A Profound Closeness

For many of us this was an especially emotional evening because we held our last Spirit Fire of the summer. The Spirit Fire is another of the long traditions at Rockbrook, something that’s been a closing ceremony for every session since the camp’s founding more than 100 years ago. It’s a campfire ceremony held on the large rock (“Vesper Rock”) overlooking the camp lake. Surrounded by huge white oak and hemlock trees, the entire camp gathers there dressed in our red and white uniforms. In the same fire ring as generations of Rockbrook girls have done in the past, we build a great campfire. We begin near dusk, so as the surrounding woods turn from green to blue to grey and finally to black, the orange glow of the campfire looks gorgeous. With crickets and frogs chirping, and the sound of the waterfall into the lake faintly splashing in the background, we create an almost dreamy setting.

The Spirit Fire program provides an opportunity to recall and reflect upon the rich experiences we shared during the session. We sing favorite traditional camp songs and listen as fellow campers and counselors share their thoughts about their time at camp. For example, we sing “How Did we Come to Meet Pal” and “The Streams and the Mountains,” just two favorites. The speakers are selected from all age groups (Juniors, Middlers, Seniors, and Hi-Ups) and from both first-year and returning counselors.

The speeches tonight confirmed what we’ve all been experiencing this session— a profound closeness, a special feeling of connection and comfort shared with the others at camp. One word that kept coming up was “home.” Campers described feeling “at home” here at Rockbrook. One simply said, “When I’m at camp, I’m home.” And a counselor put it perfectly, “Rockbrook is my home, not because of the place, but because of the people.” All of these speakers realized that as camp enlivens the best part of ourselves, as we live those core relationship values of kindness and caring, we make the best friends of our lives. Through the day, we find our true selves relaxing into the generous arms of a supportive community.

That’s why the Spirit Fire is bittersweet. It’s a wonderful reminder of why these girls love camp, of why, for many, it’s their favorite time of the year. Nowhere else do they feel this good and have these kinds of close relationships. But the Spirit Fire also marks the end of the session and the time when we must soon say goodbye. Camp friends are the best friends, but they are also usually seen only once a year. Closing camp for this reason is always sad.

It’s been especially gratifying this session to see your girls enjoy the special experiences of camp, to learn and grow individually, and to forge so many close camp friendships. We are so grateful to everyone— campers, staff, and parents alike —for helping make this session so successful. Thank you! We know Rockbrook means as much to all of you as it does to us. We are already looking forward to being together again next summer.

summer camp counselor

Third Session Video Snapshot – Part Two

Robbie Francis of FrancisFilmworks visited camp again and has produced a final short video for us. He spent the day filming, worked his editing magic, and now we have this new wonderful snapshot of camp life. The video does a beautiful job of depicting the mood at camp this session… so much action and so many happy girls!

Click below to watch the video…. and let us know what you think.

Things I Learned at Camp

Returning to the idea that camp is “educational” because it provides a life filled with new experiences, I’m again left wondering how it’s educational. I’ve already considered how Rockbrook’s emphasis on community and the quality of our relationships with each other, namely them being guided by strong values of kindness, caring and generosity, creates a context for fostering creativity, compassion, and courage. Camp uniquely empowers children to engage new experiences, to explore and marvel at the wonders of nature, and to build connections with the people around them. We know that camp is a place to grow in all of these important ways.

summer camp swimming children

There seems to be more we might say about this. What about the campers? You might not guess it, but they too understand camp as place where they learn things. To understand this, Naomi, one of our assistant Directors, and I wandered around after dinner and asked a few campers what they thought. We asked, “What is something you learned while at camp?” And, “Is there something you learned at camp that you’ll use back at home or later in life?” We asked girls from all the age groups and were pleased to hear what they said about what they “take away” from camp. It’s memories of the fun and a huge set of friends, but also even more.

Here are some of their answers. I think you’ll be impressed.

1. “New skills.” Certainly there are many skill-based activities campers try at camp and then find themselves keeping as an interest or hobby. It might be sewing, horseback riding, painting, archery, tying knots, etc. “I learned how to paddle a canoe!” one camper said proudly.

2. “The importance of kindness.” Rockbrook girls know this instinctively. They expect kindess from others just as they aim to be nice themselves. One girl put it like this— “Being unkind just isn’t worth it.”

camp kid showing her weaving

3. “How to share my space.” This makes great sense when the girls are living so closely in 100-year old cabins. “You have to respect other people’s space.”

4. “Teamwork.” Working together as a cabin group each day for cabin chores, clearing the dining hall table, and evening program skits are good examples of teamwork at camp.

5. “It’s OK to be myself.” This is a testament to the supportive and accepting character of the Rockbrook community, a place where girls can escape the kind of social criticism and judgment they often endure at school, freeing them to be more genuine. The girls feel the difference.

6. “To try new things.” This can take some courage, but here too the support of the camp community, and the enthusiasm for everything we do at camp, makes this a common experience.

7. “To live without my phone.” I love this response! I believe learning to moderate one’s phone use is a critical modern skill, and these campers already understand the importance of that. Good work!

8. “Flexibility.” At camp the girls learn to see the bright side when things don’t always go perfectly, to be open to compromise for the needs of others, and to adapt to the environment of camp despite it being so different from life at home.

summer camp ice cream pals

9. “How to get along with others who are different than me.” Here too, joining the camp community means meeting diverse people, supporting and encouraging them, and receiving that same friendship in return.

10. “To be more grateful.” There is so much at Rockbrook to be thankful for. From what we get to do, to who we are doing it with, to the beautiful setting where we live— the whole experience inspires us to say “Thank you.” You hear it said out loud all the time.

Aren’t these amazing answers!? It impressed me to hear how these Rockbrook girls, amidst the fun of camp life, also appreciate the good it is doing. They seemed to understand that they were learning and growing in ways they would continue to value later in life. Yay! That’s exactly what we hope happens at Rockbrook. Camp should be meaningful like this.

Perhaps when you pick up your camper you’ll have a chance to ask her what she learned at camp. On the drive home, I think you’ll be impressed by how much she’s grown and understood while here.

summer camp sunset evening

Independence and Well-Being

I’ve been meaning to share an article I found back in March. It’s an overview written by Emily Oster on a Commentary published in the Journal of Pediatrics entitled, “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-being: Summary of the Evidence” (Published first online, February 23, 2023). The overview article is entitled, “What’s Behind the Decline in Teen Mental Health?”

camp fresh flowers

You may have read that different organizations are observing a troubling trend among young people, specifically a marked decline in their sense of well-being. Especially recently, professionals that work with children and adolescents are puzzled why reports of feeling unhappy, dispirited, and anxious are rising. The data shows that this trend began around 2012 (long before the COVID pandemic, by the way). This article attempts to explain why we are seeing this trend among our young people.

Essentially, it claims another trend is (at least partially responsible for) driving this decline in well-being, namely a “decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”

The authors worry that kids nowadays have very little free time to act independently. Instead they are supervised in school for most of the day and then equally structured during after school activities like sports and clubs. They point out also that current parenting styles tend to emphasize safety so that children aren’t able to do things on their own. Helicoptering and snowplowing, these parents might be protecting their children, but they are also impairing their confidence and ability to act independently. They note similarly, contemporary kids are rarely given the opportunity to play with other kids without adults, to play freely on their own terms. Rare, they lament, are the kids who get to play outside all day until dark.

Smartphone use may be another force contributing to kids having fewer opportunities to act independently. The claim here is that time scrolling on your phone is inherently isolating. It’s a solitary, passive experience rather than a physical activity that connects you with others in the real world. If anything, kids nowadays are more dependent on their phones for their socializing, entertainment and knowledge of the world. Their sense of self is largely filtered through this technology, rather than built through the rich nuances of their five senses. Especially for kids, time on a smartphone is a tragic substitute for living. And as it steals your life, reducing your capacity for independent action, your mental health may suffer.

You can probably guess where I’m heading with this, and why this article caught my eye. Life at camp is the exact opposite of these modern trends, and so can be understood as a counteracting force. After all, kids at camp are extremely independent. Being away from home, they act independently throughout the day. Without their phones, they explore the world around them at their own pace. At Rockbrook they have hours of free time. Each day, they make a multitude of decisions, figuring things out along the way. Camp gives kids an incredible degree of self-directed agency, empowering them far beyond what most parents would grant. By the way, I think this is another reason why girls love Rockbrook; they really appreciate this kind of agency. With friends by their side, they feel good when they do things without the adults in their lives guiding every move. In so many ways, life at camp is custom made for independence. It helps build the confidence and even the desire to act independently in the world.

If all this adds up, then we’re really helping our kids by sending them to sleepaway camp. The opportunities they have at Rockbrook to act independently may be strengthening their overall well-being, serving as a buffer for some of the challenging influences of modern life. At the very least, we know that girls love camp. They’re both independent and happy while here. That seems like a great endorsement.

Camp whitewater rafting fun

Engaging Newness

If you think about it, one of the core aspects of coming to an overnight camp is all the newness. New experiences fill every camper’s days. They’re sleeping in 100-year-old rustic wooden cabins with eight or more people. They’re walking down the path at night with a flashlight to visit the restroom. Instead of air-conditioning, they’re feeling the cool night air and hearing crickets and frogs as they drift off to sleep. They’re trying new foods, meeting new people, hearing new stories, and of course, trying all kinds of new activities. Each of those activities provides a new experience, like shooting a real gun or bow and arrow, or riding a living, breathing creature in horseback riding, or zooming down a 50-foot waterslide, for example. It’s one new thing after another at camp. The list could go on and on.

summer camp girl aiming rifle

At home young people experience new things too— subjects in school, for example —but all too often this novelty is more passive than active. Like watching something on a screen, or glimpsing things out the window when on vacation, what’s new often passes by without really engaging. At camp, the girls actively live this regular novelty. Being away from the familiarity of home and spending the night away from parents, this kind of engaging newness is inevitable. We might say “habits at home and novelty at camp.”

A clear example of how actively engaged in new things camp girls find themselves is all the decisions they make on their own. Without the prescription, intervention, and instruction that flows freely from mom and dad, kids are automatically considering options, looking to friends for advice, and deciding for themselves how best to proceed. It can be about personal hygiene (shower in the morning of before bed?), about what to wear (do I need another layer this morning?), or whether to sign up for a canoeing trip, for example. When away from parents, girls naturally figure a lot of things out for themselves. They’re empowered to fill their own free time, meander however it suits them, and consider their own solutions to problems. Of course, camp is filled with helpful counselors and other adults to guide this new freedom, but we also know that giving girls the opportunity to decide things on their own plays a crucial role in developing valuable confidence later in life.

summer camp kid drawing

Another new experience that arises at camp is the feeling of belonging and support that permeates a close-knit community like Rockbrook. Unlike the competitive atmosphere of school and the inherent judgment and common insecurities it breeds, camp is defined by compassion, kindness and generosity. Instead of being left out, at camp girls are included. Instead of feeling criticized, girls here are respected and affirmed. At camp, nobody cares if you’re “good” at a particular activity or even notices if your hair is messed up. In this kind of trusting and supportive community, girls are empowered to let their true personality, spirit and character shine through. More confidently, they can express their true self in surprisingly new ways. They’ll tell you; “At camp I can be the real me.” That kind of newness feels really good.

Earlier in the summer, I wrote about how camp is educational in the best sense of the word. This makes good sense if camp is also a life filled with new experiences. We might say it’s this engaging active newness that gives camp its educational power. It’s a place for girls to grow because it provides these kinds of new experiences that are hard to replicate elsewhere.

Put this all together and you can see how camp is incredibly special and valuable for these Rockbrook girls. It all wraps together into something new, something educational, and something definitely fun. The resulting friendship and joy make it truly marvelous.

Third Session Video Snapshot

We know parents enjoy checking the online photo gallery each day, hoping to catch a glimpse of their child, and peaking into what’s been happening lately at camp. These photos are great, but they struggle to convey the emotion, the action, the laughter, and chatter of a vibrant group of kids.

Fortunately, we have some video as well. We’re happy to say Robbie Francis of FrancisFilmworks is again working with us this summer to produce short videos each session.  He came to camp this week and now has his first video snapshot of this session ready for you to see.

Take a look! We love how it captures some of the feeling of camp this session.

Click below to watch.

P.S. Be sure to have the volume turned up. Hearing camp is amazing!

Where Kindness is Contagious

You can’t hang out at Rockbrook for very long as an adult and not be amazed. What’s going on here is amazing of course— kids are happily busy with a huge range of activities, stretching and growing in marvelous ways. At any one moment there is a camper doing something impressive. It could be as daring as learning a back walkover in Gymnastics, or as mundane as sweeping the cabin floor in the morning before breakfast. It could be creative like painting a watercolor still life. It could require calm attention like aiming a .22 rifle at a target 50 feet away. Campers prove they are strong hiking up to the top of Castle Rock. They are persistent learning to throw a pot on the potter’s wheel. And they are coordinated when they figure out how to paddle their kayak in a straight line. Everyday, it’s incredible how many decisions campers make on their own, away from their parents. These are just a few examples— and there are many, many more —of Rockbrook girls doing amazing things.

That’s not too surprising. After all, Rockbrook offers a wide range of activities, and there are so many opportunities to try cool new things everyday. But there’s something else about these camp kids that’s even more amazing, something we adults rarely see (or experience ourselves). More than what they’re doing at camp, it’s their temperament. It’s how they’re doing things and how they’re treating each other along the way.

In this environment, kids are different. You can sense it. They’re more kind to each other, more respectful and more caring. It can take a few days for them to realize it, but at Rockbrook you can relax and be your true self without being afraid of “what others might think.” The Rockbrook culture celebrates this value of kindness, reinforcing itself so that over time every relationship at camp takes on a genuine sweetness. Different from other places, kindness is contagious at camp. Soon it spreads and grows stronger, infusing our community with a spirit that makes girls feel supported, valued, and loved. With incredible force, this spirit begins to color everything we do. And it’s lovely! Again, it’s amazing to see all these girls be so nice to each other, be so happy in each other’s company, and care so genuinely about each other.

Parents often remark about their children being “nicer” or “more helpful” when they get home from camp. In interesting ways, the positive habits of camp, how girls feel about themselves and how they relate to others, can be carried home after camp is over. Time at camp, and the growth it fosters, can have lasting effects.

The other day, I stumbled upon a research paper that suggests this, namely that a summer camp experience can significantly “increase children’s altruism.” The paper by Yves Gerber, Edouard Gentaz, and Jennifer Malsert entitled “The effects of Swiss summer camp on the development of socio-emotional abilities in children” outlines several psychological and developmental benefits of a summer camp experience, but found statistically significant affects on altruism. Put simply, the researchers conclude that time spent at summer camp can help kids be more kind and compassionate toward others. Seeing how things go at Rockbrook, I’d say we could provide data to support that conclusion. It’s nice to know that a peer reviewed study showed summer camp can enhance children’s altruistic tendencies.

So while they’re enjoying all of the exciting activities at camp, the special events, and out-of-camp-trips (like our evening adventure to Sliding Rock tonight), your girls are developing important personal skills too. They’re practicing being kind and receiving kindness everyday. They’re becoming more aware of the people around them, caring about them and for them. In the end, they’re deepening their friendships. They’re enriching their ability to connect with others through kindness, caring and generosity.

If you saw it here, you’d be amazed. I think you’ll be amazed when they return home too.

camp kids on sliding rock

A Rich Way to Be

Today we proved once again that Rockbrook girls love to go whitewater rafting, as we spent the day over at the Nantahala River. It was back in the early 1980s when Rockbrook received a Forest Service permit to run rafting trips on the Nantahala. Rockbrook is still the only girls camp to have this type of permit. This allows us to take everyone who might wish to go (though only Middlers and Seniors are old enough), use our own equipment, train our own guides, and take trips at our convenience. Over the years, whitewater rafting has become the most popular adventure trip we offer. I’d say 95% of the girls eligible to go will sign up for one of the trips. Today 71 people rafted the Nantahala in two groups, with half going in the morning and the other half after lunch— two trips in one day.

Take a look at the online photo gallery of today’s rafting and you’ll see right away that the girls had a fantastic day on the river. Something about rafting inspires even more silliness, more laughter, and more frolicking. While rafting, they’re posing for the camera, making “high fives” with their paddles, “playing dead,” and recreating movie scenes, for example. Even though they have to paddle the boats now and then, the splashing water and bumps from the rapids keeps things playful and exciting.

summer camp rafting thrills

Today’s weather was ideal for rafting too— hot and sunny, which is nice when combined with the chilly 50-degree water of the Nantahala. The 9-mile section of the river takes us about 2 hours to raft. It’s a series of calm floating sections and wild whitewater rapids with names like “The Bump,” “Patton’s Run,” “Delbar’s Rock,” and “Surfer’s Rapid.” Like most things at camp, a big part of the fun of rafting comes from the fact that you’re doing it with friends. This makes every surprising bump hilarious, especially when someone falls out of the raft and needs a pull to get back in, or when “riding the bull” on the front of the raft ends up in a fall backwards into the boat, feet waving in the air. The final rapid of the trip is the Nantahala Falls, a class-III, double drop rapid that is powerful and fun. It never fails to get everyone screaming, and at the bottom, to create feelings of celebration after making it through. It’s the perfect highlight ending for a day of adventure.

Back at camp in time for dinner… well actually about 20 minutes late, which meant we joined the meal already in motion, the girls were surprised to find the dining hall tables rearranged and everyone sitting in different places (not in their cabin groups as usual). There were 12 large tables, one for each month, because it was “birthday night!” Everyone was seated according to their birth month. Plus, there were some amazing costumes on display. It was a “not so scary Halloween” costume dinner, with wild hats, wigs, sunglasses, colorful shirts and dresses. Each month had its own decorated cake to share as well. With funny halloween-themed music playing, it was s party!

costumed summer camp girls

Keeping the costume theme going, our evening program was an all-camp dance in the gym. Our friend and local DJ, DJ Marcus, was set up with his sound and light equipment when the girls arrived in waves. Soon the gym was packed with girls jumping and singing along to their favorite pop songs. I’m always impressed how Marcus will mix in a few group dances like the “Cha Cha Slide” to encourage everyone, even the more reserved girls, to join in the moves.

Walking up the hill after the dance, one of the girls who had also gone rafting said to me she felt “pretty tired, in a good way.” “Me too,” I thought. Camp life is generally full of action, keeping us moving throughout the day. All the chatting, smiling and laughing, plus the intensely stimulating things we do— climbing, riding, creating, rafting, dancing, etc. —makes this a rich way be. We’re not zoning out in front of a glowing screen. We’re actively engaged with real world textures and sensations, bolstered by an incredibly enthusiastic and supportive group of people. There’s really nothing, nothing this good, quite like it !

About One Minute

On a day like this, it takes about one minute around here for signs of camp to appear. Today was the opening day of our Third and August Mini sessions, a day when we welcomed a new group of girls to Rockbrook. For some of these girls, this was the first time they had ever seen the camp in person. They may have studied our website and watched a few of the videos there, but they had not yet experienced camp life. Others were returning to camp, eager to see camp friends and relive what they love about Rockbrook. For everyone this was the start, the day they’d been anticipating for months.

excited camp staff jumping

It may have been the start, but from the very first moment we had smiling girls, excited counselors, and easy friendships forming. Out of every arriving car stepped a camper itching to get started. There was also some jitteriness, but that too seemed par for something this new and exciting. Right away campers were meeting other girls, greeting their counselor, and learning the names of everyone. In some cases friends would recognize each other and run toward each other screaming with delight ready for a long awaited reunion hug.

Immediately, girls were playing games and joining others on the hill to take a turn smacking the tetherball. They were unfolding their crazy creek chairs, side by side, to have a conversation. They were gathering their things and, together with their bunkmates, tackling the task of making their beds, stringing fairy lights, and arranging everyone’s trunks in their cabins. The girls were wearing their wood-chip nametags and their Rockbrook t-shirts. They were already walking with a buddy, sometimes holding hands, confidently making their way around. In their first moments at camp, these girls were off!

summer camp introduction game

Right before lunch, the whole camp assembled in the shade of the big walnut tree on the hill for a few songs and introductions. All the directors said hello, as well as the group of 10th grade Hi-Ups. Even Felix, the camp dog, made an appearance, happily the focus of many petting hands.

Somehow it’s become a tradition of sorts to serve Rick’s homemade mac-n-cheese for lunch on opening days. It’s probably because it’s such good comfort food and the girls love it. It’s got three or four different kinds of cheese and a crunchy breadcrumb topping that makes it delicious. Sautéed fresh vegetables and cut juicy watermelon rounded out the meal.

summer camp lake waterfront

Camp tours came next with every cabin group eventually making it down to the lake for our “swimming demonstrations.” This is a chance to learn about the waterfront area, our tag system and all the opportunities to swim each day at camp. Each girl took turns jumping off the dock, swimming and treading water to demonstrate how comfortable she is in the chilly mountain water. With the lifeguards in the water for encouragement, most everyone did well and received a blue tag for the tag board.

Later this afternoon, the counselors took turns performing brief skits as a way to advertise the different activity options to the campers. Using costumes, songs, and dances, and they gave the campers a chance to learn about the activities and to see who will be teaching. It will be helpful for the campers to know this when they select their first schedule of activities later this evening.

It’s been a beautiful day to get the session started. Camp life is appearing all around, and with the start of activities tomorrow, we’ll see it truly blossom. I can already tell these girls are going to jump right in.

rockbrook felix hello

The Surprise of Camp

After the excitement and intense celebration of the banquet last night, the mood shifted for our closing campfire. This “Spirit Fire” has been a tradition at Rockbrook for its more than 100 year long history. It is a special time to celebrate each session by gathering around a campfire to reflect a little about camp, to sing a few special songs, and to mark our time together with a shared candlelight ceremony. With everyone dressed in their red and white uniforms, complete with red ties for campers, we fan out across the low wooden benches around the campfire area near the lake. All of the campers, counselors and directors fit snuggly in that space, shoulder to shoulder, all focused on the great fire lit up front.

girl camp true friends

The program features several traditional songs that are perhaps a little less silly or raucous and a little more serious or significant. We sing “In the Heart of a Wooded Mountain,” for example, which we call the “camp song.” It describes Rockbrook as a “fairyland of beauty where friendships so true are born.” We sing “How Did We Come to Meet Pal,” a song that reminds us that camp teaches “the meaning of the real worth of friendship born to last.” Another favorite song we sing at Spirit Fire is called “The Streams and the Mountains.” It has a nice waltz beat and cheerful melody as it evokes the feeling of camp, “a special place for which we yearn.”

The most interesting part of the event is the speeches given by campers of all ages and a few staff members. These short reflections about camp weave between songs, and are interesting because they reveal how the speakers feel about camp, funny details of their experience and what Rockbrook means to them.

girl camp best friends

Tonight I noticed a theme of sorts running through several of the Spirit Fire speeches. One camper described how she was at first very nervous coming to camp, especially not knowing anyone already attending. After a few days, though, she was surprised how quickly she began to make friends and feel comfortable. Another camper said she was surprised to find Rockbrook people so “friendly and nice.” A first-time counselor found herself surprised how much fun she was having at her summer job. Several campers described how their camp friends were surprisingly closer than their friends at home. One 4-week camper said she was surprised how quickly her session went by.

All of these speakers, you see, talked about being surprised by some aspect of their camp experience. They were pleasantly surprised by Rockbrook. Their worries turned out to be unfounded. They actually made friends easily, were comfortable at camp, found nice people, and had plenty of fun. They found that initial jitters didn’t last, and hiccups were only temporary. It’s hard to believe that camp can be this different, this much better than their non-camp lives, but it is. Surprise!

campers on their final night at camp

Again, many of us found ourselves sniffling and choking up a bit during the speeches, especially when the speakers themselves became emotional. Each reminder that this was our last night together this session made those emotions even more powerful. Each time someone said Rockbrook felt like home, we would hear echoes of soft whimpers.

The Spirit Fire program ends with everyone sharing part of the campfire by lighting a small white candle. Sarah and the other directors first light their candle from the fire, and then pass it along to each camper’s and staff member’s candle. Everyone then forms a circle around the lake facing the water. It’s a beautiful moment to see how strong the spirit of Rockbrook is among everyone there.

Now we have to say goodbye until next summer. We leave a little stronger and more confident, more comfortable at camp, and knowing that this haven in the “heart of a wooded mountain” will always be our home. It’s been an amazing session, one that we will all remember fondly.

summer camp candle ceremony