Editor’s Note: The most recent American Camp Association (ACA) National Camp Conference felt like my favorite one ever. It was so good, that I wanted to write 2-3 blogs about it to share with you the depth of content — speakers, topics, research, brainstorming, collegial relationships — that surface during what feels like a “camp” of our own for camp professionals. So follow along this week for an in-depth look at what running a camp really means in the 21st century. The first post was: Mini Blog Series, ACA Camp Conference 2018: A Camp Director’s World.
Celebrating Camp Leadership
As I mentioned in my last blog, a camp director’s world is unique place within the larger education establishment. We work year round to ensure engaging and smooth programming, and we are constantly looking to science, education theory, and best practices to both maintain what is essential about the American sleepaway summer camp experience, and yet to also grow so as to remain relevant to today’s families, campers, and lifestyles.
At camp conferences of the caliber that the ACA offers, we camp directors get to meet en masse and dive deeply into material across a wide spectrum that informs our thinking and planning for the summer ahead. And fortunately in addition to the sessions, we have each other with whom to brainstorm and bounce around ideas and perspectives.
Now I want to share with you some of the content highlights from the conference so that you, too, can see just how seriously the camp industry and top camps take our mission to educate and engage your camper in the time they’re with us in the summer.
Taking The Pulse
This year the conference took place in Disney World at Disney’s own conference center. I loved this location and this could have been part of the reason I felt so happy and engaged the whole time. I just love Disney, and the weather was amazing the whole time.While the conference was inside, we had to walk outside to get from our rooms to the center, and the evenings were warm enough to sit outside which makes for great breaks to chat up other directors and catch up with industry peers.
And this year we tried something for the first time — we decided to have one of our camp nurses, Kathryn Baker, join the Association of Camp Nursing (ACN) and attend the symposium and medical sessions that run concurrent with the conference.
I had thought about this for a while, especially every year at the conference when I see all the medical sessions and the ACN representation. Kathryn grew up coming to Alleghany as a camper, came back as a counselor, and was a Head Counselor before starting her career as a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) nurse. But like many of us, she loves ‘Ghany so much that she comes back 1-2 weeks each summer as a camp nurse!
Kathryn will be taking on the role of setting up the Infirmary in the beginning of the summers (thank you, Kathryn!) and staying on for Staff Training, so I was really excited when she agreed to be my ACN representative and join us at the conference.
Her notes and new knowledge from the conference will be so valuable — it’s always eye-opening the first time you’re surrounded by SO many camp professionals who do the same thing as you, and you learn how different camps operate. Just in talking to Kathryn, it was a really great experience for her and she learned a lot. I can’t wait to sit down with her and sift through her notes together so we can share what she learned with the rest of our medical staff.
In addition to me and Kathryn, Program Director Casey Tucker attended (his first ACA National conference), and rounding out our Admin Team presence were my parents Alleghany President Sam Dawson and Special Events Director Bonnie Dawson.
Inspiring Speakers, Important Messages
The opening keynote speaker was phenomenal – Florence Williams, who wrote The Nature Fix (which you can buy at that Amazon link). I bought a copy and, of course, was a fangirl and got my copy signed! (Geek alert!)
Williams’ research is eye-opening and straight up scary; she traveled around the world studying the ways different cultures use nature and outdoor time to de-stress, relax, remediate mental health, and more.
Her presentation gave some hard science about our brains and how they are altered in very bad ways when we spend less time outside and in nature. And it’s why anxiety, depression, heart problems, and more negative health issues have skyrocketed. In the past century we’ve experience the biggest mass migration in the history of the world — the migration indoors, from rural to urban settings — and the horrifying health results don’t bode well.
I’m only a couple of chapters into her book but it’s really fascinating and motivating stuff (I don’t want to be in a couch potato society!) and I hope to use some of what I learn from it with the counselors in Staff Training.
Casey, a world-class advocate of the outdoors, has a copy and is reading it, too. We’ve been comparing notes and talking about it together which is just so wonderful as camp leaders, but also for how what we discover and develop together will feed camp life, staffing, programming, everything!
This concept of moments/peak moments/disruptive moments was talked about in other sessions as well. It’s essentially why our brains remember the “highs” of an experience more than the overall experience.
Heath gave an example of a trip to Disney World and how you could have several frustrating or unpleasant moments, but the peaks or highs will stand out so much more in your mind that you’ll only remember it as a really wonderful trip.
I’m SO excited to use this concept with the counselors, leading them to focus on the powerful moments that happen at camp, how to help recognize when these moments occur for campers, and what to do with them, how to process them, talk about them, help the campers see the growth happening.
Heath also brought enough books to give everyone one for free, which was really generous. So camp got a copy and Casey got one as well. I’m excited to dive into that one after I finish The Nature Fix.
As you can imagine there is so much to see and do at a camp conference that choosing which thing is the toughest.
We kind of “divide and conquer” so that we can spread out and attend different sessions and compare notes. In terms of sessions I attended, I essentially break them down into three categories:
- Counselors/Staff Training/Staff in general
- Customer Service/Feedback and Surveys/Camper Retention
- Self-care for Camp Directors (Yes, this is a thing that is talked about a lot since much off-season work is done in isolation and then the summers are slammed.)
Those are very nitty-gritty administrative sessions that are beneficial for a director to revisit each year to hear the latest, but I won’t bore you with those details. And of course, these aren’t the only categories of sessions.
There are sessions on food allergies, kitchen staff, insurance, cultural sensitivity and awareness, creating a strong LIT program (more from Casey on that soon!), leave no trace philosophies of nature care, creating a positive camp culture, reexamining your camp traditions and if they’re still appropriate, all-girls sessions, all-boys sessions, gender sessions, sessions on anxiety in campers, anxiety in counselors, anxiety in camp parents, risk management, ACA standards, marketing sessions galore, more staff training sessions than one person could attend alone the whole week, communication — with campers, with counselors, with parents, with prospective families — legal issues, research in camps, emergency procedures, supervision and feedback, public policy, visas for international staff, and on and on it goes.
We love that — what a cornucopia of opportunities for ongoing professional development within this industry.
And let’s not forget the exhibit hall which is just a fun place to talk to vendors of ALL types, get ideas, taste some samples, try some new games, look at new camp clothes and swag, door prizes, etc.
And finally, as mentioned above, the networking and bonding between camp professionals just can’t be beat. Being able to sit around a dinner table together and share ideas might just be the single best part of conferences like this. I came away with several new ideas or perspectives just from talking to other camp professionals in a casual setting.
As usual it was an amazing time, and for some reason this time I came home with this feeling of wanting to really convey what this profession is all about from an educational and pedagogical perspective, how much we pour ourselves into it in order to make camp an essential part of a child’s development and positive, powerful, and even transformative life experiences.
I know Casey also wants to write something up about the conference, and I may want to offer some book reviews and delve more deeply into some sessions I found especially relevant to ‘Ghany. So look for more as you follow the blog!
— Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls