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.
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.
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.”
It was a full day of high altitude adventure for a group of 13 seniors who signed up for a special trip today. Lukas and Gabby, two of our outdoor staff members, planned and led the trip. Leaving after breakfast with muffins for a snack break, and a pack of sandwiches for lunch, they drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it all the way to the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness area where they parked and set out on the Art Loeb Trail. This trail leaves the parking lot and follows the ridge line over several of the highest mountains in North Carolina, Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain being the most prominent. You can see from this photo that these peaks, which are over 6000ft high, are grassy, treeless knobs that provide amazing distant views when the weather is good, like it was today. Perfect places to enjoy the pleasure of a homemade muffin baked at camp!
Spending the whole day out allowed the girls next to make a fun stop at a popular swimming hole known as “Skinny-dip Falls.” They had come prepared with swimsuits and towels, and with their packed lunch, the sunny afternoon swimming and sunbathing on the boulders below the falls was wonderful. They took turns leaping from the “jump rock” and posing for photos. The leisurely pace, plenty of time to soak in the surrounding forest (big trees now!), and the delightfully cold mountain water created a special experience.
Back at camp, we deemed today “Red and White Day.” Essentially, we created a simple theme for creative costumes or dressing up. In some cases it was a simple as wearing a red t-shirt or a headband, and since Rockbrook’s colors are red and white, just about everybody had something they could wear. Sarah went all out, though. She has Rockbrook gear going back to the corduroy RBC hat, Rockbrook socks, hair ties, t-shirt, shorts, and fleece tied around here waist. Rockbrook red and white in all ways. It’s neat how the pleasure of a simple dress up theme adds to the fun of a zany community like Rockbrook.
After dinner during our “Twilight” time, Chase organized an all-camp game of “Counselor Hunt.” As you can imagine this involves the counselors hiding and the campers, as cabin groups, scouring the camp looking for them. We randomly assign point values to the counselors so that when found points can be added up to award prizes in the end. A few counselors successfully hid throughout the search period (I suspect covered in leaves), while others were found almost immediately. The whole event is really fast paced as the cabin groups race around trying to be the first to find any particular counselor. Here too, something simple— in this case “hide and seek” —made for exciting all-camp fun.
Don’t you just love this last photo? It’s a gorgeous example of another simple pleasure of life at Rockbrook. Different than the fast-paced, competitive, technology-fueled, pressure (even anxiety) of our kids’ ordinarily lives, camp opens up space for girls to explore, play freely, imagine and create. …like right here in this photo where all of that is happening spontaneously beneath a hydrangea bush. The best word for it might be “joy.” There’s a contentment, something additional and deeper, that makes camp “fun” more affecting. Sometimes it takes a while for girls to realize they can be themselves like this at camp, but once they experience it, everyone will tell you they love it. They know “There’s no place like camp.”
I was six years old when I found the ravine. I had heard my older sisters talk about the ravine before, of course, but they had all firmly refused to show me where it was. They had mostly grown out of their days of playing outside by the time I set out to find it, but still they felt there was a certain importance in my finding it on my own—a sort of rite of passage.
And so, every day after first grade, I would press out on my own into the trees behind my house, in search of the ravine (it should be noted that I did not actually know, at the time, what a ravine was—I was, however, assured that I would know it when I saw it).
I don’t remember how long it took me, how many days of searching before I stumbled across it. I don’t remember the season, month, weather, or day of the week it was when I finally emerged from the trees and saw what was, unmistakably, The Ravine—all of those details have faded away across the years. What I do remember was the sense of absolute exhilaration that I felt when I saw the slope of massive gray rocks descending steeply into the stream at the bottom. I had found it: the place for kids, the place where adults never went. This was my place.
My family moved out of that house a few years later, cutting short my time with the ravine. I haven’t been back there since I was a child, but the place still looms large in my imagination as being as big and profound a spot as the Grand Canyon itself. A cursory glance at the land behind my old house on Google Earth, however, tells me that it was nothing more than a (slightly) glorified drainage ditch that stretched for about thirty yards above ground before disappearing beneath it.
My mother’s thoughts on the ravine (once we finally told her, about a year ago, that it had once been our favorite hangout) were less generous still. To her adult eyes, it had been nothing more than a smelly, mosquito-ey, (probably) vermin-infested dump, and she was horrified that we had spent so much time there.
But to us, then and in our memories still, it was paradise.
Thinking about it today, with sensibilities that have been honed by several years of working with children at camp, the thought of a six year old tramping off into the woods by herself makes me immensely nervous. What if I had fallen? What if I had come across a dangerous animal? What if I had tripped and gotten stuck between two of those heavy boulders, and no one had known where to find me? What if I had drowned, or been eaten by a bear, or gotten lost and wandered around aimlessly through the wilds of Mississippi until my parents had given up on ever finding me?
As you can probably guess, none of those things happened. I think I fell and skinned my knee once, but, as tragedies go, that’s not the worst, and I did feel pretty cool walking through the back door at the end of the day with my very own battle wound.
I rarely think about the ravine anymore, but recently I read an article called “The Overprotected Kid,” by Hanna Rosin, and memories of the place came flooding back. Rosin talks at length of the modern lack of once ubiquitous childhood spaces such as mine. I’d imagine a lot of the parents reading this can remember a place of their very own where they went to play. A secret place, usually outside, where they and their friends built forts, played hide and seek, and settled their own problems and sought out their own, individual accomplishments. A place where their parents rarely, if ever, went. I wonder how many of today’s children could say that they have such a place?
Between school, extracurricular activities, and family time at home, modern children spend less and less time away from the direct supervision of adults. On first thought, this seems like a great thing. It’s a dangerous world, after all. If they are always near adults, then we can keep them from taking unnecessary risks, we can intervene when they have conflicts with their siblings or friends, and we can guide them through every challenge that comes their way. If we are vigilant enough, as parents and childcare professionals, then we can protect children from ever suffering the sting of failure, or the anxiety that accompanies facing a new challenge.
But, of course, there is a backlash to this constant supervision. Shield them too much from any sort of discomfort, any sort of risk, any sort of failure, then when the inevitable day comes that they are faced with these things, they might be unequipped to handle it for themselves.
So how do we find the balance between protecting children, and giving them the freedom they need to grow and develop on their own?
You guessed it.
We call Rockbrook “A place where girls can grow” for a reason: 2-4 weeks spent in the heart of our wooded mountain gives girls the chance to make a world for themselves. It gives them the chance to try new things and face the very real chance that they just might not be any good at it: maybe they’ll never hit the target in archery, but they’ll try it anyway. It gives them the chance to craft their own set of cabin rules with their peers, and teaches them to hold themselves and each other accountable, without the interference of adults. It teaches them to find the joy of climbing to the very top of the mountain, while still having an appreciation and respect for the risks and struggles it takes to get there. It gives them the chance to grow.
I’m certainly not saying that campers at Rockbrook are unsupervised—far from it. They are always within sight and earshot of at least one counselor, adventure guide, or director. But the beauty of staffing our camp with college-age counselors is that they are in the unique position of being at once an authority figure, and a “cool” older kid, around whom our campers feel entirely comfortable to be their quirky, crazy, energetic selves.
We value our counselors for the responsibility and trustworthiness for which we hired them. The camp girls value our counselors because they can behave more naturally with them than they would with “normal” adults (they know, for example, that their counselors will not bat an eye should they spontaneously decide to show up at dinner wearing a batman costume and a tiara).
We give the campers supervision that doesn’t feel like supervision. We let them take risks—like climbing up rock-faces and hurtling down whitewater rapids in a raft—that feel like risks, but are supervised by professionals who know exactly how to keep them safe. When the campers fight with one another, often we let them work out the dispute among themselves. We’ll be nearby, and will intervene if necessary, but we know that they have the tools necessary to solve their own problems, and they will be the stronger for it afterward.
They might gain some bumps and bruises along the way. You might pick up your child on closing day with a freshly skinned knee, or a bee sting, or a story of the unkind words a fellow camper said to her. But delve deeper into these stories and you’ll find that the skinned knee was acquired on an incredible hike to the top of Looking Glass Rock. The bee sting hurt, sure, but a counselor or nurse was standing by with an Epi-pen, just in case, and now your daughter has learned all about the signs that might signal anaphylactic shock. Maybe she never quite came to like the girl who said unkind things, but she did learn that she has the strength and maturity to live peacefully with a person that she’s not fond of—a skill that we all know can come in handy later in life.
There’s no need to worry that, in sending your child off to camp, you are letting them loose in the world of “Lord of the Flies.” We have plenty of rules and procedures in place designed to keep all of our campers as safe as possible. Safety is always our first priority. But our very close second priority is to offer the girls a world in which they have agency, responsibility, and daily experiences that challenge them, and even make them a little nervous or uncomfortable.
Not to worry—they won’t be hiking off into the woods by themselves in search of nearby ravines, as I once did. But I can promise you that every single camper will experience, at least once in their time at Rockbrook, that same exhilaration I felt the first time I ever felt a sense of ownership over an accomplishment that was fully and completely my own.
While reading through the newest American Camp Association’s Camping Magazine, one article in particular caught my attention. The article, CAMP: The Old Neighborhood for a New Generation by Jolly Corley, suggests that with school schedules more intense than ever before, it may be that kids are more intellectually stimulated than previous generations. However, today’s youth may be missing out on learning valuable life skills. Skills such as conflict management, problem solving, leadership and decision making. Skills which are learned most effectively through free play. Corley suggests that today’s generation needs unstructured play time more than children of past generations.
The best place to practice these life skills is camp. While American neighborhoods used to be the perfect setting for free play, this is no longer the case. The old neighborhood was a place “where kids were free to play from the time they finished chores until they were called inside for dinner.” An old neighborhood was one where children played free of adults, with kids of all ages, and often made up their own games and rules. A neighborhood which still very much exists at camp. This neighborhood is one that allows campers to practice developing soft skills that are necessary to succeed in life.
Every day at camp, campers are able to play with one another free from the interference of adults. These interactions enable them to develop interpersonal skills that the typical school environment may not allow them to. For example, a group of campers may decide that they want to play tennis during their free time. Without adults telling them what to do, it is necessary for them to decide how to split up. Will they play doubles or singles? Who will be on each team? Once the game gets going, they are in charge of regulating it. Was that ball in or out? Allowing campers to work these things out on their own will help them build lifelong skills in decision making and conflict management.
In addition to these skills, campers are also able to learn leadership skills through play with different age groups. Free play with younger children provides an opportunity for older children and adolescents to “practice nurturance and leadership.” Coley also explains how playing with older children can help younger ones to “problem solve in ways that are more sophisticated than what they are developmentally capable of if left on their own or playing with children of their same age.” The soft skills that children gain through free play are necessary for those who are going to see success later in life.
Never has the camp experience been as important as it is today. Gone are the days that children can roam around with the neighborhood kids playing pick up basketball games and hide-and-seek. Their schedules are rigid, their school work is more demanding than ever, and many parents fear leaving their children without adult supervision. This is where camp comes in. Camp creates an environment similar to the old American neighborhood, and it’s a safe one. Children practice skills such as problem solving, conflict management, and leadership through free play with other children of all ages. Most importantly, they don’t even realize that they’re doing it. They’re having the time of their lives, and they’re growing exponentially.