We picked our little boy up from camp the other day. He’s been to sleep-away camp twice this summer, early in the summer for 4 nights, most recently for three nights. He’s still little so these have been taste-of-camp programs, designed to give kids an idea of what camp life is like, to whet their appetites for future summers. He’s been kayaking, swimming, boogie boarding, and canoeing. He’s gone on hikes and learned how to fire an arrow out of a bow. He’s made crafts, learned new songs, and had some intense dance parties. He’s also had great quiet times in his bunk with his counselors and his new friends.
What struck me most after he barreled down the hill and into my arms was how brilliantly camps and their counselors work to build relationships with kids, quickly and deeply, so that after only 3 nights my son was firmly attached to the young men who had been caring for him. What could teachers learn from them as we barrel towards the inevitability of a new school year?
1. Relationships First, Relationships Always
Camps put relationships first. Building relationships with and among campers is the most important part of camp life. Camp is nothing without relationships and they are the focus of all the programming that goes on at any camp. My son often has trouble falling asleep at night and one counselor stayed up with him telling “stories from his life” to help him settle down. The sketch book he had brought to camp was canibalized for use in making droves of paper airplanes to entertain the boys on a rainy day. One counselor remarked on how creative and imaginative my son is and how kind he was to the other kids. I wondered: do I know that much about my students after just three days? These counselors are young adults; I’m a grown up (apparently) and I think they’re doing a better job of building these relationships than I am.
2. Valuing Risk
I write a lot about the importance of resuscitating risky play in early childhood settings so maybe it’s no surprise that I see risk as being one big reason why summer camps have such success in engaging kids. Within minutes of his arrival, our son was in the water for his swim test and then it was on to the ropes course for climbing and swinging in a giant suspended swing. Earlier in the summer he was kayaking on his second day of camp. The attitude is get them out, keep them busy, let them try. Maybe they fall down, maybe they fall in but the expectation is that they will get back up and give it another shot. Scrapes and bruises are treated as the minor injuries that they are and kids engaged in risky play are rewarded with high fives and hoots of encouragement instead of being reprimanded. Summer camps are concerned about safety but it’s not at the expense of children’s growth, development, and self-worth. Experiencing risk, success, and celebration together cements those all important relationships.
3. No checklists, no charts, just children
No child is met at camp with a benchmark expectation that have to be a level 3 swimmer when they leave. In any given bunk group you might have children who are non-swimmers and children who are confident swimmers – and that’s okay. Each child is encouraged to grow from where they are, to improve compared only to their former selves, to become a better swimmer for themselves. Their achievements, whether they be putting their face in the water for the first time or swimming to the island and back independently, are celebrated with equal enthusiasm. Children feel good about themselves because they’re treated as individuals and honoured as they learn new skills at their own pace instead of being told where they “ought” to be based on statistical averages.
Now, try re-reading that paragraph with “reader” in place of “swimmer” and “classroom” instead of “bunk” and imagine for a minute how school would change if we honoured and celebrated each child’s developmental pathway instead of pushing children to fit into boxes on a checklist. We start where we start – no shame in that!
4. Little People, Big Needs
As a former camp counselor myself, I wondered how our son’s camp was staffing his special mini-camp program. Where would the extra staff come from? When I worked at camp, there certainly wasn’t enough staff to accommodate 49 extra little bodies. The solution, it turned out, was ingenious. The camp had invited back some of their former section and unit heads, now working full-time in the big city, to come back to camp for a four-day long weekend. Here were the smallest kids with the most experienced staff. Brilliant! As anyone who’s taught kindergarten knows, teaching small children is very taxing; not only are they learning content, they’re learning about school as a construct: How do I behave in a group? Where are the washrooms? What is recess? How do I make friends? Imagine if we gave them the best, most experienced teachers to guide them through those early years. How might that shift their school experience?
5. Fun! Remember?
Camp is all about fun. Fun engages, fun facilitates, fun breaks down inhibitions and defences, fun builds relationships. We don’t have enough fun at school. There is still some part of us hanging on to the belief that learning has to be quiet, still, and a little bleak in order for it to be rigorous. At camp there is almost no sitting; at school it’s almost all sitting. This has to change. I am determined that this year will be my year of fun. I will laugh with kids, I will be silly, and I will not be ashamed of having fun at school.
I’m going to try to keep a little bit of camp alive inside of me, remembering my son’s assessment of the experience: “It was awesome!” I’d love it if he had a school year just like that – awesome, fun, risky, and full of fulfilling relationships. I wish it for us all.