make up the younger age group and benefit from research and activities adapted from Associate Professor Armando Pina’s Courage Lab and offshoot programs like COMPASS for Courage. A game-based environment helps children to socialize, better understand their emotions and learn how to handle uncomfortable or stressful situations.

“Think of things like the movie 'Inside Out.' That did a lot of really great work giving personalities to different emotions and helping us see that we all have these emotions inside of us,” said Rana Uhlman, a doctoral student and Camp ASPIRE facilitator. “We build off this idea of characters with the younger group, and we play games that identify the different ways unpleasant emotions like anxiety, anger, worry or fear show up. One of the fun games we play is Simon Says Emotion, where we have campers display what that emotion looks like so they have awareness of the different feelings that pass through their bodies.”

Students are given vocabulary to help describe what they are feeling, and they’re equipped with the skills needed to process emotions like worry. A game called Worry Head is used to teach students how to identify and investigate things that might be causing them concern. Instead of feeling anxious, counselors help students consider alternative possibilities to what a worry might be telling them.

Similar, approachable methods are applied to the older age group, too. Rising sixth- through eighth-graders are encouraged to envision their future and taught problem-solving skills so they can start building the lives they want to live. They learn to be independent and step into their individuality. 

“As students get older and are more engaged in social media, they often lose out on social skills like talking directly to people, learning to cope with their emotions and being able to pay attention to what other kids are going through. This program helps them focus on interacting with each other,” Meier said.

Programming is based on Provost Nancy Gonzales’ Bridges Program, an initiative designed to increase grades and confidence among teens while decreasing depressive and anxiety symptoms. Participants learn to create small, achievable goals that contribute to larger aspirations. They are connecting with people their age, finding similarities and working with adults.

Constructed out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, Camp ASPIRE continues in a virtual setting for the benefit of its participants and is not limited to Arizona residents. Campers meet three times per week for shorter bursts of structured time, helping them stay engaged with activities so they stick long after the program ends.

“They’re not spending an entire day zoned into a screen. The bite-sized programming gives students a chance to practice new skills in between us seeing them,” Uhlman said. “We’re able to check in and reinforce these skills as campers build them into their daily lives. We see so much growth.”

Camp runs for two weeks, meeting online from 1 to 3 p.m. Arizona time Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The program is $100 per child and contains activities akin to previous camp years. Scholarships are available based on financial need. Sessions begin on June 12 and July 10. To sign up, fill out the interest form online.

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