I’m a firm believer in fundamentals.
One year as a Camp Director I got a parent evaluation that has stuck with me for years now. It said, “Keep it simple. It’s just summer camp…..” I was offended, naturally. Here I was spending 9 months out of the year planning and organizing day in and day out so that their kid could have a truly amazing and unique adventure, and they were saying I had overthought the whole thing.
It took me a few weeks to stew on it before I could really examine that line of thinking. The conclusion that I came to was: focus on fundamentals, don’t get bogged down in too many details. As a Camp Director it’s your responsibility to know all the details, but what I’m saying is don’t over-plan (except for covid stuff…definitely over-plan for covid).
Each year it seems there’s a rush to teach the latest and greatest techniques and Jedi mind tricks to staff in order to get the most out of summer camp. Don’t get me wrong, I love new games, songs and activities, but I believe that if you focus on 3 fundamentals you’ll have an awesome summer camp, no matter what fads or details you add that year.
Safety. Fun. Meaning.
While our knowledge of youth development continues to evolve, the summer camp experience remains largely the same. We take kids outdoors and on adventures for a little while to teach them life skills in hopes of developing character. Over the years we’ve done some good work to include “all kids” in this experience, but we still have a lot of progress to make.
I believe that if our programs are rooted in fundamentals of safety, fun and meaningfulness we can then move on to fine tune programming to address inequities. These inequities will continue to evolve and come to light just as our knowledge of their solutions continue to evolve. And it’s these inequities that I think we are trying to solve when we add new elements to our camp. “What’s missing that will make camp better?” is a simple way of looking at it.
Most of what we do now after about 120 years of summer camp is fine tune and solve inequities. These solutions come in the form of behavior management techniques, inclusion, diversity and program additions to meet everyone’s interests. When we identify inequities and their solutions I think we can use our 3 summer camp fundamentals.
For example, transgender camper inclusion at summer camp: We need to think about how these kids can be safe physically and emotionally at camp, if there is anything unique to making their experience fun, and if we need to adjust the delivery of the program to make it meaningful for them. The interesting thing is that you would say the exact same things about a non-transgender camper’s experience. While the specific solutions vary, the process remains very similar.
Here’s a closer look at these 3 fundamentals.
Safety means physical safety and emotional safety. I hope this is self-explanatory. Rule #1 at camp is keep the kids alive. Rule #1.1 is don’t damage the kids physically or emotionally.
Fun means fun for everyone. If what you’re doing isn’t fun or more specifically will negatively impact somebody else’s fun at camp then it’s time to rethink it. However here’s my fun caveat: not every moment at camp will be fun for every child all of the time, and that’s okay. If a child is not having fun in this moment, as long they have options in the near future to have fun and as long as in this moment they are indifferent rather than hating the experience, then they’re okay. I think there’s a big difference between indifference and hate. Indifference gives us an opportunity to develop character through patience and conversation, hate doesn’t belong at camp.
Meaningful can mean a lot of things and can be the hardest to nail down. How do you make walking from the pool to the shower house meaningful? Well you sing songs, talk with kids, play little games and use this time to connect with campers and staff. Meaningful moments happen on two levels at camp: on a personal level as well as on a community level. When we have a meaningful experience we are experiencing things firsthand, having new adventures, making friends, and learning about ourselves.
SAFE. FUN. MEANINGUFL.
I know that with the addition of covid mitigation practices we have a lot details to put into place this year, more than usual. Once you have a grasp on these details I think you’ll be amazed at how focusing on our 3 fundamentals while campers and staff are on-site will keep your program simple, safe and amazing. Good luck, I’m pulling for you.
*These views are my own based on my own experiences and knowledge as a veteran summer camp professional. They do not represent any other person or entity’s point of view that I am associated with.