It’s back to conference season, that time of the year when we plunge into a lot of professional development as we learn from the larger camp community. And I love this!
Just this last week Sam and I attended the American Camp Association Virginias Winter Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia held at the Ft. Magruder Hotel and Conference Center.
A different take
The keynote speaker was James Davis of Summer Camp Revolution, whose talk I LOVED so much that I chose to go to both his morning and afternoon breakout sessions — I literally spent the whole day listening to him!
James’ ideas and message really resonated with me, though his perspective is a bit radical if you will, a very revolutionary approach to working with kids.
The gist of what he does is that at the camp he runs, he made some sweeping changes based on the fact that their camp mission is to help kids become their “best true selves.”
To achieve that mission, he did some soul searching, discussion with others, and research on how to accomplish this mission.
In the end, he decided that the best way to accomplish this is to not force kids to do anything at all — AT ALL — but to let them make all their own decisions, and learn from their mistakes.
What this means at Summer Camp Revolution is essentially that nothing at camp is mandatory, the rules are very basic, and campers get to choose to do whatever they want on any given day.
Like I said, this is pretty radical, and don’t worry, Camp Alleghany won’t be adopting that style 🙂
But there’s more.
Ideas for exploration
The general principles still gave me a LOT to think about, and my wheels are still spinning over this. Let me give you some examples that are food for thought.
Davis is really in to the children making their own choices, and learning from their choices. For example, Summer Camp Revolution doesn’t enforce a bedtime at camp. But this isn’t as chaotic as it appears at first glance.
Without a strict bedtime, inevitably campers stay up talking until 4am or something, which is fine while the good times roll. But like clockwork, the next day they’re exhausted, out-of-sorts and out of step with campers who recognized their limits and hit the sack at a reasonable time.
Davis is patient with kids’ choices — he’s the grown-up who’s quietly watching, knowing that experience is one of our best teachers.
What Davis anticipates at camp is that the campers can’t keep the late nights up, and eventually they’ll be upset that they’re too tired to participate in fun stuff during the day. That internal reckoning naturally spurs the camper to adjust and start going to bed earlier.
Additionally, he referenced a school where there are no academic classes at all. I’m not really sure what the kids do, but they’re not forced to do anything, or learn anything they don’t want to.
After many years of this, this school has been able to put forth some statistics — such as that the average student there doesn’t start learning to read until around 2nd grade age. But at that age, they’re so ready to read — they’re tired of having to ask what things say —that they literally learn to read in a span of 14 hours. So, while they’re “behind” other kids in reading, they’re so eager to absorb reading when they finally make the choice on their own that they just soak it all up and learn it in roughly two school days. Pretty amazing stuff 🙂 .
Bringing it home
Again, all of the above is not our method at Camp Alleghany — and definitely not in the works for us — but some aspects of this approach might work in individual activities or other areas of camp.
This makes me think about how I approach meals with Mason — we don’t force him to eat anything, but if he doesn’t eat what’s on his plate, he’ll be hungry. He doesn’t get any other options (e.g. I’m not going to give him a sandwich if he doesn’t like what I have cooked), but essentially he’s learning that if he doesn’t eat, he’ll be hungry.
We’re not ready to adopt such a massive philosophical/pedagogical change at Camp Alleghany, and probably never will be. But there are a lot of areas in camp life where this thinking can be applied on a much smaller scale. So I’m putting some thinking into that — maybe there are some areas in Senior Camp, or experiments we could do as “play” during nighttime activities. I’m not sure yet so you’ll have to wait and see when you come to camp. 🙂
Another of Davis’ ideas that I loved, and that I will definitely be talking to our counselors about this summer is the concept of a “point of tension.”
According to Davis, a point of tension is whenever an adult inserts him or herself into children enjoying what they’re doing, or interrupting the children’s flow in some way.
An example is when we stop the meal for announcements. The campers are enjoying their conversations and often don’t want to have to stop talking. We often have to shush them several times during announcements. So while we still need to do announcements, we can use this concept to just be aware and understand more why the campers want to continue talking. Or maybe we’ll explore a way to have announcements built in to the beginning or the end of meals, something the kids would be expecting rather than being interrupted.
Davis also emphasized that at his camp relationship-building is as important a goal as skill-building. So if a couple of campers would rather sit out and not participate in an activity because they’re enjoying talking to each other, they let the campers do that, because it’s nurturing and fostering friendship and relationships.
Now, we feel that at Camp Alleghany we have lots of ways that campers build bonds with other campers and staff that we wouldn’t forsake other camp goals for this.
But at the same time just learning about how other camps approach things helps me see things differently and changes my perspective in subtle ways. You’ve got to keep an open mind!
Davis is all about camper choice at his camp, and what can they do at their camp to really foster the magic and create the magic of camp within this overarching ethos of camper choice.
I’m excited to do some of his unique and engaging exercises that speak to helping to create the space at camp for the magic to happen with our staff this summer.
In that way, no matter how different our camps, our missions, and our philosophies are, there is something to learn that will help stir the pot of our creativity and bring new insight into leading our camp — and that’s always exciting!
I stayed on in Williamsburg for two more days after this conference to get trained to be an ACA Associate Visitor. And I’ve got a blog on that coming up soon so stay tuned!
Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls