Relief from the Burden

One of the great things about the 4-week session at camp is that it gives us all more time to spend just hanging out with each other. It happens all the time: groups of girls casually sitting in the shade, chatting, working on a friendship bracelet tied to their water bottle. Between activities, before meals when we all have about an hour of unscheduled time, after dinner, and throughout the day: camp life provides an uninterrupted flow of friendly conversation. It’s a true luxury to enjoy spending time like this with the amazing people at Rockbrook.

Joining one of these impromptu groups is really pleasant too. The girls are so breezy and nice, curious and excited, silly and funny much of the time. I love asking the group questions and hearing what’s on their minds. For example, I recently asked a few campers what they love about Rockbrook that’s different from home. There are lots of answers to this question, and I believe it’s those differences that help explain why girls love camp. Many of the answers you might expect: “My camp friends… they know the real me,” “There’s so many fun things to do here,” “I love the food at camp.” One group of teenage campers surprised me when one said, “I like not having my phone,” and all the others chimed in agreeing. Teenage girls who happily give up using their smartphone? It’s a bit hard to believe, isn’t it?

You might expect the opposite, that the girls at camp are missing their phones, that they can’t wait to return to their Instagram accounts, Snapchat streaks, and Twitter followers. But it’s not true.  Back home though, we’ve all seen it. Their lives revolve around their smartphones, using them for daily communication, socializing and entertainment.  We’ve also seen this technology use effectively rule their lives, with teen girls spending an average of 9 hours per day on their phone, according to one study. Being constantly drawn to those little screens is a powerful force that we all deal with. As this sculpture “Absorbed by Light” portrays, our communication devices are effectively isolating us and distorting what we know about the world and feel about ourselves.

rockbrook camp girls

So why is camp different? If girls are happy to not use their phone here, why not at home too? That’s exactly what I asked the girls. They said at camp there’s simply no need for a phone. The authentic days of camp make any mediating device unnecessary. Here the community provides plenty of socializing, face-to-face communication, and rich real-world entertainment everyday.  People here have lots of free time, but are never bored because there are friends all around, always engaging things to do available, and no pressure to perform a certain way.  At home, unfortunately, all of this is less true, and their smartphones are used to fill the gap.

What’s amazing is that the girls recognize all of this. Living here at camp in this technology-free community has demonstrated for them that their smartphones, while convenient and perhaps even necessary in modern life, are also a burden.  They feel a real sense of relief giving them up and not needing them. They welcome reclaiming those 9 hours per day, freeing themselves to enjoy all that camp offers. These Rockbrook kids love camp because they feel fulfilled without needing their phones.

At home, where the tight-knit community of camp is absent, the challenge is to find a healthy balance between using our phones and the kind of real-world, fully-engaging experience I think we all crave. The challenge is to structure our time, identifying when using technology is a benefit and when it is distancing us from what we really want and need. The luxury of camp life is not available all year long, after all that’s why we love camp and return to it every summer, but we can recognize what it provides and with this awareness, implement elements of it more broadly.

Your Rockbrook girls are taking great strides in that direction, and we should all be very proud!

summer camp girl dancers

What a Wednesday!

What a Wednesday! Today our regular activity schedule paused for the afternoon to allow cabin groups time for a special activity together. This mid-week “cabin day” is a great time for girls to bond with and get to know their cabin mates even further. The counselors put a lot of thought into cabin day, starting their planning and preparation at the beginning of each week. The other fun part: it’s a surprise for the girls! They never know if they might be hiking up to Castle Rock, playing group games at the gym, having a spa, making a yummy treat, being creative with a craft project, or leaving camp for an exciting adventure at Sliding Rock! Each week it’s something different and enjoyable for the girls.

Decorated Jar held by summer camp girl

Today, one of our Junior cabins created “compliment jars” for one another. This involved first decorating large mason jars with stickers, paint, tape and scraps of colorful paper. Once they had personalized their jars, the girls then wrote complements on small slips of paper dropping one into each person’s jar. Soon each girl had a jar full of complements to read. This is an exciting time for everyone, and such a fun way to make all of the girls feel loved, noticed, and celebrated by their peers and counselors alike. Compliment jars are often displayed in the girls cabins and even treasured at home throughout the school year!

Meanwhile, a Middler cabin could be found hanging out in the ‘nest’ near Castle Rock, the huge rock face right up the mountain on the camp property. The top of Castle Rock is a fantastic hiking destination, offering an amazing view of the Blue Ridge mountains, and out on the face, we have 5 different rock climbing routes the girls can tackle. This year, though, Rockbrook gained a new addition up there— The Nest! The nest is an alcove tucked under a wide, flat portion of Castle Rock where we found the perfect place to hang Eno hammocks. Using rock anchors, we can set up a nest of up to 15 hammocks, creating a fun hangout area with a beautiful view of the forest and the surrounding mountains.

girls wearing t-shirts painted at camp

A different Middler cabin was having a fun and messy paint fight on the hill! This involved white t-shirts, bright paints, and lots of laughs! The girls began with clean shirts, but by the end of this activity, their t-shirts were far from white. They took turns painting on one another’s shirts, and happily splattering each other. This was a special day for this cabin, because these girls love to get creative and messy, and how often do girls get to play with this kind of abandon? This cabin was laughing and smiling non-stop, and they finished up this paint-filled cabin day by jumping in our refreshing lake to clean up.

tea party set on porch

One of the more original and exciting cabin day ideas today was a tea party being held by one of our senior cabins. This cabin’s counselors transformed a table on the porch of the Hillside Lodge into a fancy tea party setting, where the girls were instructed to arrive wearing their “fanciest gowns,” which for us means “amazing silly costumes!” These girls drank tea out of mugs, ate tiny cakes, and practiced ballroom dancing around the lodge. It was refreshing to see our senior campers enjoying themselves so much at a tea party, which most of them said they had not done since they were much younger. This particular cabin day activity provided these girls an opportunity to play and pretend again, to use their imaginations, and to celebrate and laugh with one another. Once a again, opening up, being a kid at camp, felt really, really good.

girl camp kids dressed in costumes
group of summer camp teenage girls
camp kids holding picnic dinner

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

This is Our Camp!

“If I know what I shall find, I do not want to find it. Uncertainty is the salt of life.” –Erwin Chargaff

camper girl

Anyone who has been to Rockbrook knows that there is some degree of certainty at camp: there is a regular schedule, there will definitely be muffin break every day at 10:45 (thank goodness!), and there is always something structured to do. Yet days like today, with nothing out of the ordinary planned, remind me that we all thrive at Rockbrook because when we wake up, none of us know exactly what the day will bring, and that makes each moment of each day exciting.

No one knows exactly what a day outside of camp will bring, either, but what I have noticed recently is that Rockbrook fuels this sense of curiosity and energy by creating a camper-driven environment. Because Rockbrook is set up like this, campers feel free to take initiative and take their spontaneous ideas and turn them into real fun.

This has been exemplified all day long at camp. No one batted an eye when a whole cabin of girls arrived to breakfast decked out in costumes from head to toe, but many of them got great compliments for their senses of style! At the end of breakfast, the girls made an announcement that, as a reward for clearing their table without being asked, two girls got to dress the other girls in their cabin. The girls all loved it and enjoyed parading around in their costumes all morning!

While walking around today, I dropped by KIT, which stands for “Keeping in Touch.” In this activity, girls make stationary, calendars, and boxes—anything that helps them write letters or keep special camp memories. KIT takes place in Goodwill, an historical building that is cozy with soft lighting and red curtains. The environment is relaxed and laid back, as the counselors who teach KIT have made sure that each girl is doing a project she wants to do. Conversation flows easily as the girls who have already spent a week at camp get to know those who just arrived. Everyone is engaged in their craft and content with their choice, happy they got to decide for themselves what to focus their energy on.

When I passed by WHOA, our activity on Wilderness Hiking and Outdoor Adventure, I heard something I do not usually hear casually around camp: The Star Spangled Banner being sung around a fire pit. Curious, I joined in the song, and tried to blend in. As the song ended, girls got up to speak, and I realized quickly that this was a memorial service for the miniature rafts the girls had tried to create. A particularly memorable moment of the speech was, “It was the Titanic of rafts, and that’s probably why it sank.” No one would have thought that a sunken raft would be an avenue for the subtle hilarity that ensued afterward. With a healthy dose of flexibility and an emphasis on process instead of outcome, every small activity can become something exciting and unexpected.

paper crafts at summer camp

This notion of camper ownership extends to every part of the day and every place around camp. Eating in the dining hall is always a little unpredictable because no one ever knows what songs will get sung. The Hi-Ups (the oldest Rockbrook campers) get to choose and lead the songs, but any table can request them! My absolute favorite part of meals, though, are announcements. There are many predictable (and important) announcements about adventurous trip offerings, tie-dye pick-ups, and lost and found. What makes Rockbrook different, though, is that campers take initiative and make their own announcements too. We were treated at dinner to two juniors performing a self-written song on their favorite activity: Nature! Set to “The Shark Song,” a familiar camp tune, the girls replaced the verses with “terrariums”, “Rockbrook Falls”, and “cool counselors”. The girls even made the journal in which they wrote the lyrics down! The rest of the camp gushed at how perfect the announcement was, and broke into excited applause. Not only do campers take ownership of camp, the rest of camp enthusiastically celebrates their initiative because everyone appreciates this spontaneity.

Twilight gave us another avenue to explore as a group of girls chose to venture down to the Rockbrook Garden. Every age group was represented, and it was moving to watch the senior girls helping the younger girls get excited as they walked down the hill together. When we arrived at the garden, Chelsea, the friendly and calm Rockbrook gardener, addressed the campers saying, “Girls, welcome to your garden.” The garden is a plot of land by the land sports field. Chelsea works hard to plant a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. It is incredibly calming and relaxing to be there during this twilight time, when the day’s heat is finally easing up, when the sun is setting, but there is still gold in the sky, when wind chimes are providing us with gentle sounds, and we get to romp around in what feels like a secret garden. There are rows of fruits, vegetables, and herbs that will eventually find their way into the Rockbrook dining hall! Surrounding the vegetables are beautiful flowers—heaps of sunflowers and daisies of every color. It is nothing short of perfection.

Even better, we got to do so much more than look at it. Girls proceeded to pluck strawberries right off the vine and eat them; others tried kale for the very first time. Some created bundles of lavender and verbena to tuck into their pillows at night, while others picked flowers and fashioned bouquets for their new friends. Chelsea also gave the girls some lettuce to plant in the ground, and many also helped water the plants. Regardless of what they did, I saw so much sheer joy in being able to actively engage in a space like the garden. On the way up the hill, I heard a girl comment that she was somewhat hesitant to come to the garden because she thought it would be a structured lesson about plants. She had no idea she would be allowed to pick anything or try anything, and that most requests she had would be answered with “yes,” and a smile.

After the garden, we headed back up the hill for evening program. Most nights, cabins work together to plan a skit. Though counselors are always nearby, we try not to be too involved—it’s a great opportunity for girls to work together and get as creative as we please! As I was watching a skit whose characters were debating the origin of French Fries (France or the United States…in the end, it was actually Belgium!), I was struck by the originality that stems from campers creating so much of the direction of their camp lives. I realized that, at Rockbrook, the phrase I heard at the garden should be applied more broadly. It’s as though every moment of every day is saying, Girls, welcome to your camp.

Camper Dressing up Fun

Deeply Encouraging

Girl Horseback Riding
Girl Horse Riding

As our first week of camp hit its stride today, the campers seem to have simultaneously relaxed and energized. It makes sense when you think about it. After these first few days, any initial jitters have been calmed by the friendly atmosphere here, the smiling counselors who are always ready to encourage, the overall feeling of openness and acceptance that colors everything. At Rockbrook, there’s simply no pressure to measure up; we don’t compete for awards or recognition for being the best at something. Instead— and this can take a few days for girls to realize —the camp environment, Rockbrook’s culture, substitutes caring for criticism. It finds friendship before judgment, silliness and laughter before concern.

Within the structure of scheduled activities and periods of free time, the girls here have the freedom to try new activities (climbing, shooting, weaving!), to follow their whim meeting and playing with scores of wonderful inspiring people, and to explore what they enjoy, expand what they know, and develop who they are. It’s a strange but wonderful feeling of deep happiness and well being that springs simply from being in this kind of genuine girls camp community.

Camp Zip Line Thrill

Out of this relaxation bubbles energy and excitement. It’s inevitable; with this freedom comes all sorts of activity, from thrilling outdoor adventure activities like screaming down the RBC zip line course, to the concentration and creativity that combine to tie friendship bracelet patterns. Letting go at camp inspires you to overcome challenges, to join a big group playing gaga ball, for example. It stiffens your nerve at the top of the 50-foot tall water slide. It elevates your voice to sing louder in the dining hall. Suddenly, wearing a crazy costume, or making up a dance with your cabin mates, or lying on the grass in the dark to stargaze, or getting really dirty in the creek— all seem perfectly normal. Relaxing into camp life, fully embracing the contagious kindness of our camp community, is deeply encouraging.

Ceramics Camp Girl

Of course, this all adds up to what the girls simply call “fun.” It’s fun to have friends like this, to be with them all day and night, to get to know each other this genuinely. It’s fun to feel supported by everyone around you, and thereby find the confidence to step far beyond what you thought was your limit. It’s fun to make things, to be this active all day, and laugh this much. It’s fun to exercise your personality so thoroughly, to empower your creativity, your compassion, your awareness of the world around you. It’s fun to have a break from “real life,” from (yes, believe it or not) the distractions of technology, and thereby discover so much to experience and appreciate. The girls will say it was fun to roast s’mores over the campfire, to ride horses, and to swim in the lake, but I think there’s something more fundamental and lasting at work.

Today, after just a few days, it was so entirely clear. For your girls, camp provides the freedom they crave, the challenges they need, and the full-bellied fun they love.

Camp Party Costumes