The third piece in our Program Series, three blogs that cover the ages and stages of our Mini Camp and Term Camp programs.
In an age when there are so many activity choices for kids during the summer, there is the temptation to give your kids a taste of as many of them as possible. If a little bit is good, so the saying goes, more must be better.
But what this leads to are scheduling complications, rushed and often shallow experiences, and the feeling that enough is never really enough because while we got to do a, b, & c we didn’t get to do x, y, & z.
And all this happens while parents sing oft-heard refrains like, “Oh my gosh, we’re so stressed with the kids’ schedules.” “Do I ever get to stop running around to all the kids’ activities?” And, “We’re all sooooo stressed — can’t we get off of this insane merry-go-round?”
There’s a reason that summer schedules are supposed to be less hectic — it’s to recoup from an already often over-booked school year of classes, sports, and enrichment activities. Again, when parents feel the pressure to “do more, or she won’t be able to compete.”
To all this I say, Consider the merits of slowing down. And consider what these merits are for your children, too, in a world that’s just as hectic on them.
So let me offer you a little history to contextualize what summers were like for kids when summer camps began, a little over a 100 years ago in America.
Camps were once long and lazy summers
When Camp Alleghany first began, in 1922, it was offered in two four-week sessions. But back then, almost all campers stayed the full eight weeks! It was absolutely the norm to stay full term, and far fewer campers stayed only one term (it’s the opposite now!)
Around the mid-1960s (we think) my grandfather changed the length of the terms to three and a half weeks (so seven weeks total). Our understanding is that times were changing and it was harder to get campers to come for four (or eight) weeks.
Additionally, his wheels were turning with the idea of Family Camp — though that didn’t start til later. But shortening the session terms gave an extra week in the summer.
I grew up with this, the three and a half weeks, in the 1980s and 1990s.
First Term started on a Wednesday and ended on a Saturday three and a half weeks later, and Second Term started on a Sunday and ended on a Wednesday. Family Camp started right after that, and that extra half week actually made Family Camp ten full days.
Of course, I stayed the whole summer, being part of the business family — and I loved it! There were still many girls coming full term then, and the summers unfolded with grace and ease, restorative to one and all.
Another little squeeze
Then along came the idea to start a Mini Camp.
We again felt pressed with changing times, and campers/families not committing to as many weeks as they used to, instead choosing “subject camps” like sports camps, art and performing camps, science, math and other academic camps, — or several “subject camps” — out of the desire to want to do everything.
Yet families were conflicted; they still wanted a piece of traditional summer camp, too.
All these summer menu items often interfered with what came to be perceived as a “too long” traditional summer sleep away camp.
Families also grew less open during this time about mom and dad vacationing alone or with friends while the kids were at camp or while one kid was at camp, feeling that this was somehow neglectful, or selfish.
Times had really changed!
There’s also the problem of some schools ending in very late June, and other schools beginning in very early August, really putting the squeeze on any extra time in the summer.
So in 2003, when we decided to start a one-week Mini Camp at the beginning of each camp summer, we knew we had to shorten the Term Camps again, ending up with the three-week terms that we have now.
So here we are today running a traditional summer camp with programs almost identical to what we had in 1922 — programs that were designed to take four weeks (or really, eight, since most campers stayed all summer!) crunched down into three weeks.
A thoughtful program
Traditional camps are traditional because, well, they’re traditional! How’s that for a circular argument?
But there’s truth to it.
We are not seeking to become computer camp or film camp or foreign language immersion camp. We’re seeking to provide kids with what they’ve always needed after a busy year inside with their heads in books — a counterpoint to all that. To that end immersion in nature, seamless social time, daily rest and renewal, practical skill building, the togetherness of campfires and songs, and classic, well-rounded enrichment activities in areas of sports, the arts, and the natural world, all serve to “teach” the camper all the things that she’s not getting elsewhere, but to teach it with joy, low-stress, companionship, and personal goals.
Because one of our main program goals is for our campers to walk away with a sense of personal accomplishment in any area (Rifle, learning to live peacefully with four roommates, learning to make her bed, table manners, etc.), we feel strongly that these goals are achieved through a longer program — for us, that means three weeks.
Broken down, the weeks generally boil down to this:
Week 1, Routine:
The girls are getting accustomed to the routine, connecting or reconnecting with friends, learning or re-learning the ropes, finding themselves in this new setting, and getting settled.
Week 2, The Meat:
Campers are now really settled into the routine, and focusing hard on work in their activity departments — learning lines in Drama, working toward passing the level in Canoeing, working toward the next position in Rifle, etc..
This is a GREAT week in my opinion — the girls are into the routine, they have shed whatever “stuff” from home they left at home, and are hitting their strides. But also, there isn’t a rush to finish right now, or to perform or anything. It’s just a great week of really doing what camp is all about.
Week 3, The Culmination:
Here, everything they’ve worked on — performances, the passing of activity levels — or even outside of activity departments, things like the self-discoveries, perhaps understanding more fully that tentmate that you thought you wouldn’t like, really understanding her for who she is and even learning from her, comes to fruition!
We start celebrating our campers with honors and recognitions for all their hard work. And things are solidified here — that goal in the department, the friendship that may have had a rocky start, finally getting the hospital corners down. It all comes together.
Could we do this in two weeks? Not really. Sure, we could really put the squeeze on, give the program a more hurried feel, but the vibe and the impact would be totally different.
It would hardly be that long-standing, traditional summer camp aura, the ease, simplicity, and unfolding of time and immersion in the alternate world that is camp.
We confidently believe that three weeks is really what it takes to accomplish our mission and our goals and to leave the girls feeling known, restored, and part of something magical.
As it is, when we went down to three weeks we inevitably had to cut out some of our traditional activities, or modify them in some way, or at the very least alternate years in which we did them.
For example, we used to have an “Upstart Day,” for our Upstart age group, where they would pick a theme and plan activities for the entire day, including that evening’s activity, all of which the whole camp would participate in. There just isn’t as much time for that anymore, so instead the 15s and 16s each get to plan a fun booth for The Carnival, and the 16s plan their own evening activity as part of their leadership development program.
Similarly, the Junior Counselors had “JC Day,” but with the many, many classes and responsibilities the JCs have throughout the summer, it started to feel more like a burden to squeeze this in when we only had three weeks.
In the end we remain steadfastly committed to what we consider to be the “Goldilocks” length of this program. It is, in fact, “just right.”
Sometimes parents call us (at least one every year) and say,
“My daughter is signed up for First Term but I need to pull her out early for vacation/sports tryouts/fill in the blank, is that ok? Can she leave a week early?”
In these situations we go case-by-case, but our real aim is for the camper to stay.
We ALWAYS tell the parents why three weeks is really important, and that we don’t feel we can truly accomplish our mission and what we stand for in less than that
Can she leave a week early? No. Can she leave a few days early? Maybe…and we work with each parent on this individually.
But there is a huge downside.
When a camper leaves early, she can’t be in the Dance or Drama shows, meaning there’s not much point to taking those two activities.
She also doesn’t get to have those final culminating celebrations and ceremonies like Babies Boats or Candlelight Campfire, where really that is what the magic and inclusion of camp is all about. These moments and evenings symbolize and celebrate everything the campers have done, learned, and become over those three weeks, and the girls really feel it. They are moved by it. It is touching, transforming, completing.
So does a camper who has left early miss out? You bet she does!
And do WE miss out? Absolutely — we miss out on the opportunity to feel we have accomplished our mission for that camper. And every camper is important to us!
In closing, as a mission-based traditional girls camp, we are committed to sticking to our roots and the proven strength of our program. The meaningful, healthy, and wide-ranging development of the girls and young women entrusted to our care each summer is a process. That’s why a full three weeks remains important, even in a world with so many choices and options for a busy, hectic, summer.
Ours was originally and very successfully a four-week and/or eight-week program, and we’ve worked hard to honor those programs even at three- or six-weeks.
We can’t go any shorter. And in a world pushing kids to grow up too fast, to be enticed by consumerism, negative body-image messaging, and high-stress competitive cultural elements, your daughters may need just such a camp, and three weeks away from it all, more so now than ever before.
So why not sign her up for Summer 2016?*
— Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls
*If you want to learn more about the benefits of our Mini Camp, please download my FREE e-book, “3 Reasons to Begin Your Child’s Sleepaway Summer Camp Journey Early.”