Unscheduled Time

The most important and immediate improvement in a program is simple: children experience the most learning when you are not trying to teach anything! Much of creating a decentralized program involves preparing the right environment and then having the courage to step aside and let learning occur. This begins with training a counselor to adopt a decentralized mindset, putting him or her in the position of a camper so a counselor can develop as a “mediator” between the camper and the environment, rather than as a teacher structuring that environment for the child. While mock schedules and role-plays are typical elements of most camp-training programs, give staff an actual camper experience for a minimum of two days. This must be experienced as a group, led by seasoned senior counselors. Several broad guidelines (i.e., the types of activities and experiences the group desires) should be the guide. Finally, there is one main principle: What needs does the group have–relating to the developmental phase–to help the group progress and grow? To arrive at these needs, a co-working team of counselors spends 30 minutes each night planning the next day, based on their observations and discussions with the group. This allows the counselors to adjust, individualize, and mold programs in response to the group’s needs. 

The Decentralized Schedule

Although some may consider this heading a contradiction, it is possible to schedule “unscheduled time.” Trade Winds Lake Camp, a traditional centralized sleep-away camp located in Windsor, N.Y., adopted into its


schedule a block of time from 1:00 to 3:30 every afternoon, in which the responsibility of the day-to-day experience was shifted to the group and the counselors. The counselors were given three categories of initiatives (team-building, literacy, and recreational), and suggested activities in each of the categories. Counselors chose fewer of the suggested activities, and began to develop their own. Gradually, they were able to respond to the campers’ needs, and take more initiative for the experiences of the group. The senior staff reported an immediate effect on group cohesion, team spirit, and overall group performance. 

From Outcomes To Experiences

Finally, it’s important to mention that a decentralized component can be introduced into an individual activity. Shifting the focus from specific outcomes to processes is a start. In practical terms, counselors can rethink an activity to turn instructions into questions. For example: 

We are getting ready to hike three miles.


How long should our first hike be?

The question challenges the group to assess what the members already know or need to find out to answer the question. The counselor’s job is to guide the conversation and connect the group’s choices to available resources and to consider the reality of the group’s ability. This also involves allowing the group to fail; if properly mediated, this can be a positive learning experience!

What camps, centralized or decentralized, have in common is they view themselves as educators and role models, adding an essential dimension of a healthy upbringing to countless children each summer. The decentralized approach has the potential to enrich and deepen the campers’ experience, and that is–after all–the most important goal.

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