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Learning to Lose at Camp

Whether it’s a school spelling bee or a soccer game, as parents we want to see our children win not just to experience the joy of seeing them excel but because we know that they want to win.  Being raised in a competitive culture naturally makes us all want to be number one.  Children equate being number one with being the best.  However, as grownups we know that it’s impossible to win all of the time and that winning doesn’t necessarily mean being the best so much as being the best on that particular day.  The idea that losing, in reality, is closer to not winning in that it’s possible to “lose” yet gain something valuable from a contest or competition is one of the most difficult concepts for children to embrace.  Camp is a place where not only is this point driven home daily, but it’s a lesson learned at camp in a fun, constructive environment.

The pressure of anxious parents and coaches on the sidelines of sports competitions combined with the knowledge that school performance affects everything from what kind of classes they can take, extracurricular activities in which they can participate, and what colleges they will be  attend place a great deal of emphasis on children’s performance.  The ability for children to be able to process that good can come from not winning is clouded because the end goal is the emphasis.  The underlying message that children sometimes inadvertently receive as a result is that they will be valued or loved less if they lose.  Camp, on the other hand, emphasizes process and embraces novice.  One of the primary messages conveyed to campers is that winning is a great thing at camp, but it’s not everything.   Improving skills, finding activities one really loves, having fun and making friends are valuable attributes at camp.  In such an environment, winning
takes on less prominence.  Children are less likely to feel less valuable as campers for losing.

Camp leaders and staff work very hard throughout the summer to make sure this atmosphere is maintained. Children are encouraged for performance, accomplishment, and attitude regardless of being winners or losers in a contest.  Many special camp  games or competitions are also structured in a way that encourages children to work together in order to win and provide excellent opportunities for those children who may not be excellent athletes or extreme intellectuals to have their moments to shine.

Learning how to “not win” at camp makes it much easier for children to put “not winning” at home into proper perspective!

Play

We recently listened to a man who has spent many, many years studying the effects of play on humans. While it sounds a lot like our job as camp directors, he’s got the Ph.D. so we thought to give him our attention. We are glad we did.

Dr. Stuart Brown said several fascinating things about Play:

  • It overrides what is sometimes fixed in our natures – it brings individuals together in ways which allow them to expand their knowledge of others and the world around them.
  • If the purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play.
  • People who have not played with their hands (fixing and building) do not solve problems as well.
  • The basis of human trust is established through play signals. We begin to lose those signals as we age.

When you look at camp through the prism of these statements on play, you encounter a big ‘duh!’ moment. Watching our campers play together shows you how the common act of laughing together, or playing gaga, or chase, or different table games allows the kids to spread their wings and learn.

While we have a good bit of unstructured play at camp, there is also a great deal of play within teams such as soccer, basketball, baseball, dance teams, and more.  Campers build trust with their teammates, learn from mistakes, and are taught to keep a great attitude throughout their time at camp.

In woodshop, robotics, and ceramics, we give kids a great opportunity to explore with their hands and make, fix, and tear apart things they don’t normally at home. These experiences lead to wonderful outcomes both over the short and the long term.

Thankfully, Dr. Brown reminds us that we, as humans, are designed to play throughout our lifetimes. We couldn’t agree more. And, since play signals help build trust, we hire camp counselors who show the right mix of maturity and experience while keeping playfulness close to the surface.

We are excited to remain a place where play leads to several much needed outcomes: relationship formation, the development of confidence and independence, and a community in which campers know they are accepted. Whether through our traditions, choice based program, evening activities or during free time, our campers laugh and learn while playing!

The Subtle Pleasures of Summer Camp

Have you noticed subtle pleasant but odd changes since your children returned from summer camp?  Have you peeked into your son’s room and noticed that he made his bed?  Were you tempted to take your daughter’s temperature the other night because she volunteered to clean up her room?  Maybe they just seem calmer or are better about sticking to routines about which you went hoarse more than once preaching to them before you put them on that bus or plane headed to their favorite summer zip code.  Perhaps they’re better about saying ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ or spend less time all out at war with each other over little things like the remote control and whether they’re going to watch The Voice or Modern Family.  Did they really mature that much at summer camp?

Not that you’re complaining.  It’s a nice, unexpected bonus.  When you initially enrolled them for camp, you were thinking it would be good for them to spend their summer working on arts and crafts projects, learning how to sail, going swimming, doing the silly things that kids do at camp, and playing sports instead of using up your entire cell phone data plan during twelve hour texting marathons or playing the Kinect so much that you can no longer tell whether you’re watching a video game or an actual television program.  You thought, ‘Maybe they’ll even make a few new friends.’  But, oddly, it’s the smaller things they seem to be bringing away from their summer camp experiences that you find yourself enjoying the most.

Sure, you read all about the benefits of sending children to summer camp before you decided to send them.  But you didn’t allow yourself to actually have expectations that your children would come home friendlier, more dutiful, more flexible, able to manage their time better, and generally happier–in short, more mature. Those are the special changes that you enjoy seeing and that make summer camp that much more valuable your eyes.

Ask Me More about Camp

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar…
Your child comes to you and says, for what seems like the billionth time, “Ask me more about camp.” It’s now December and you’ve heard some of the stories so many times that you can actually recite them along with her.  You wonder what odd but amusing little story your little one has managed to scour from the back of her mind that somehow involves the solitary five minutes of summer camp about which you haven’t yet heard.  While you’re doing this, your child only grows more impatient, “Go ahead.  Ask me,” this time becoming so excited that she hops up and down a couple of times and appears to be choreographing her own little “ask me more about camp” dance, which somewhat tops the bemusement of the time she sang for you to ask.

You can’t resist her enthusiasm because you think it’s great to see her this excited about anything other than the latest episode of iCarly, so you cave and wait for her mile-a-minute relay of some cute story about that time she held hands with six friends and they all jumped off the water trampoline and made a really big splash, which was really funny because it made so many waves that it almost tipped over a paddleboarder nearby…No, really it was SO funny!  Or the time they went on the nature walk, and it started raining, and they were trying to hurry back to camp, but they slipped in the mud…THAT was the funniest! You’re still trying to get the stains out of the shirt she was wearing that day, but you get an image in your head, having seen the photographs of your child and her friends covered in mud the camp posted on its website, and knew from the ear-to-ear grin that she was obviously having the time of her life, and you have to chuckle because, yes, it’s funny.

Your child starts a new story about a soccer game and how her friend had really wanted to score a goal all summer at camp but really wasn’t that good at soccer, so she blocked another player so the friend could try to score. And you realize that even though you might get asked to quiz her about camp a few hundred more times before the line turns into “I can’t wait to go back!” you don’t mind because you realize that hearing about little moments like this is nice. Not only did your child just have the time of her life, her enthusiasm in sharing her experiences with you adds great value to your decision to send her to camp because not only is she having fun but she’s learning valuable life lessons.

The Decision to Return to Summer Camp

Deciding to return to summer camp is a big decision that many families are already making.  Sure, it’s difficult to think about summer camp when the temperatures begin to plunge and the holidays are just around the corner.  However, it’s actually the perfect time to decide about returning to camp. The camp season is far enough removed that campers have had time to reflect on their summer.  Parents, also, likely have adequate feedback by now to be able to evaluate the value of sleepaway camp as registrations begin opening to returning campers and, in fact, at some camps, registration is almost complete. Beyond memories and adventures, there are many factors to consider, particularly as campers get older and new options begin to present themselves.  Here are some to think about:

Each summer is a new and unique experience highlighted by changes from year to year: the introduction of new activities as well as the tweaking of existing ones, fresh staff faces, new facilities or remodeled ones to accommodate new programs or expand popular ones.  Camp is truly never the exact same experience twice!

Aside from the physical changes to the camp program, campus, and staff, as children journey through their camp years, they look forward to age-specific traditions each year.  Some of them are relatively small, such as sitting at a special place during meals or a later wake-up in the mornings.  Others are fairly monumental–the trips get bigger and longer, the leadership roles become more significant, and the impact of the traditions themselves grows.

Bonds strengthen over time.  It’s always touching to hear returning campers talk about meeting their best friend at camp or share stories about their favorite counselors.  There is the intimacy of the bunk or cabin environment as well.  As children move through camp with their friends, they become very close.  Fresh opportunities also present themselves each summer for campers to make new friends while trying different things.

When one considers how much change happens at camp each summer, it’s easy to see that by not returning–even for a summer–campers miss out on something big!  The primary goal of sleepaway camps is to make sure campers are safe and have fun.  Their staffs work tirelessly during the winters and dedicate long hours during the summer to make each summer better than the last, which means that probably the most important thing to contemplate when deciding whether to return to camp is that next summer could be a camper’s best summer ever!

Past the Post Camp Lull

It’s here.  The lull.  The point at which the reality has set in that summer is over but next summer isn’t quite real enough.  By now, most of us have shared our favorite memories of camp at least a half dozen times with anyone who will listen  and we’ve actually started to settle into our fall habits, even if we still catch ourselves humming camp songs in that off moment while riding in the car or doing homework.  There is a peacefulness about this time of year, though, because it’s the point at which we really begin to grasp the summer couple of months, reflect on them, and embrace the memories of them.  Believe us!  We’re not joking when we say that for those of us at camp, the summer passes with lightning speed.  Blink more than once and miss it speed, in fact.

It’s hard to really take it all in in the moment.  But one of the best things about camp is that it is something that can be savored.  Henry David Thoreau wrote, “But the place which you have selected for your camp, though never so rough and grim, begins at once to have its attractions, and becomes a very centre of civilization to you.”  And he was right.  Camp is as much a mindset as it is a place.  For the next ten months, things will regularly happen that will remind us of something that happened at camp.  Whether it was a heart to heart with a counselor, a favorite activity, or even just the adventurous spirit that comes with discovering something new, each summer at camp is full of about a million opportunities to learn just a little bit more about life, some of them impossible to realize until well after the original moment has passed but each of them capable of taking campers and staff back to that “place.”

Learning the Value of Tradition at Camp

The holidays are around the corner.  During that time of year, the word “tradition” gets thrown around a lot.  But how many people actually understand what tradition is really?  Perhaps it’s the emphasis on forward thinking and constantly in-motion global community that has caused many to confuse “tradition” with “routine.”  They’ve both become something that we do on a regular basis in order to establish or maintain a consistency or pattern in our behavior.  So what really distinguishes “tradition” from “routine”?

First, routine is something that one person does but might not necessarily have in common with others.  Most people brush their teeth at some point in time in the morning.  Few people do it at exactly the same time.  Some shower first.  Others eat breakfast.  Eventually, everyone brushes their teeth but the experience is, for all intents and purposes, individual.  There is no shared significance.

Tradition, on the other hand, is by definition community oriented.  It’s a shared custom, belief, or activity with a common understanding of the reason for its practice.  Many of us eat turkey at Thanksgiving because we symbolically associate it with that first meal between the pilgrims and native Americans.  It’s a tradition.

Second, routine, unlike tradition, is not necessarily multi-generational or even long-term.  It’s something done for a specified length of time.  While we maintain some routines for all or much of our lives, others are short term.  If one gets the flu, for instance, one might temporarily take up a routine of antibiotics.  But once the flu subsides, so does that routine.

On the other hand, tradition is something that is a common bond between multiple generations.  It’s an acknowledgment that an event or action was significant to someone tied to our past, and the observance of traditions our way of paying tribute to that event or action as well demonstrating our understanding of it.

Finally, routine is task oriented.  We take up routine in order to accomplish a goal.  There is an intended result in routine.  Tradition, however, is an observance.  Routine is a way of moving forward, whereas tradition pays tribute to the importance of the past.

By now, you’re surely asking yourself what any of this has to do with summer camp. Simply this: in a culture that places a significant amount of importance on the establishment of routine, the value of tradition is increasingly less understood and appreciated.  Summer camps, however, are grounded in tradition.  They’re  a place where campers and staff members alike get refresher courses in the power of tradition.  Whether it’s at a campfire, a sing along, or an activity specific to the camp, there are literally hundreds of opportunities every summer for those at a summer camp to bond through tradition.  Many former summer campers and staff members actually name “tradition” as one of their highlights of summer camp.  So if tradition has become an element of holidays past, consider giving your children a future opportunity to enjoy tradition at summer camp in 2013.

Camp: A Different Set of Expectations

Okay, admit it.  You’ve found yourself spending a considerable amount of time admiring that candle your daughter gave you on her camp’s Visiting Day or those wooden bookends your son brought home.  Part of you wonders how come you never got to make stuff that cool when you were a kid while another part of you is mystified by how the arts and crafts staff of your child’s summer camp was able to draw out the Picasso in your little ones.    After all, you can barely get them to focus long enough to make a poster for their science projects.  What is it about camp that seems to facilitate children’s creativity?

Sure it’s woodsy and remote, even quaint–the perfect place for children to feel free to be themselves.  They certainly do a lot of things at camp that they don’t get to do at home.  And you did spend the entire summer looking at photos of your daughter posing in a rainbow colored tutu—Did she ever take that thing off?—and of your son covered in face paint knowing full well that neither of them would EVER dress like that at home.  And was that your son dressed as a dog singing on stage?  Singing?  Him?  Really?  And last night he just told you, by the way, that he is trying out for the school play this year because the camp play was really fun.  He would never ever—even if someone had double dog dared him—have auditioned for a play before camp.  What changed?  The Expectations.

There are a lot of reasons children find themselves exploring more creative avenues at summer camp, but one really big one is that the expectations are different.  Children learn to respond to expectations.  Moreover, they learn to respond to the expectations of individuals.  They understand that their parents have expectations as do their teachers, siblings, friends, coaches, so on and so forth.  Whether  we’re comfortable admitting it or not, a lot of the expectations in that ten month world campers know as “winter” in some way promote conformity.  Expectations placed on children at home, in school, etc. emphasize the importance of following rules and established guidelines.  Of course, camp expectations do this, too, but the emphasis at camp is not to find one’s place in that larger whole by blending in but by standing out.  Camp is a place in which children are encouraged to try new things in a quest to find their passion.

Sure you’re thinking of those photos of your daughter holding up her latest tie-dye creation for the camp photographer’s camera—those ones in ewhich she was covered to her elbows in dye—and you’re thinking that’s you wouldn’t really classify tie-dye as a “passion.”  Maybe not.  But it could be the beginning of one, the spark that leads to an interest in art or the arts, or even just the memory of trying something new that turned out to be fun that lends courage to trying other new things.  The expectations in the “world” of camp is that campers will explore it.  Perhaps this is why it’s no surprise that many well known figures attended summer camp and attribute it to being the place where they found long-term direction.  Sure, learning how to plunk out folk songs on a guitar is a long way from the philharmonic and being part of the chorus in the camp play is certainly not Broadway, but the idea is the same and, for many campers, it’s the start of building enough self confidence to stand out.

Re-asserting “Team” in Team Sports

Whether your family lives in a large city or a small town, there is likely not a shortage of organized sports  for children. Increasingly, the emphasis of team sports is less about what it means to be a member of a team and more about being the MVP of a winning team.   As a result, child athletes are often caught between sparring parents on one sideline and anxious, screaming coaches on the other.  Overly zealous parents and coaches seldom stop to consider that children often absorb their parents’ feelings and may project the resulting tension through their play.  The immense pressure to be a star who constantly wins is often why many children become burnt-out in the competitive sports environment and choose to take a break or even quit altogether.  Says Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, “If all the focus is on winning, kids may be scared to fail and make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process and it’s how one improves.”  One of the most undervalued benefits of team sports at traditional American summer camps is the environment that allows children to make mistakes without fear of backlash from the sidelines and to process those mistakes in a way that they can turn them into learning experiences.

Setting up children for success requires a welcoming environment in which they can feel comfortable being themselves.    Those who tend to be self-conscious are particularly challenged by situations in which tension runs high.  The spirit of camp is one of instruction, fun and safety more than competition.  It’s about making children feel like a valuable part of a unit that utilizes everyone’s talents in a way that is beneficial.  In short, the traditional summer camp environment is a team environment.   At camp, children have the encouragement of their counselors and fellow campers when playing sports.  A child making a layup shot on the basketball court for the first time is cheered just as much as someone scoring a winning three pointer.

Perhaps the relaxed positive reinforcement they receive while learning to play sports at camp is why so many children (as many as 60%) feel compelled to continue being active in an activity they tried for the first time at camp.

Camp Senses

The unseasonably warm and pleasant weather seems to be bringing on summer faster.  The flowers are blooming, the birds are back, and the days are sunny. It’s hard not to take advantage of the opportunity to prematurely engage in all of one’s favorite summer activities a little bit.  The other day, my sisters and I caved.  We decided to rally my niece, go to the park and, yes, even though three of the four us fully qualify as grownups, play on the playground.  I’m convinced that no matter how old one gets, no one ever gets tired of swings.  It turns out that we weren’t the only ones with such an idea.  The place was packed, children and adults everywhere.  The park had even opened up the boating dock, something that they usually don’t do until Memorial Day Weekend.  People were out on the lake in rowboats and paddle boats.  They were picnicking.  They rode by on bicycles, skates and skateboards.  The comforting familiar smell of campfire from the nearby campground even permeated the air.   It was as if 2012 had transposed May and March.  My niece and I managed to score the last two remaining swings while my sisters preoccupied themselves on the monkey bars.

My niece and I have this game we play.  We see who can swing the highest.  The little boy between us apparently thought our game looked fun because he joined in.  As we slowed down for a bit after tiring ourselves out, he started a conversation.  I think he actually wanted to talk to my niece but decided I’d make a good mediator—at least in the beginning.   His name was Hunter.  What is her name?  Angelica.  How old is she?  She is six.  Same as me, he said.  What grade in she in?  First.  Same as me, he said again.  He jabbered on.  His dad had told him that if he was good they might rent a paddle boat later.  Maybe Angelica could come on the paddle boat with him.  He wished the concession stand was open so he could get ice cream.  Earlier in the day he’d gone to his swimming lesson at the JCC.  Then his mom signed him up for camp there this summer. I perked up.  Every now and then, chance throws a writer a bone and you have to grab it and run with it. Camp, huh? Do you stay overnight at this camp?  No, I’m not old enough.  I didn’t tell him that I already knew this.  The minimum age for most overnight camps is seven.  Is this your first time at the camp?  Yes, my sister went last year.  She said it’s really fun.  What do you think will be the most fun?  Ummm…I don’t know.  I don’t really know what we do there.  I bet you swim there.  Yeah, I think we do.  I worked at a camp.  You did?  Yep.  Only everyone stayed overnight at my camp.  His eyes grew.  They did? Yep.  I think I would like to do that someday.  Was it fun?  Yep.  What was it like there?  I looked around at the bicycles and the boats.  I took in the smell of campfire in the air and listened to the sound of all of the children playing and laughing.  It’s a lot like this.  I think I would like that, he said.  Hunter had no idea that he made my day and helped me out a lot by literally handing me material for a camp blog.  I hope he has fun at the JCC camp this year…and that he makes it to overnight camp someday.  If you haven’t thought about sending your children to camp, take a trip to your local park on a nice spring day.  Your senses just may help the decision become clear.

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