Unscheduled Time

Photos Courtesy of Trail Blazer Camps

Photos Courtesy of Trail Blazer Camps

If the term “decentralized camping” is Googled, you will find a wealth of papers and books dedicated to the subject, yet you would be hard-pressed to find many current programs or camps that utilize this approach. After 150 years of summer camp, this philosophy apparently has all but vanished from the diverse world of camps. 

The original idea was developed in the early 1920s by Lois Goodrich and Dr. L.B. Sharp at Life Camps (later to become Trail Blazer Camps), but over time it became clear to Goodrich that despite the concept’s potential, translating theory into practice proved challenging. In the 1982 reprint of her work, Decentralized Camping, Goodrich wrote of the need for a reprint, and noted the large number of questions directed at her about specific aspects of the program. It appears these questions are still relevant today, and suggest a need to offer modern summer camps ways they can benefit from this approach. 

Currently, most camps are centralized–that is, they function from a central hierarchical structure that exercises control over schedules. The programs often include specialty areas, and are delivered by specialist counselors. The decentralized program offers an alternative approach–children live in small, family-like groups with two counselors, and are largely responsible for the entirety of their day-to-day program. In its original conception, this included all aspects of life, from cooking to playing and even laundry. The decentralized philosophy is grounded in the basic premise that children learn best from the things they experience on their own, and that the problem-solving and planning to set up an activity–the processis of equal or greater value than the activity alone. If a group of children can agree on the distance and destination of their hike, and the necessary preparations, they have learned important skills and lessons before setting one foot on the trail! Children are given an opportunity not only to experience, but also to take ownership of every aspect of their time at camp. More often than not, the process has allowed all group members–both children and adults–to access and improve skills they did not know they possessed. 

Desirable Skills

Operating a fully decentralized program is time-consuming and unpredictable, not to mention the staffing and training requirements it imposes; this is why running a fully decentralized program is so rare in today’s summer camps. Yet the decentralized model and many of its elements have much to offer. Here are some ways how decentralized approaches can transform a camper’s experience, a counselor’s performance, and the short amount of time in camp in a positive way.  

Creating The Environment

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