Consequences for Confidence

The other day a father said to me that the break from technology use, particularly the break from “being on a smartphone,” that camp provides is “one of the best things about it.” While I was sympathetic, as I think most parents are these days —all of us wishing our kids weren’t so tightly tethered to their phones— I was surprised this dad had singled out this camp policy as a benefit. It’s odd that there’s something many of our kids use everyday during the school year, that when taken away, it’s considered a good thing.

archery bullseye target

Why Rockbrook prohibits smartphones at camp is obvious in some ways. We want girls to focus on camp, not be concerned about what’s going on otherwise. For example, being able to communicate with friends and family “back home” could lead to more severe bouts of homesickness.  For many, the allure of their smartphone would be a distraction from, if not a serious impediment to, all that camp has to offer. Camp life means bodily inter-action with real friends, stimulating exploration of the natural world, the challenges and rewards of living in a close-knit community. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this is the opposite of the virtual, filtered and idealized world portrayed on our tiny screens.

But I think this dad was implying something more serious. Perhaps he was expressing the hunch many of us share, namely that our smartphone use is causing personal damage, something like smoking was for a previous generation. There are consequences lurking among the conveniences.

climbing tower kid

We’ve already seen this argument being made, that smartphone use, particularly among adolescents, is a public health concern. For example, Professor Jean M. Twenge has attributed the high rate of teenage depression and suicide, anxiety, unhappiness and loneliness to current smartphone trends— particularly as social media has become a substitute for face-to-face socializing. I wrote about this last summer.

OK, but there’s something else, another reason why putting down their smartphones, taking a break from the flicker of social media and Internet entertainment, is a good thing. And it’s because there’s another more subtle, and therefore more insidious, consequence to their use. It’s this:

a significant weakening of self confidence.

I believe too much time residing in the virtual world of the Internet, ingesting the narrowness of social media posts, relying exclusively on passive electronic entertainment, and limiting one’s knowledge of the world to what’s been edited, photoshopped, or curated according to unspoken biases, are habits that sow feelings of doubt, inadequacy, and often anxiety. There’s an inherent distortion to what is learned from these sources that make one’s personal abilities, possessions, even appearance seemed flawed or deficient. I think there’s real power here, and over time, who we are can be shaken and our confidence undermined.

girl at needle point class

For young people who are at a critical time in their lives when they are developing a sense of self, I think the negative effects can be even more severe. Using your phone can too easily be a crutch, an escape from challenges, a constant lifeline effectively crippling one’s sense of independence.  You can see why using this technology can become a habit; it’s what comforts you when things get tough, and while that may satisfy, it can likewise create further anxiety that deep down you aren’t capable. This seems to me to be a dreadful consequence.

So yes, it is an important benefit to camp life. Ditching technology not only allows our campers to focus on camp, to boost their independence living away from home, and to engage the real world and real friends, it also gives them a break from the confidence killing forces that come with smartphone use. Camp life boosts girls’ confidence, and excluding technology is an important part of that process.

All of this makes me wonder what we should be doing the rest of the year when the communication benefits of smartphones are too important to give up. There seems to be no choice but to accept the negative consequences that come with the technology. At the very least, if we recognize those consequences, we might protect our children when they are most vulnerable by limiting their access to smartphones, and providing them more camp-like experiences.  We know why camp is great. Let’s do more of that.

after swimming at camp

Growing Together

“Most of us can remember how long the summers used to seem and how long it was from birthday to birthday. When we were five, it seemed we’d never get to be ten, and at ten it seemed it would be forever until we were twenty. So often is it only by looking back at where we have been that we can see we are growing at all.” —Fred Rogers

multi-age camp girls

Camp is often thought of as an antidote to many of the things we miss in today’s society: it provides a slower pace, a place to have real conversations, a time to disconnect from technology and reconnect with people. Even reconnecting with people is unique. With more socializing done online and inside and less within the community, many of us only have strong relationships with people who are within the same age, or are family. At camp, however, we are constantly interacting with people, and building community with, people who are older and younger than us. These inter-age conversations give us so many advantages: we are able to see new perspectives and hear new stories, see how far we’ve grown or where we are growing to, and form a dynamic community where all ages can appreciate what the others are offering.

These relationships are woven into the fabric of camp. At dance today, for example, there were three juniors and two counselors dancing. The counselors were patient and kind as the campers picked up the moves, each representing their own unique personalities in their renditions. Then, when they took a break, I thought about how naturally the girls and counselors were talking. It was simple: they were talking about movies (the song “Thriller” was playing, which some of the girls recognized from Thirteen Going On Thirty), speculating about the upcoming banquet (a topic that is endlessly interesting), and about the upcoming dance show. Even though the conversations were simple, they were quietly profound; each girl was known, and was able to share her unique experiences with the group. There aren’t many other times that twenty-year-olds and eight-year-olds sit in the same room and talk about their lives and experiences.

camp craft project girls together

This happens all the time, all throughout camp. It’s there when girls are sitting on the dock talking to swimming instructors after swimming in the lake. It’s there when seniors led the Luau on Sunday, welcoming new campers and inspiring their excitement about the activities. Maybe it’s best represented by the Hi-Ups, who have the most structured interactions with younger campers. Yesterday, I helped lead the junior overnight at the Rockbrook outpost, a ten-minute walk from camp. A few Hi-Ups (the oldest campers) were helping me build a fire. One of the Hi-Ups said she had not been out there since she was a junior. When the juniors came to meet us out there, she knew all of their names, and knew what to do to make the overnight incredible. Knowing her was clearly meaningful for the juniors; they all asked her to sit beside her, and the way she knew them made each of them feel special and valued. By getting to interact with people older than them, juniors are able to see role models of who they want to be as they are growing. Yet it was also meaningful for the Hi-Up. At the overnight, she was able to see how much she had grown in her years at camp, to help provide an experience for others that had meant so much to her as a junior, and to enjoy the new perspectives and sense of joy that come from talking to an outgoing and spirited cabin of juniors.

inter-age camp girls together

Counselors have told me they love talking to campers partly because of the way campers ask them to see the world. One counselor laughed as she was telling me about her cabin of juniors who told her they were missing Bobby. She did not want to seem so out of the loop that she did not know who (or what) Bobby was, so she asked a lot of questions about what he looked like. What does Bobby wear? A top hat and a rainbow striped outfit. Could he have wandered off? No, he has no legs and arms, but he could have rolled. What color is Bobby? Rainbow (we just told you that!). It turned out Bobby was a cork the group had decorated. The counselor dove head-first into their mission, and the cabin even made an announcement at a meal about how he had gone missing. In the end, it turned out that he was found in a Crazy Creek, not far from where he was last seen. As I type this, rest assured that Bobby is safe in his box, a nice place, similar to where you may find a charm bracelet, with a nice foam mattress and a construction paper blanket. On the lid, you’ll see “Home Sweet Home,” written in Sharpie. As we grow up, and are inundated by pressures and distractions, it’s rare that we get the opportunity to work together to find a cork in a big camp, and we remember how much pure fun the simple parts of life can be.

In addition to these inter-age conversations that happen between campers and each other, and their young counselors, this extends to an even greater range of people. A great example is Kathy Singer, who was a Rockbrook Camper from 1956-1957, and then came back as a counselor in the 60s. Now, she teaches the Folklore Activity, and she is beloved at camp for her stories about camp and also her stories about life. Recently, campers and counselors started the “Kathy Singer Fan Club,” complete with stickers, a testament to how much she has meant to the camp community this summer.

By continuing to have these inter-age conversations, we are keeping the traditions of camp alive; we are all a part of this larger community, and we take care of each other, knowing that this spirit will continue into the future. We also learn more about other people, the change in times, and how much we have grown. In a world where we are sometimes disconnected from other ages and perspectives, how lucky we are to come to camp and grow together.

swimming with kickboards together in the lake

2nd Session Video Snapshot – 2

Robbie Francis, our amazing videographer, has delivered another of his wonderful highlights videos. He again has beautifully captured the feel of camp life. At under two minutes long, it’s worth watching multiple times because with each viewing, you’re bound to spot something new— a caring interaction, a simple expression of friendship, and certainly lots of smiles. It’s fascinating!

Take a look, and let us know what you think. …or use that share button! 🙂

Here is the video. Or click below.

Fed by Friendship

The closing campfire of each Rockbrook camp session, what we call our “Spirit Fire,” is a time for everyone to reflect upon their experience at camp. It’s a time to think about what was most important, memorable, and meaningful over the days living together here. The Spirit Fire is a chance, we could say, to acknowledge the “Spirit of Rockbrook,” that special character that makes every aspect of camp life extraordinary, and exceptionally fun. Dressed in their uniforms and assembled around a blazing fire, it’s a time for all the girls, and likewise the staff members, to be together, and share what camp means to them.

Part of the Spirit Fire program are speeches, moments when selected campers and counselors stand and address everyone, reciting some sort of personal account about Rockbrook, or their feelings about camp life. Here, for example, is an excerpt from Maggie’s speech from our last Spirit Fire.

teen camp friends

“Camp is so hard to explain to people who have never been to Rockbrook before. How do I explain how fun a shaving cream fight is? Or what it means to be a Mermaid? Or how great it feels to be the one to spin the wheel? Frankly, it’s impossible.

Friendships made at camp are unlike friendships at home. Although I only see my camp friends for a month each year, my bond with them feels so much stronger. All of my memories attached to camp are ones I look back at in a positive light. Getting to spend my summers at Rockbrook has given me so many friendships and opportunities that I will never take for granted.”

girl camp friends

I think most everyone here has experienced what Maggie is describing. I think she is saying that despite living it so intensely while at camp, it’s difficult (even “impossible”) to describe the “Spirit of Rockbrook.” And yet for her, a core part of that spirit is the special form of friendship we all cherish at camp. It’s the character of our camp friends— their depth, power, and genuine lasting nature —in other words that makes everything else at camp so meaningful.

I think Maggie has intuited something important. The Spirit of Rockbrook, that ineffable force shaping our time together, is fed by the incredible power of friendship here. This is why girls will tell you they come back to camp every summer for “the people” (or for what I might add, “their relationships with the people at camp). They want to be with their special “camp friends,” experience again that special closeness, and return to a life energized by the “Spirit of Rockbrook.”

It’s a separate question to wonder what makes camp friends special (“forever friends”), and further what it is about the camp environment that allows this special character to form. We’ll have to consider those questions— how and why camp friends are so special —in a later post. For now, we can simply celebrate camp life, and recognize the importance of friendship for its unique spirit.

Camp friendship

The Need to Meander

goofy camp girls

It’s no secret that life at camp for kids is very different from the rest of the year. Many of the differences are obvious: the activities (archery!), the food (tamales!), the weather (all of it!), the beautiful setting (mountains, waterfalls!), parental involvement (very little), close contact with nature (spiders!), access to technology (none), even our friends (the closest). But there are more subtle differences too: the shared experience and strong sense of community, the lack of academic and social competition, the regular exposure to singing, the opportunity to be creative and face adventure, the almost constant physical activity, the genuine kindness and caring shown and practiced, the face-to-face communication, the celebration of our silly sides, and the regular feelings of contentedness and joy, for example. All of these differences, and certainly more, collectively define camp life. They shape the sleepaway camp experience for your girls.

And that’s a good thing! A great thing! After all, it’s these differences that make camp inherently educational, surprising and delightful for everyone at Rockbrook. These are differences that make a difference. They are the core reason camp is great for kids, how the experience of camp life is so beneficial, even transformative in the long run.

young girl horse riding

Today another word came to mind that helps describe camp life as it differs from our kids’ ordinary experience. It’s meander.  I think it describes well a cherished freedom the girls have at Rockbrook, the regular opportunity to wander and explore what camp has to offer.

Different from the hectic pace required to balance school, sports teams, clubs, afternoon activities and home responsibilities, camp allows girls to decide for themselves how to spend their time.  We provide some structure by organizing activities (times, places, staff and supplies) and scheduling certain aspects of our day (like meals, rest hour and evening program, for example), but also build in several blocks of free time when the girls can play freely, link up with friends, and enjoy a relaxed, less goal-driven pace. When there’s no grade, championship or parental praise at stake, girls can truly meander. At Rockbrook, we really value that flexibility, and believe there’s a great benefit for girls to meander, so we encourage it and support it everyday.

Girls Adventure Campers

Meandering, this self-directed exploring, is valuable because it affirms the girls’ personal choices. Not being told which activities to take, which trips to sign up for, and what to do during free time, is not just liberating; it’s empowering. The girls have great options in front of them at camp— play in the creek, or finish a craft project, or join a gagaball game, for example —so no matter what they choose, they can feel happy about what they end up doing, who they are spending time with, and what they are learning. Most importantly though, they can gain insights into their true preferences, and in some ways, who they really are. Granting children this level of agency, in other words, provides an opportunity for self-exploration and character development, no matter how subtly or explicitly.  Maybe we should say kids need to meander, for this reason. And if so, this is another reason a camp experience is so important. I’d say it’s certainly another reason why girls love Rockbrook, and again, why “there’s no place like camp.”

camp girls cheering

Accepting Adventure

We jumped right into some outdoor adventure today, only the second full day of the session, by taking more than 90 people whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. Since the early 1980s, after the US Forest Service issued us a permit to run the river (we’re the only girls camp to have one!), Rockbrook girls have been taking this exciting outdoor trip. It’s a fun two-hour run through the Nantahala Gorge over several well-known, named rapids as well as calm sections ideal for splashing and goofing around with the others in your boat. Over the years, rafting has become the most popular out-of-camp adventure trip we do with I’d say almost 90% of the Middlers and Seniors choosing to go.

Camp crew whitewater rafting

There were actually two Rockbrook trips down the river, splitting the number of girls to make more reasonable sized groups.  The first chose to add an overnight camping experience the night before at our outpost camp located near the river’s put in. The girls came prepared with sleeping bags, a change of clothes, flashlight, brushes for hair and teeth, sprays to block bugs and the sun.  A few stuffed animals came along as well. We enjoyed a quick dinner of mac-n-cheese and still had time for a campfire and s’mores before heading off to sleep in the platform cabins. The second trip elected to ride over from camp and raft in the afternoon, finish up and be back for dinner.

Happy camp adventure rafting

The weather was ideal for both trips— hot and sunny. This of course made the “extra-cool” (close to 50 degrees) water feel both exhilarating and good. There were “high-fives” with paddles, chances to “ride the bull,” surprising bumps followed by sudden swims, and plenty of screams and laughter all day long. Check out the photo gallery to see shots from both trips. They were great!

There’s more to these rafting trips than simply the thrill, the ride, and the fun. For example, rafting is a real adventure, something that’s a little scary (because something might go wrong— like falling out of the boat), perhaps a little uncomfortable (that cold water!) and certainly a physical challenge. It promises to be fun, but really does take courage for girls to sign up and agree to go. And when they do go, endure the discomfort, power through that twinge of nervousness, and use their muscles in new ways, there’s inevitably success that feels really good. There’s accomplishment built into rafting and thereby it is a great self-confidence boosting experience. Through their own independent choice, their own agency, the girls learn they can do something (often with expert advice and special equipment) even when it looks difficult, uncomfortable or scary. Rafting can be a step toward feeling more confident and capable in other ways. Instead of shrinking from challenges, these camp girls will be more open to moving forward, accepting adventures, and proving once again that they can do it.

Camp is wonderful in this way, and this is just one example of how being independent, making choices, accepting challenges, and finding real success is our daily bread at Rockbrook… all wrapped in a thick layer of fun.  Such good stuff!

Nantahala rafting camper girls

Classic Camp Movies

two camp girls ready for an adventure

Here’s something fun! You might be anticipating your camp session later this summer, or you might be feeling nostalgia about time at camp, but you are definitely needing a little dose of camp life to get you by. If so, it might be time to pull out a classic camp movie. But which kid-friendly movie to choose?

Thinking about the classics, Corrine Sullivan at Popsuger makes several great suggestions.

  1. Meatballs (1979)
  2. Troop Beverly Hills (1989)
  3. The Parent Trap (1998)
  4. The Parent Trap (1961)
  5. Ernest Goes to Camp (1987)
  6. Camp Nowhere (1994)
  7. Heavyweights (1995)
  8. It Takes Two (1995)
  9. The Baby-Sitters Club (1995)
  10. Addams Family Values (1993)
  11. Camp Rock (2008)

You may have already seen several of these, but take a look again and you’ll be reminded of what’s important about being a kid, and how that blends with life at camp. When you’re feeling “campsick,” it makes perfect sense to watch any of them again. Enjoy!

goofy camp friend group

A Life Unfiltered

Summer camps have long been described as places where children can benefit from eschewing certain aspects of modern life, where children, for example, can “return to nature,” practice “physical fitness,” or discover “spiritual truths.” Through the generations, as our society has evolved away from some social or cultural norm, parents have sought a way to provide their children access to what they feel is being lost. In this way, camps have happily served as repositories of tradition, havens from the inadequacies and perils of unchecked “progress” accepted by society.

zip line child

In recent years, a new threat of modernity has risen to the top of the list. It’s not simply “technology,” computers, television or the Internet, in the broadest sense, but it’s related these. It’s the smartphone, in particular the smartphone when in the hands of a child or adolescent.

Professor Jean M. Twenge (Dept. of Psychology at San Diego State University), who researches generational differences, has published a new book that explores how the introduction of the smartphone, its now near ubiquity among teenagers and other young people, correlates with a number of serious public health concerns. The book is: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy— and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood —and What That Means for the Rest of Us. She also just published an article in The Atlantic adapted from the book: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

girls weaving looms

I want to encourage you to read the article, in fact STRONGLY encourage you, because I think you will find it informative, and perhaps troubling if not horrifying. Working at the level of demographics, Professor Twenge began to notice “abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states” beginning five years ago in 2012, the year when “the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.” Today in 2017, almost 75% of American teens own smartphones and have begun to use these devices as a major means through which they interact with the world. What it means to “socialize” for today’s teens is mostly mediated, technologically filtered, by their smartphones. Increasingly these days, adolescents are doing less, meeting and hanging out less, and instead spending free time in virtual spaces texting and sharing Snapchats and other social media messages. Sadly, this often means our kids typically spend hours each day “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.”

kayaking children

Research results pointing to troubling psychological and social trends affecting teens are stacking up. Teens getting together with friends has dropped, as has their interest in driving a car, alcohol consumption, dating, and even sex. While these trends are helping keep kids more physically safe— less drinking and driving, and teen pregnancies, for example — they also show adolescents spending more time alone, indoors and on their phone. Research data is showing teenagers who spend hours using social media are more likely to report being unhappy, lonely, and tired (sleep-deprived).  More troubling still is the correlation between smartphone use and depression and suicide. As smartphone use has increased since 2012 among teenagers, so has the suicide rate, now reaching a 40-year high. It’s clear that with the rise of adolescents’ smartphone use, particularly with respect to social media, their behavior and attitudes, their approach to the complexities of life, their expectations and desires, their talents and ambitions, are all changing.

All girl camp kids

Bringing this back to camp, it should be obvious what Rockbrook provides: a life unfiltered by smartphone technology, one filled with the experience of real friendships, bodily inter-action, discovery and exploration of the natural world.  Being at camp means actually doing things. It means children using and stimulating all their senses, not just the narrow idealized encounters available via a screen, no matter how “smart” it is. Camp provides daily opportunities to practice being real, taking managed risks, and creating enthusiastically. Life within a caring community like Rockbrook needs no technology to enliven deeper layers of our humanity, our sense of humor, our awareness of others’ needs, and our innate ability to see beauty in the tiniest detail. For all these reasons and more, camp is a “happy place” for children.

Professor Twenge’s research and writings suggest we should limit our kid’s access to smartphones during their formative years. Kids need rich experiences, face-to-face friendships, the challenges and rewards provided by real life. Handing them a smartphone or tablet robs them of that. Ironically, this communication device isolates teenagers, significantly narrowing who they are and most likely who they will become.

Again, thank goodness for camp, a (smartphone-free) place where kids get what they need, truly enjoy themselves, and grow beautifully.

Girls Dance Group

An Unburdening

It’s sometimes difficult to describe life at camp, to convey how the girls at Rockbrook feel about the experience overall. They’ll tell you they are having fun, or they’ll say things like, “I love camp!” or “This is great!” But what are some of the emotions that go along with it? What are the campers feeling while they’re here?

Seeing all the smiles and hearing so much laughter, “happiness” is the first feeling to notice. There’s obviously so much joy and exuberance percolating up throughout the day at camp— screaming with delight while flying by on the zip line, laughing so hard at a skit you’re rolling around on the floor, smiling from the string of friendly greetings that seems to follow you everywhere. Yes, the girls here are happy, and we could say at times “excited,” “thrilled,” or “elated.” Of course, there are challenging emotions now and then too, bugs that bother. A camper might feel frustrated, for example when she misses the target in archery, or even angry when there’s a disagreement with another girl in her cabin. These are all common and expected emotional responses to life in the camp community.

girls making a tie dye at camp
camp archery girl pose
camp cabin winners

There’s another word, perhaps a little surprising, that describes a general feeling at camp: unburdened. It’s a feeling of freedom, in many ways, a welcome relief from the pressures, limitations, and expectations kids bend to throughout their ordinary lives. Put differently, I think modern life is burdensome for kids in specific ways that camp life addresses. How we live at Rockbrook— mostly outside, free from technology, as members of an accepting community, active and engaged, but with free time to explore the world and who we truly are as individuals —is in this way unburdening.

Think about what’s happening at camp, and how it differs from your daughter’s ordinary experience.

  1. At camp, we ditch technology. Here, instead of diminishing, and flattening experience, our communications are unfiltered, personal, and face to real face.
  2. We have plenty of free time throughout the day to play, explore, create and rest. Here at camp, our schedule is always built with flexibility and openness.
  3. Camp lets us avoid social pressures to “be” (look and act) a certain way. Here, girls can be who they really are, their authentic selves, because they feel genuinely accepted and included no matter what.
  4. At Rockbrook, we put aside competition and find ways to cooperate and support one another. Games are for the intrinsic fun of it rather than to determine a winner.
  5. We’re outside most of the day, closer to the wonders of nature, and free from the constraints of regular automobile travel and being indoors.
  6. Camp is also full of action. We’re doing things all day long, not sitting still at a desk or being passively entertained.
  7. And we’re never alone. Camp life is immersed in kindness and caring, inseparable from the positive relationships (so many friends!) that comprise our community.

Can you see how each of these aspects of camp life contrast with specific burdens our kids face ordinarily? Kids these days endure a lot, admittedly for often good reasons, but I also believe they benefit from being unburdened in these ways at camp. (Life at camp certainly includes its own set of challenges, and yes burdens, but that’s a topic for another post!)

The girls at Rockbrook may not use the word, but they certainly feel it. I asked a few campers today if they felt “unburdened” in any way at camp and they all enthusiastically said, “Yes!” That feeling of “aahh, I feel good” could be the loosening of pressures, lifting the weight of competition, dissolving the cloudy film cast by technology, the opening of the self usually kept under wraps. Life at camp elicits these feelings, and it does feel really good. In fact, we might say it’s the perfect context for a really great time.

Let’s just add this notion of unburdening to the many reasons why girls love camp. OK?

archery camp girls

Meaningful Action

Small child kayaking camp
outdoor yoga camp girls

It’s a comment we hear a lot around here… from perceptive visitors taking a tour while camp is in session, from counselors marveling at simple moments of their day, and certainly from campers as they reflect on how camp feels to them. “Everyone seems so happy,” or “These are some happy girls,” or “Rockbrook makes me happy!” I think I’ve seen it on a t-shirt too; “Camp is my Happy Place.” And it really is true. There’s something special about life at camp that makes everyone here remarkably happy, especially when compared with the outside world. If you have been scanning our daily photo galleries then you have a sense of it. Camp life for kids has a general feeling of well-being, joyful engagement, and belonging.

But here’s the thing— this feeling isn’t dependent on the activities we’re enjoying. It’s not like we’re happy only when kayaking, weaving, riding a horse, hiking through the woods, or playing tetherball. Sure, we are happy when we are doing exciting things like riding through the trees on a zipline, and we are happy when we savor the day’s surprise muffin flavor, but the happiness of camp extends to other times that might, from a different perspective, be described as “work,” or even as “boring.” Camp girls are happy at times “just hanging out,” sweeping their cabin, taking their turn wiping their dining hall table, or simply walking down the line after hearing the bell for lunch.

In other words, the happiness we experience at camp is not the same as the fun. …or even pleasure or satisfaction. Obviously, camp is great fun, regularly punctuated by pleasure, and satisfying in lots of ways. These are the moments we write home about— getting a bullseye in archery, throwing a pot on the wheel, going back for thirds of Rick’s homemade guacamole and chicken flautas. Everyday there are activities and special events designed to be fun and carefully planned to be satisfying and enjoyable (a trip to sliding rock, a drumming workshop, a wet and wild creek hike, or simply singing together during morning assembly, for example). These moments are entertaining and great, and they certainly contribute to the happiness of camp, but they do not alone make camp a happy place. There must be something more going on. If not the fun, what is it about camp life that encourages such happiness?

Girl Shooter with Target
Silly Rafting Camp Girls

An idea from Aristotle might be helpful, namely that happiness stems from “meaningful action.” The notion is that happiness is not a momentary, fleeting fulfillment of desires (like escape from boredom, for example), but is instead a way of being where one’s actions are meaningful.  What makes our actions “meaningful” becomes the question, but perhaps the secret to camp happiness it that it somehow lends meaning to our actions. What we do at camp means something to us as individuals.

OK, but when camp girls make a friendship bracelet, shoot riflery, or go whitewater rafting, how does it mean something to them? What’s special about camp that makes ordinary actions more “meaningful?” I’m not sure, but as one counselor who I was discussing this with put it, “It’s all about community.” She said what we do at camp means something because we do so much together, and we care for each other.

I love that idea because it suggests the importance of relationships, of beginning with kindness toward each other and fostering an environment where everyone is trusted, respected and loved. Do that, and we create a special place where we’re happy. In this way, I imagine all of our community values— care, cooperation, compassion, generosity —likewise contribute to our happiness by making whatever we’re doing more meaningful. So, being helpful in the dining hall, for example, is meaningful and makes us happy because it deepens our relationship with the other girls in our cabin. Sensing real encouragement and support from the people around you makes whatever you’re doing more meaningful.

There are probably other answers to this question about how camp life includes inherently meaningful action, and how it fosters such happiness, but I think our sense of community here is a powerful force linking the two. If so, we might use the idea prescriptively in the outside world and suggest that instead of adding more toys or more “fun” experiences, we can become happier by joining and supporting a camp-like community where our actions are meaningful.  It’s one of the lessons of camp: build positive relationships with the people around you, make your actions meaningful through those relationships, and you’re bound to be happier. Now that’s something to take home!

Camp Rafting Girls