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Monday
Feb102014

Planning for the Perfect Camp Experience

Very few things at camp actually go as planned. Oh, not that we don’t have a plan! I am the best of plan-makers, believe me! I am an expert at lists, charts, tables, procedures, etc. (Just ask the staff that work with me.) But throw together 200 campers, 60 teenage counselors, 50% chance of scattered afternoon thundershowers, a rash of homesickness in the youngest hut, late delivery on the canteen truck, and you’ve got a recipe for plans that do not go according to plan! Working as a teacher, youth director, and now camp director has taught me that planning is crucial to success, but that flexibility and learning to solve problems that arise are just as critical.

Take, for example, Registration during the summer of 2013.  Ask any parent who brought a camper to Winnataska and they’ll tell you it rained during Registration. Because it rained. Not just drizzle, or sprinkle, or threaten to rain, it rained on Sunday afternoons like I have never seen rain at camp before. The weather pushed our flexibility to the limit, as we had to adapt and change our original plans and work in sopping wet conditions. 

Even though the stress of such situations is intense at the moment, I wouldn’t go back and change anything about the rainy Sundays, even if I could. For one thing, being out at camp always reminds me that God is in control. And secondly, I can’t teach flexibility to my camp staff without encountering such unplanned obstacles!

An article on the ACA wesite called "Because I Worked at Camp" affirms my observations: "Staff may find themselves in situations in which they need to adapt an activity to fit the needs of their group, lead a program that does not have all the necessary supplies available, or help campers negotiate their differences in order to accomplish a task as a group. Not only do camp directors see problem solving in action among their staff, researchers have also found that staff experience an increase in their ability to solve problems as a result of working at camp." 

Not only are camp staff going to grow in problem solving skills, but here’s the real gold nugget…. so are campers!  No matter how well-packed they are, at some point during the week, your camper will not be able to find what they need. No matter how many new friends they make, at some point, every camper will be annoyed with another camper in their hut. No matter how many choices offered in the dining hall, at some point, our campers will not like what is being served at that meal.  No matter how engaging and entertaining camp staff is, at some point, a camper would prefer to be at crafts, or the pool, or whatever their favorite activity is. 

These all seem so…negative. We want camp to be a positive place, right? Don’t we want to get rid of these “negatives?”

No, we don’t.

These are not negatives. They are unplanned obstacles, which can be stressful at the time, but they provide lessons for your camper to learn adaptability.  Can’t find your flashlight? Get up the courage to ask the person who sleeps next to you to borrow theirs. Not getting along with a hut mate?  Talk to your counselor about it before dinner to help you solve this problem. Don’t like chicken pot pie? Eat a salad; your mom would be proud!

One of our first instincts as parents is to try to rush in and solve such problems for our kids. (Me included, here, folks.)  For example, when I am at home, and my two boys are squabbling, the noise is worse to me than 10,000 nails on a chalkboard. So, I step in and provide solutions.

At camp, children must learn to be the problem solver and devise their own solutions. We, as parents, are not there to swoop in. Children mature through the experience of solving a problem themselves. We do work very hard to provide a supportive environment for campers, where the problems are such that a camper can successfully learn to solve them, and feels comfortable asking for help. (For example, there are a lot of caring counselors who will loan a camper a flashlight.) But the reality is, in “real life” and at camp, that something is always going to pop up, some unplanned obstacle is going to frustrate us, make us change our plans, get in the way, or mess up how we thought is was supposed to be. And that’s more than ok. The Perfect Camp Experience is not perfect, after all.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson is a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist, and according to her research, these types of situations that kids encounter at camp will even help to develop child's brain, specifically the middle prefrontal cortex: "So, when kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on, it builds this important part of the brain."

At the end of the summer season, I flew to Michigan to attend a cousin’s wedding.  I came straight from camp, and was lacking some hair supplies (the whole 2 oz rule when flying), so I stopped in the drug store to pick up a few things.  My family needed to get ready for the ceremony. They took the rental car back to the hotel and the plan was for me to walk the half-mile back. A great plan! While I was in the store, guess what it started to do? Yep, you saw that one coming...Rain. Sunday-afternoon-registration-at-camp kind of downpour. I whipped off my high-heeled sandals, sprinted back to the hotel, laughing along the way.  (While I enjoy story-telling, I am not lying in this tale, even though the only witnesses remain in Michigan.)

As I was making my way through the torrents, I came to a realization - I know why I can laugh in the rain! Camp is why I can laugh in the rain! Camp has taught me that I can be happy anywhere, even in the most stressful situations. I am flexible! Adaptable! It was definitely a God moment. I was deeply grateful for all the life lessons that God had taught me through the people and (soggy) situations at camp.

Thank you, dear moms and dads, campers, and camp friends, for reading this far. I’d actually love to revise and add to this blog entry with some examples of how camp has helped you to become more flexible, adaptable, and a better problem solver. Email me here and I’d be thrilled to share your insights and stories.

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