June 20, 2018
Each day, as I sit down to write this blog, I usually start with a simple question, “what do I think will our wonderful camp parents want to hear about?”
Typically, this leads me to the unusual or to the silly. For example, I might discuss the intricacies of selecting the right costume for Dodger, the camp basset hound. Note: this photo has nothing to do with the blog, but I could not resist using it.
But today Susan Ma’am asked me to briefly talk about a topic that we are both passionate about: helping our campers develop agency, resilience and a sense of contribution. Agency is having the ability to make your own decisions and take responsibility for them. Schools generally do not have the flexibility to help with this skill – after all, they need to cover important academic content. It does not make sense to let a 4thgrader decide to skip math.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenges. At its best, it does not see failure as a bad thing, but as a way to learn and grow. But, once again, it is hard to learn “positive failure” in school. None of us (Susie Ma’am and me included) want our children to learn about failure on a chemistry test.
Contribution is also a hard one for kids. Simply being students takes a lot of their time. Some children do chores, but that can feel like an important responsibility rather than a meaningful contribution to a team or community.
Three of the many gifts of camp are 1) that it provides opportunities for campers to choose many of their activities, 2) that it provides a safe place to fail, try again and eventually overcome a challenge and 3) that it allows campers to make meaningful contributions to a community.
These points were brought home to us earlier this week when we were meeting with a group of Senior Campers who are 16 and 17. We were asking them what they liked the most about the program. We got an unexpected answer.
“I like that I have to work hard at camp. When we are leading the 8-year olds, they will not get there without us. We need to find creative ways to engage the campers and motivate them to go to their activities. My efforts really matter. At home, I am responsible for my schoolwork and my parents take care of everything else. They spend a lot of time asking me about my schoolwork. I know they love me and I really appreciate them. But here I work and I feel like an adult. At home, I still feel like I am 12.”
To be honest, we were both really struck by this comment. I think we, as parents, assume that our children are happy to have us lighten their load. But here was a teenager that craves more responsibility. We asked her why.
“Well”, she responded, “I will be in college in 2 years and I need to know that I am enough on my own.”
It is important that no one reading this think that we are trying to be preachy. Camp is not better than the home or school, but it is different. It provides some opportunities that are simply not available in school or at home. Having a wide variety of activities to try provides many opportunities for growth and low-risk failure. As my friend Dr Michael Thompson says, “failing to get to the top of the climbing wall does not end up on your permanent record”. It also forces people into very small, and very intentional, communities. When you live with 8-11 other people in a cabin, you need to develop group norms and identity.
When I speak to non-American groups, they often ask about the purpose of summer camp. I tell them that a great camp is part of a “three legged stool” of education. First (and most important), is “home education”. In the home, the child learns values and culture. The second leg of the stool is “school education”, where the child learns important academic content like language, math and science. But I vehemently argue for the third leg of the stool: “camp education”. Camp is a place to learn resilience, community, and critical interpersonal skills.
I plan to return with a lighter blog tomorrow. But when Susie Ma’am makes a suggestion, I happily comply!