A Recipe For Magic

From its beginnings through today, camping has used the simple skills of supporting each other in a separate community, (or “a manufactured wilderness” as Abigail Van Slyck called it), as a way to let children and young adults practice providing for themselves and each other. It might be building a shelter (or at least keeping it clean), cooking meals (or sharing in serving each other) or just dealing with bugs in the sink and the sounds of the night. The consequences of social interaction are especially amplified when there is no place to hide, and no parent to save one.

At camp, it’s much easier for campers and staff to see the direct effects of their actions, and to enjoy the rewards of success, when their self-dependent community is isolated by wilderness and distance. In this small community, the tasks usually claimed by adults are opened up to the young. Kids (and their college-age counselors) need to try and fail, and try and succeed to know they are growing in competence and confidence. These are lessons too important to leave until adulthood. “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently,” said Henry Ford.

Create Relationships

Research done by DartmouthMedicalCenter (“Hardwired to Connect,” co-sponsored by the YMCA) shows that not just children, but people of all ages, require human interaction in order to grow and thrive.

Think of the first day at a new school for any child. “Will I fit in? Will somebody let me eat lunch with them?” Childhood stress can be balanced by a caring family that provides comfort and encouragement and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. But kids grow up and out of the house, many families are dysfunctional, some are broken altogether. Stress builds, and kids’ coping strategies can be self-destructive.

Now think of the first hour at your camp. Each camper is introduced to his new “club” and shown that he or she is accepted and welcome. The club leader (counselor) is “way cool” and has his or her “clubhouse” (cabin or campsite or picnic table). This club has a name, a proud name! There’s a code of conduct and a “secret handshake” (maybe not literally) that includes chants, cheers and songs that only members know.

This critical camp ingredient is a foundation of small groups that invite and reinforce membership through rituals and traditions. A camper may only have a small sense of privacy (adding to the feeling of membership earned), but the fellowship and camaraderie of the group make it worth the sacrifice. The members gain confidence to take on challenges and try new things that would seem unthinkable without the support of the group. It’s much more than “Come on in! Jump!” It’s also “Man, that was cool! Look, he made it!” And by the end of the day, everyone has had a chance to talk about things important to them.

I wrote a brief article once about a camp I had visited where no traditional camp songs were sung, only current pop songs. “The kids love it!” I was told, but enrollment was dropping. The response to the article was overwhelming; each of the 70 responses stated in one way or another that without traditional camp songs, one was not a member of the camp clan; one was still at school or at home. Camp songs are the secret password.

The informal and formal rituals that a camp group repeats strengthen the bonds of membership, and help store the vivid memories of friendship, accomplishment and joy. These memories not only last a lifetime, but improve with age.

The Cool Counselor

Anyone over thirty who has asked a camper, “How old do you think I am?” often gets a naïve (and annoying) answer that’s off by ten to twenty years toward the “you’re too old” side.

These kids can’t imagine ever being that old. That’s not the case for their college-age counselors. They have the freedoms that kids can’t wait for, and they’re close enough in age that kids can see themselves getting there, if not soon enough. The best description I’ve heard of a camp counselor is “not-a-parent.” I love the double meaning.

To a camper, counselors are awesome. They work outside and get paid for it, they have their own cabin, they make their own decisions, they have more people coming up and hugging them than anyone they’ve ever known. They have the energy to keep up, the courage to lead, and they’re so cool they don’t even care if they act cool. How cool! They’re the delivery system of so much of the character of camp. What’s one difference between child care and camp? It’s the ingredient of youthful staff with a small group of their own.

I have the opportunity to see camp evaluations from thousands of parents every year, and the item that rates number one most often is, “We just love your staff.” Some camps may have an organizational chart many layers deep, but it’s the counselors who live with the kids every day and have by far the biggest impact.

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