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

Heartfelt Euphoria

Counselor and Camper happy togetherGirls happy at summer campLately, it’s been tour season at Rockbrook, with families, often 2 or 3 at a time, visiting to learn more about camp. Over the last week, I’d say we’ve had more days than not with tours scheduled. This is great because we are always pleased to show off a little of what makes Rockbrook special, and to hear what prospective families find remarkable. For example, tour groups are often surprised that “everyone is so friendly around here.” It’s true, walking around camp creates a chorus of greetings, waves and smiling faces, no matter what time of day. Also though, a parent today commented that everyone at Rockbrook seems so “genuinely happy” and this got me thinking again about why this is the case. Everyone knows that camp is a happy, fun-filled place where girls can spend their days enjoying activities, being with friends, and playing outside in a beautiful setting. But I don’t think happiness at camp can be traced simply to these kinds of outward characteristics, to the activities, the camp facility, the quality of the food, or even the experience of the directors, though certainly all of these are important ingredients. Also, the kind of happiness we’re talking about here, the kind that brings out the best in kids, can be elusive elsewhere. Outside the haven of Rockbrook, even when every material need is met (and sometimes luxuriously met), the pure joy we find at camp can be missing. And that’s what stands out; there’s a heartfelt delight (even euphoria!) at camp very different from the mere pleasures and comforts of ordinary life.

Waterfall Camp KidsSo what’s the secret?  What is it that happens at camp that might be implemented or encouraged at home and school to make our kids more “genuinely happy?”  While not the whole story, I think Rockbrook succeeds in this way because it is foremost a community of caring people who appreciate and respect one another. The girls here know that they belong. They know that wherever they go in camp— to their cabin, to an activity area, to a picnic or an assembly on the hill —and no matter who is there joining them (an old friend or a new face, camper or staff member), they will be enthusiastically welcomed, sincerely encouraged, and fully supported. The deep happiness felt at camp blossoms from the positive relationships formed among everyone who is a member of our community. Free from competition and criticism, the way we interact here is uplifting and in important ways liberating. We talk about the power of community a lot, and this is yet another of its rewards.

Rock Climbing camp kidMuch like you and me, children need to feel liked. They need to feel that they are appreciated and that they are essentially good. This makes them keenly aware of how others, other children (their peers) and adults (parents, teachers, and camp counselors, for example) respond to them. It’s when these responses are affirmative and approving, as opposed to grumpy, demeaning or even just spiritless, that the magic happens. Put most simply, a child will begin to find genuine happiness when she feels those around her are likewise genuinely happy to see her, to be with her, and to love who she really is. Perhaps surprisingly, this kind of happiness derives not from what we do or what we have, but from who we’re with. If they are caring and kind, “sweet” and reassuring, enthusiastic and encouraging, we will find happiness. This kind of collective spirit, so beautifully embodied by Rockbrook, is a powerful force.

And it’s something that builds upon itself in a community.  Beginning with our staff and then with our campers, caring inspires care, kindness calls forth further kindness, and happiness leads to the happiness of others. We can already see that the girls this session are helping each other in this way. As they grow closer, support and encourage each other, as they become more comfortable with each other, and as they feel genuinely appreciated, the fun of camp intensifies. It’s no wonder that the girls love it here.

How do you show you’re happy when your kids are around?

Raising Happiness

Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, recently spoke at a summer camp conference about cultivating an environment of happiness at camp. Camp plays a key role in teaching girls how to live a happy, fulfilled life. During her presentation, Carter illustrated three main ways camp grants girls the skills to embrace a life of happiness.

1. Camp celebrates the role that failure plays in success.
If a camper doesn’t quite make it to the top of our climbing tower or has trouble folding like a pretzel in yoga class (who doesn’t?) she learns that it’s ok. In fact, it’s better than ok- it’s great! Because camp operates under the mindset that girls grow and learn from mistakes and risk-taking, these so-called “failures” are praised at camp. They are marked as part of the learning process for our campers. So rather than a fixed mindset such as, “I can’t climb” or “I’m bad a Yoga”, our campers think “I’m so glad I didn’t give up!” while the look down at camp after making it all the way to the top.

2. Camp creates a culture of gratitude.
Gratitude is a social emotion, acknowledging something that is outside of oneself. Often times we focus so much on the cloudy skies that we never even notice that the sun is trying to peek out. For example, before camp, it’s easy to think something like, “Wow, my trunk is so heavy! What an annoyance!” Then suddenly, at camp, it’s “I am so glad I have a trunk, this is a great place to store things!” In an instant, a girl sees the value of the things in her life, and, more importantly, the people in her life. Camps helps girls realize, understand, and reflect on all the things they have to be thankful for.

3. Camp models kindness.
Camp broadens a girl’s “giving vocabulary.” Not only do girls reflect on what others did for them throughout the day, but they consider what they did for someone else. Girls leave camp with an understanding that kindness does not have to be a grand, over-the-top event every time it occurs. There are lots of little things we can do for one another every hour of every day.

So give three cheers, a thumbs up, and a high five for camp because it’s a great place to be!

How to define “Camp”

Defining “camp” or a “summer youth camp” is more difficult than it might first appear.  We all tend to speak about camps and understand summer camps as somehow special.  We believe they can be defined, shown to be unique and different than other youth development organizations or experiences.  The difficulty of defining “camp” starts to become clear, however, when faced with a definition that is too wide, vague or ambiguous.  For example, saying “a youth camp is a place to have fun” seems inadequate.  After all, it’s easy to think of very “non-camp-like” examples that would fall under this vague definition.  Is going to a movie, or playing video games in an arcade, or riding a bicycle (all ways to have “fun”) a “youth camp?” Certainly not.  Conversely, defining “summer camp” is difficult because a definition could be inadequate by being too limited or restrictive.  Would we all agree that a youth camp is “a day program to teach teenage dyslexic boys how to play chess?”  Certainly not because we can think of many examples of camps that don’t match up with this narrow definition.

Youth Summer Camp KidsThe challenge is to establish a definition that’s not too wide, thereby allowing anything to be included in our understanding of “camp,” and not too narrow so as to exclude clear examples of a summer camp.

So, how do we do it? What would be an adequate definition of summer camp? It’s important to realize, first of all, that by asking for “an adequate” definition, I am suggesting that there is more than one definition we might write, each of which being more or less suited to any particular context, or need for a definition. Put differently, there really isn’t one correct definition of camp. There are many. An adequate definition of camp is a matter of deciding on the right level of specificity for our purposes, and since these can vary, so can our definition. If we wish to distinguish “youth camps” from schools, we might write a very different definition than if we want to claim camps are distinct from amusement parks.

With that caveat, here are two methods of defining summer camp that are broadly adequate.

1. A summer camp is a youth development organization, supervised by professional adults, that strives to foster personal growth for children by providing them fun, safe educational/recreational programs, outdoor experiences and group activities while away from home during the summer months.

2. A summer camp is a youth development organization that may: a) serve a single gender or be coed, b) serve a narrow range of ages or a wide range, c) serve clients with special needs or the general population, d) provide a specific narrow group of activities or a broad general program, e) be residential or operate only for limited hours during the day, f) include religious training/guidance or be non-religious, g) operate in a single location or focus on trips/travel, h) be a for-profit business or non-profit, i) be private and independently owned or overseen by an agency.

The first definition relies on what summer camps do, on their unique functions as youth development organizations, while the second definition focuses more on the range of substantive attributes camps express as organizations.  Again, both definitions are merely adequate because they could easily be made more exclusive by adding functions or attributes, as the case may be, or more inclusive by removing criteria from each.

For now, we can recognize the context-dependent nature of these definitions, and still celebrate the unique goals and accomplishments of summer camps, the benefits they provide children, and the organizational character they have sustained for 150 years.

To Raise a Humane Child

Our friend Tom Rosenberg at Blue Star Camps recently turned us on to Zoe Weil, the author of several books on “Humane Education” and the president of the Institute for Humane Education. He quite rightly claimed that the experience of camp is a powerful and effective way to bolster this kind of education for children. But what makes education “humane?”

Camp Counselor teaches children to be human

Looking at the Institute’s Web site, you find “Humane Education” instills:

the desire and capacity to live with compassion, integrity, and wisdom, but also provides the knowledge and tools to put our values into action in meaningful, far-reaching ways.

Humane education aims to inspire children to be curious, creative and thoughtful in their approach to the world, and thereby fosters a kind of warmth and sensitivity whereby they can be better problem solvers, help others, and lead more meaningful lives. The Institute has developed a body of lesson plans, books, videos and articles to help educators incorporate these goals and principles.

Much of this revolves around the notion of community and that’s why camp is so well suited to encourage humane education. Coming to Rockbrook means joining a close-knit community where campers and counselors alike agree to cooperate and respect each other. We live together in cabins, share chores, resolve disagreements, and experience firsthand the importance of honest communication. It’s the power of community that heightens our awareness and inspires humane values while at camp.

Most children experience far too little humane education and as a result fail to respond to many of the issues and challenges of our day. Camp can be one way to help raise a humane child. It can be a real lesson in community, in compassion, and in respect. We already knew camp was a special experience; now we know another reason why.

Zoe Weil doesn’t mention camp, but you can get a great sense of what she’s doing from this TED talk.

Children and Nature

Girls hands holding leaves in nature

We’ve talked about Richard Louv before, here and here, but I just found this video of him discussing the importance of nature for children.  It’s a short introduction to Louv’s notion of “Nature Deficit Disorder.”  Check it out!

In Praise of Neoteny

Today the word of the day is neoteny. It’s really a term from evolutionary biology, but it describes the retention of childlike attributes in adults. You might think of a grown up who has a “baby face,” or is generally “cute.” When you are talking about these kinds of physical features, we tend to think it’s a good thing to have “young looking skin” or the “energy of youth,” for example. Neotenic people are usually attractive. Being neotenous is mostly a good thing.

Camp Fun for KidsBut what about personality traits, attitudes or approaches to the world? What about these ways of being childlike? Think about what life is like as a child. The world is magical, full of curiosities, almost always kind and wondrous. As kids, we spend so much time being creative and playing. We feel so many more things— joy, excitement, anticipation, and the broad sensuous world around us. All of this probably makes it so easy to make friends (“Come on! Let’s play!).

You’ve also noticed what usually happens when we grow up. We get serious, we latch on to patterns of behavior, we get scared, we feel the need to protect what we believe, we accept responsibilities and feel pressure to perform and “be” someone in particular. As adults, we spend almost all of our time, mostly alone, working to stay organized and fighting opposing forces. We’re all too consumed by those adult things we’ve grown to accept as important, and it ain’t easy.

It’s no surprise to see that being an adult trumps those childlike traits. Sadly, to grow up often means losing touch of what we used to be, those aspects of being human we loved as kids. As adults, we have a harder time feeling what makes the world wonderful, a harder time making friends, and a much harder time playing and having fun. Of course there are exceptions to this, but that’s the point. They are exceptions, and that’s too bad.

Let’s remember the value of being childlike even as adults. Let’s be joyful as we’re responsible. Let’s be creative when encountering opposing beliefs. Let’s be friendly and playful, cooperative and excited about learning new things. Let’s strive to foster our innate neotenous instincts. Certainly, all good things.

Bringing this back to camp… Summer camp is a place where kids can really be kids. It’s a special time when they are encouraged to play, make friends, be creative and explore the world around them. Separate from the forces of home and school (which are fundamentally about forming “adults”), camp provides a wonderful opportunity to strengthen our “kid selves.” Camp is joyful break from all that training, and that’s a big part of why it’s so fun.

Maybe we could say, camp helps you learn how to be a really great kid so that later in life you’ll be a really great (happy, content, remarkable) adult. Camp’s power to strengthen these “kid traits,” I suspect, will be a big part of that success.

Girls of all ages

Being a Camp Leader

Leadership for Summer Camp Kids

One important mark of leadership for the staff at Rockbrook is their ability to model personal character for the girls at camp. We strive to hire cabin counselors and activity staff members who exemplify good character and thereby can serve as role models for the campers. It means a lot to children to see others they admire make good decisions. It’s just a crucial part of building character— having positive relationships with others who embody exemplary habits and attitudes. When we talk about “leadership” at camp, this is what we mean: being that sort of exemplary person.

But what is exemplary character, how do you recognize it, and how do you encourage its development? We’ve found the approach taken by the Josephson Institute to be extremely articulate and practical. It’s “Six Pillars of Character” is a well thought out resource. Essentially, the “pillars” are fundamental principles and values that serve as a core for ethical decision making. They are: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship.  Without appealing to religion, politics or ideology, we strive to realize these six values in our camp community.

There’s a lot of good stuff in all of this, so go learn more.