Novelty: Naughty or Nice?

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / diego_cervo

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / diego_cervo

It’s fun to ponder our love/hate relationship with newness. We wrap presents for birthdays, Chanukah, Christmas, and other special occasions, in part, because it’s pleasant to be surprised. Not only do the event of receiving something and the object itself bring us joy, but we also enjoy the feverish unwrapping of an unknown article. Call it the “Ta-Da!” factor. The sudden reveal amplifies our happiness—usually. 

Some surprises, however, are unpleasant. I’m not talking about sudden bad news, where the unexpected delivery heightens our shock and sadness. I’m talking about the startling musical blast during a scary movie that causes us to jump in our seats or a friend who hides under the bed at a slumber party and grabs our ankle unexpectedly, causing us to shriek. We toy with these quasi-entertaining surprises in cinema and in our social lives, but we can all remember wholly unpleasant surprises as well. What are the factors that make novelty naughty or nice? 

Unpleasant Novel Experiences: 

  • Contain too much new information. Whenever we encounter a new place—such as camp—then the novelty of place, people, and activities is exciting. However, when we arrive in a new place without enough information, or when the cultural or environmental contrast between home and the new place is stark, it can feel overwhelming.  
  • Tax our physical skills beyond what is comfortable. When we have specific fundamental skills, such as balance, strength, and coordination, then trying something new (e.g., waterskiing) is exciting. But when some measure of baseline skill is absent, activities become scary or dangerous.  
  • Tax our intellectual skills beyond what is comfortable. When we possess certain cognitive skills, such as speaking a second language, understanding a foreign culture, or deciphering a complex problem, then novel experiences (e.g., traveling abroad, standardized testing) are engaging, if not intriguing. Lacking those skills, we may become disoriented, discouraged, or dismayed. 

By contrast, pleasant novel experiences are those in which the content or character is comfortably situated in our physical and intellectual “challenge zone.” They’re new enough to be eye-opening, but not so alien or taxing to be eye-popping or downright eye-watering. 

As youth-development professionals at camp, we can leverage the enticing properties of novelty and avoid surprise backfires by embracing these powerful practices: 

Orient. Orientation should begin long before opening day. Familiarize young participants with the facility, schedule, activities, menu, social conventions, and lexicon (the special words used only at camp) by creating a video for the website, sending colorful booklets to families, and inviting local families to an on-site orientation. These and other mechanisms of reducing novelty also create positive expectations or “buzz” about a program. Remember, anxiety is fear of the unknown. The more we make known prior to opening day, the more comfortable the experience will be for everyone. 

Re-orient. Some children and parents will miss key information the first time around. Printed materials will get recycled, emails will get snagged in spam firewalls, and busy families will put off reviewing materials until it’s too late. Even when you make rules and schedules explicit during an on-site orientation, some campers will be so distracted they will miss essential concepts. To counteract this information overload and novelty-induced ADHD, be patient and ready to restate important information, especially on opening day. Some repetition is normal; the rest will be learned through experience. And, just for back-up, be sure that parents have access to forms and answers to FAQs on the website. 

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