One of the things that I love about the “off-season” from camp (we’re never really “off” but you know what I mean), is that it’s a time for our administration to really dig into the details of our programs in the aftermath of the recent season and in advance of the next one.
It’s now that we begin to “tweak” programs where and when necessary, to explore ideas and possible changes, to re-discover traditions we’re considering bringing back, and to communicate to you the depth and meaning of a camp experience for your daughters so that you can see camp in the larger context of her development and educational opportunities.
That got us to thinking how nice it would be to do a one-week blog series on the structure and purpose of our Mini Camp and Term Camp programs, exploring the educational pedagogy behind them, as well as how they’re linked.
So watch this week for three posts on these topics. And to start it all off, we’re taking a look at Mini Camp!
The Pulse and Purpose of Mini Camp
Elizabeth: Why was Mini Camp structured the way it was both in length and in content?
BA: In the mid 1990’s longer sleep away summer camp sessions were facing new competition from increasingly popular short-term summer specialty camps, like sports camps and computer camps. Soon, many families didn’t as readily see the value of a long term sleep-away experience because they had these other choices — or several of them in one summer.
That posed a threat to the future of traditional summer camps, like our beloved Alleghany, whose far-reaching benefits were thoroughly understood and appreciated by generations of alumnae and others who had been to similar camps.
At the same time, a core of active Camp Alleghany alums from the 1960-80’s who were considering sending their own young girls to Alleghany discovered that a number of their non-camp friends couldn’t imagine sending their daughters away anywhere for nearly a month!
To a ‘Ghany Girl, this made no sense!
So our proposed solution was to develop a one-week Mini Camp program to give parents, and their daughters, a chance to see what a true sleepaway experience could be.
Mini Camp began in 2003 with the intent to provide interested first-time campers an opportunity to get a small taste of the traditions and benefits of the full Camp Alleghany experience so they could decide if Alleghany was a good fit for them.
For parents who were unsure, this “toe in the water,” offered a chance to test everyone’s wings — daughters and parents — before the next step of three-week sleepaway camp.
Since Alleghany girls can begin either Mini Camp or Term Camp once they’ve completed first grade, this gave parents a choice based on how familiar with and comfortable with a sleepaway camp they were. Some wanted to try it all out with Mini Camp, and others were ready to plunge into Term Camp right away.
Likewise, we extended the offer of a one-time Mini Camp experience to girls who had completed up to the fourth grade since for some, a sleepaway experience would be felt as a big deal, something they just wanted to try before committing to our three-week Term Camp.
Since Mini Camp is an introduction to and taste of Term Camp, we of course integrated key aspects of Term Camp’s scheduling, including bugles, meals, and signing up for/participating in four department activities across the week. This lets girls feel the pulse of camp and see their own progression in taking care of their cots, getting to meals, and reaching an activity goal or two.
Similarly, we offer mini versions of some Term Camp traditions and celebrations, like everyone attending the Dance and Drama shows, free swim times, and the special moments of our magical Candlelight Campfire and Banquet celebrations.
And then there’s “camp colors.” Being on a color team is a fun piece of the Alleghany experience. Mini Campers as a group are represented by tie dye as their color —however, while at Mini Camp each girl is a part of a single color team from within the tie dye color burst. We do this so that when she gets to Term Camp, and becomes either a Blue or a Gray, she’ll understand and enjoy the team spirit of these colors.
Mini versions of established camp traditions allow the girls to happily connect with the camp community and enable them to jump into Term Camp the following summer with comfort, ease, and familiarity.
Because, however, the entire group of Mini Campers is new to camp, to our routines, to being away from home, etc. we decided that Mini Camp tent counselors would all be Camp Alleghany alumnae. All are over the age of 30 with a mean age of 46. And, 90% of Mini Camp tent counselors are mothers. Of the current 25 Mini Camp Counselors, 20 have been part of the Mini Camp program for eight years or more.
Elizabeth: What does a young camper experience during Mini Camp that’s different from Term Camp?
BA: The biggest difference between Term and Mini Camp is the high camper-to-staff ratio.
During Mini Camp, there are 100 staff members interacting with, observing, and nurturing the experiences of the 80 Mini Campers, currently aged 7-10.
At Mini Camp, 100% of the girls are new — none are returning campers. They are also all below the 5th grade. They have different developmental needs that can be greater and more concentrated than our Term Camp age range. Therefore the girls at Mini Camp receive a great deal more direct guidance, modeling, and closer observation. That is one way we can get a good sense of what each girl needs in order for her to get the most of her Mini Camp experience.
But it’s my baby!
Elizabeth: Do you encourage parents to prepare the camper for Mini Camp in any way? If so, how and why?
We have basic FAQ guidance for Mini Camp parents on our website uniquely addressing first-time camper and family questions and concerns.
Our blogs offer support and tips for parents and campers as well.
During our Mini Camp-targeted recruiting parties we speak most specifically to the Mini Camp experience and to first-time family concerns. We reassure parents that the children acclimate quickly to the program because of the many supports in place.
However, the biggest challenge we have noted across 13 summers of Mini Camp is that many parents were not prepared for the total separation from their daughter for a week ( i.e. no calls, texts, emails).
What they unfortunately can’t see is that their daughters are adjusting well to the structure we have built into the camp routines and that their daughters are THRIVING!
Their daughters are almost universally doing SO well at Mini Camp, perhaps in part due to the nurturing they are receiving at Mini Camp, a nurturing that is at once an extension of their family and a separation from it:
Who sent them to Mini Camp? Mom and Dad.
What is Mini Camp? Fun and loving, trusting and comforting, uplifting and challenging.
Who wins the Mini Camper’s trust? Mom and Dad and Camp!
And what is the result?
The girls — the young Mini Campers — are developing the more independent and positive habits of living in community while honoring their individuality (while having it honored by the community).
Our annual parent surveys consistently affirm that parents’ greatest praise for the program is that their daughters return home, even after just one week, with greater confidence, personal responsibility, manners, and sense of confidence and independence.
Elizabeth: Why is Mini Camp a “one-time” experience? Why would the camper be bored a second-time around, even if she doesn’t think so?
BA: The reason for Mini Camp being designed as a one-time experience is quite simply its intent: it is an introduction to camp. During Mini Camp week we introduce girls and their families to what the full Camp Alleghany experience has to offer.
The intent of Mini Camp was never to be an alternative to our three-week Term Camp experience.
Since it’s kind of a “how to” go to camp, this is really a one-time experience only.
Way back when Mini Camp first began we tried allowing a few girls whose parents requested a second summer at Mini Camp to do so. And it just didn’t work out for anyone — the girls, the parents, the program.
Some campers were bored and some rejected the guidance and support the program provides. This is probably because the program is intended for novice campers— once they’ve done the program, they’re ready — even eager — for Term Camp!
That’s not to say every single camper transitions perfectly from Mini to Term Camp. From time to time we do have a first-time Term Camper who may need a little extra support during the transition. These girls were ready for more independence, as is the goal of the one-time “training ground” and “tasting” experience of Mini Camp, but when coming back it is still a year later, the next summer. She may need some reminders, fresh encouragement, a little hand-holding.
Whenever this happens we do what we always do — meet that camper’s need for extra support as she finds her way back into the Camp Alleghany experience, a process that usually happens in short order once the rhythms of the day take hold, friendships draw near, and the heart of camp is full of song!
Tomorrow on the blog we’ll look more deeply at what makes a camper ready for Term Camp and on Friday we’ll explore why our Term Camp program is three weeks and why that length is the quintessential length for a healthy and thriving sleepaway summer camp experience.
If you’re curious to learn more about the benefits of Mini Camp, please, download my FREE e-book, 3 Reasons to Begin Your Child’s Sleepaway Summer Camp Journey Early.
— Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls
*Beth Anne Clark-Thomas (BA) is the Mini Camp Director, and is enjoying her fourth decade as part of the Camp Alleghany family. She helps girls of all ages catch the unique ‘Ghany spirit! BA loves the crickets at night, the creaking of lanterns and roots for the Grays! Please feel free to contact her by e-mail with any questions about Mini Camp