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VOL. 44 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 21, 2020

Summer camps: Slow it down or rev it up

Area programs offer skill-building, good time for every child – or adult

By Hollie Deese

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Shanelle Rauh attended the 2020 American Camp Association national conference in San Diego last week and came away with a renewed energy about the upcoming summer camp season.

The executive director of Whippoorwill Farm Day Camp in Fairview, now in its 47th year, says the camp’s entire philosophy is about freedom of choice, and it is something the camp stands strongly behind as the basis of building life skills.

At Whippoorwill, whether a child wants to sit by a creek all day and catch crawdads or sign up for five different activities, they choose their own schedule. It sounds so basic, but Rauh says it is anything but these days as children are not getting to make their own choices at home.

“They’re being overprogrammed and overscheduled,” she says. “They’re feeling the stresses of life and school and all of that, and they are being told what to do.”

At camp, they have the freedom to try things outside of the watchful eye of mom and dad, and make choices they might not otherwise make. Rauh says Whippoorwill encourage campers to try new things and step out of those comfort zones, but ultimately they decide how they want to spend their day.

“We’re definitely teaching decision-making skills,” Rauh adds. “I feel like we see that more and more now that they’re not getting those choices elsewhere, and so some of them don’t even know how to make those decisions for themselves.

“We’re teaching them some of that autonomy of them getting to make those choices for themselves, and to figure out what that’s like.”

And when they don’t get to have their first choice, campers learn how to deal with disappointment and resilience.

“It’s pretty special what camp can do, and what those skills are that they’re learning,” says Shanelle Rauh, who runs Whippoorwill Farm Day Camp.

-- Photograph Provided

“We’re teaching a little bit about a backup plan and flexibility, which are huge skills that they need to have with them just in life in general,” Rauh says. “Learning that at age 8 is a lot easier than learning that at 18 when you go to college and you don’t get the class you want, the professor you want or the sorority you want.”

Camps have been doing this for 150 years, since camping for children began.

“It’s pretty special what camp can do, and what those skills are that they’re learning, and it’s more than just friendship bracelets and swimming,” Rauh says.

Teaching autonomy

Children at every camp get time away from their parents who, intentionally or not, make many decisions for their children, from what is in their lunch bag to what activities they sign up to participate in. And despite their best intentions, making choices big and small are life skills children need to develop, too.

“We love parents, obviously we need our parents, but there are some things that kids need to be away from their parents to learn themselves,” Rauh says. “And, to figure out who they are without a parent telling them who they are, or who they want them to be.”

Rauh says it’s also important for children to get feedback from someone other than mom or dad, too.

“It’s important to hear from those counselors, another adult figure, telling you that you’re smart, that you’re creative, that you can do it, don’t give up, thank you for showing that other kid that kindness,” Rauh continues. “Hearing that from someone else sometimes means more than hearing it from a parent or a teacher, as well.”

Don’t want to climb the tower today? No problem at Camp Whippoorwill, where campers are given the opportunity to decide what they want to do.

-- Photograph Provided

Camp professionals have enormous power in conveying simple teachable moments to children, the ACA states, and those moments can help make the camp experience hammer home the value of people. Through the camp experience, young people learn to demonstrate that value through respect, honesty, caring and sharing.

Learning empathy

At the ACA camp conference, Rauh heard Dr. Michele Borba, a child psychologist, speak to the group about empathy, and how that’s what children are lacking. Narcissism is on the rise and empathy on the wane, and camp can teach children that everything isn’t all about them.

“The selfie generation, they’re just thinking about themselves, and so camp can really give kids opportunities to be working in a team, working through collaboration, and learning that it’s not just about me,” Rauh says. “Camps are huge about collaboration - you’re working in a team, you’re doing lunch together, you’re doing cleanup together, you’re playing a game together.”

Rauh adds camp helps teach children by showing, not just by telling them. And those are skills they can take back home to their family.

“Maybe they can show a little bit of that kindness to their own families,” she says.

According to Rauh, empathy is all about feeling with another human being, and that is a great way to curb bullying behaviors.

“Dr. Borba says empathy is a verb. It’s not a word to just learn the definition, but rather needs practice. Kids get the chance to learn by doing when they are at camp. If more kids had the skills of empathy, there would be less ‘me me me,’” Rauh says.

Want to  get a headstart on next year’s classes or improve on what you learned in school this year? Franklin Road Academy has academic prep camps in several  subjects.

At camp, kids have the chance to meet new friends and learn from someone new. They have the chance to share in activities and take turns. They learn it’s not just about themselves, but there is even more to it than that.

“Camp intentionally brings everyone together,” Rauh adds. This happens through songs, through roasting marshmallows, through long bus rides and being away from family, she says. Through learning new games and cheering someone on when they are scared of the big rock wall.

“As someone in the child development business, we are learning that kids don’t learn by listening, they learn by showing,” she says. “We want to show our campers how to be kind to one another. We don’t all have to agree, but we have to respect. Camp can feel like a bubble. When you are there, the rest of the world doesn’t matter, the stressors of life are gone for those few hours a day - or weeks in a year - when a kid is at camp. Campers get the chance to sit back while at camp and enjoy childhood

Maintaining old skills

At Franklin Road Academy, academic prep and proficiency-building camps are popular for older campers. The possibility of campers building skills over summer for a better fall semester appeals to parents and students.

“Staying active during break – whether pursuing sports or academic subjects – helps maintain skills over the summer months,” says Rod Jones, director of auxiliary programs. “Educationally, a child can learn about a subject not included in the regular-year curriculum.”

Connecting with nature can be part of the daily routine at Camp Whippoorwill, which has been operating in Fairview since 1971. It serves 1,500 campers each summer.

-- Photograph Provided

At FRA, campers have a chance to learn and explore subjects in state-of-the-art facilities taught by faculty or faculty-level instructors. Whether it’s learning to throw pottery with a master artisan, attending a varsity coach-led sports camp or learning about robotics in a highly specialized lab, they offer experiences at camp unavailable to children outside a campus setting.

Trying new things

Mike Martin, director of camps at Montgomery Bell Academy, says their biggest camp every year is their All Sports Camp, which is a fun way for children to try new sports, trying out everything from lacrosse to baseball to basketball.

“It’s just a good way to try something out, see if it’s something they’d like, especially for the younger kids who are just starting to get into sports,” Martin says. “Or they can learn things like coding if they haven’t done that before, or LEGO robotics. Just neat things like that where they can try something on a trial basis to see if it’s something they like and if they want to explore further.”

And the options are always growing.

“While we always have demand for classic sports camps, we have seen an uptick in interest for physical activity camps such as yoga, club sports including lacrosse, and specialized skill camps such as hitting and setting in volleyball,” Jones says.

Technology-based camps continue to gain momentum each year too.

“Our STEM camps are always among the first to sell out,” Jones adds. “Those attract campers from within and outside the FRA community.”

Families benefit, too

Jones says FRA has refined their offerings for pre-K students to meet their needs as well as provide working parents with a full-day child care option.

“Our early-age camps are all held in the morning, with an additional half-day afternoon option that includes lunch, rest time and physical activity to mirror a regular preschool day,” Jones explains.

Martin points out MBA offers a wide variety of options, from sports and drivers ed to more educational options, for children ranging in age from 4 to 14, which is about the age he says participation drops off.

Martin says camp is a huge admission tool for the school - depending on the year they will get anywhere from 78-92% of the incoming seventh grade class, their entry level year, will have attended some sort of camp or league on campus before enrolling at MBA.

“It’s also a way to make new friends or to interact with kids from other schools that maybe they don’t see on a regular basis,” Martin says. “If they’ve got friends at other public schools around town, they don’t see that often, they can link up during the summer and go to a couple camps together.”

Specialized help

Dan Wolfson, clinical director for Experience camps in Maine, California, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan, was a freshman in college when his mom died. While growing up, he had attended Camp Manitou in Maine and had returned as a staff member at the full summer program when he was an undergrad majoring in psychology. There he learned about the idea for Experience Camps.

Experience Camps for Grieving Children is a national, nonprofit organization providing free, one-week summer camp programs to children who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling.

“So, it was this perfect blending of worlds, of the summer camp that I grew up at and was so special to me, and obviously a cause that was very, very close to my heart,” Wolfson says. When children have a safe space to express their feelings and share their story among trusted peers, Wolfson says, they are more likely able to navigate their complex emotions and combat many of the risk factors associated with these unfortunately common situations.

“We know how important it is for kids to feel connected and just feel like they fit in,” he says. “And if you’re the only kid in your class who’s experienced a loss, that can feel like a really isolating experience, and feel not normative. So, by putting kids at camp and realizing, ‘Hey, these kids that I’m hanging out with, we’ve all had the shared experience, but we’re still kids. We’re not broken, we’re not different.’”

Experience accommodates 800 campers from all over the country at each session.

If you walked onto camp at any given time, it looks like a traditional summer camp with children tackling a climbing tower, playing soccer or having fun making arts and crafts. In addition, there is clinical programming and a team of social workers, with every cabin assigned a clinician to facilitate a clinical activity every day.

“So, they’ll have the opportunity to do what we call sharing circles, or to do creative activities, memory projects on activities designed around introducing kids to different coping strategies. To really focus on different ways we think about supporting kids through their grief,” Wolfson explains. “We also know a big part of adapting to loss is helping kids feel connected and feel normal in their experience.”

Social connections

The ACA states children are at less risk at camp, where they have a sense of community, develop intergenerational relationships and learn through firsthand experiences. Trained, caring adult role models help children feel loved, capable and included, providing them with a safe, supervised, positive environment that allows them to grow.

Jones of Franklin Road Academy, says that beyond school-based camps being a safe and secure place for children to spend their summer days, there are myriad unexpected benefits as well.

“Campers gain confidence through spending time with their peers exploring subjects of interest,” Jones says. “We see campers return year after year to foster passions for the arts, hobbies or sports through camps. Kids make new friendships and spend time with educators – at FRA, primarily faculty members – forming relationships that often carry into the next school year.”

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