Creating Their Own Fun

What's That?Schedules are useful. Schedules let you know the shape of your day before it even starts. They tell you that that appointment you’ve been dreading will be over by ten, and that restaurant that you love will be seating you at seven. Here at Rockbrook, we know and appreciate the benefits a schedule, and stick to one (with a few daily adjustments) nearly every day of the week. Rising bell at 8 AM. Lunch at 1. Dinner at 6:15. Four activity periods, two snack breaks, and two Free Swims a Day. The schedule allows both campers and staff to slide into a rhythm, and know what to expect out of their days.

Now Reach!But our campers are used to schedules. In some ways, they are too used to schedules. Their days throughout the year are filled top to bottom with school, tutoring, music lessons, sports practices, and homework.

This overabundance of stimulation in their everyday lives is one of the reasons that I think the absolute most important part of our daily schedule are the times that we schedule… nothing. No activities, no events, nothing at all but the space around the campers, the people they are with, and their ability to use their imaginations to create their own entertainment.

Easily EntertainedFree Swims and Twilight are largely left up to the campers. They might find themselves at the beginning of a Free Swim taking on the risk of boredom that has become all too rare in modern life. There are no phones or tablets to captivate them with mindless games and social media; no TV or Netflix to keep them entertained and sedentary. There is only forty-five minutes to an hour of staring at a wall, unless they and their friends can come up with something to do.

And, boy, to our Rockbrook girls rise to the challenge. Just in today’s Second Free Swim, I saw girls racing stray flip flops down the stream, circles of hair-braiding-chains on the Hill, and signs up on bulletin boards advertising auditions (“open to all ages”) for a band that some campers are putting together.

Fierce!With ample free time, and the risk of boredom, comes startling creativity, openness, and boldness. Girls who might shriek at the sight of a live crawfish in the winter find themselves poking through streambeds in search of them during Twilight. Girls who perhaps have only ever played card games on computer screens, learn that by far the best use of real playing cards is building them into elaborate houses with their friends. Girls who reach instinctively for technology at the first sign of a quiet moment, might discover that it is far better to reach for a book, or even for the hand of a friend as they jump into the lake.

A Great Match-UpWith unscheduled time, of course, comes the risk of boredom, and the twiddling-of-thumbs. What it also brings, however, is an agency over the use of their own time that our campers might not often see in school-days. At camp, this time is given to them in abundance, and it is a beautiful thing to see our campers take it and run with it.

Jumping Right In

"Smile" for the CameraEvery summer, on the first full day of camp, it strikes me how little time it takes for the “spirit of Rockbrook” to take hold on our campers.

Within the first 24 hours, our campers transform from the quiet, polite children who arrive on Opening Day into true Rockbrook Girls (who, while always polite, are rarely quiet). Through the courage of jumping into the lake for the swim demos yesterday, the creativity of planning and performing skits with their cabins last night at Evening Program, and the sheer adventure of setting out this morning for the activities that they themselves chose, those handy manners that school instills in them are stripped away in preparation of three weeks of carefree fun.

Getting Their Hands DirtyGone too are some of the inhibitions that might hold them back from taking fun and crazy chances in the “real world.” Girls who have been nervous around horses their whole lives chose to step into the barn this morning. Girls who swore up and down all year long that they wouldn’t do the camp swim demo completed it yesterday afternoon and earned their green bracelet. Girls who dreaded opening day all year long, sure in the knowledge that they would be homesick, began to realize that they are strong enough to make it through, and even enjoy, nearly three weeks away from the comforts of home.

High Five!Most wonderfully, though, campers are putting away their self-consciousness and desire to “fit in” with the crowd, and have begun to let their inner zaniness shine through. They are realizing that camp is a place where “weirdness” is not only tolerated, but welcomed and encouraged—a place where differences are celebrated. Silly songs in the Dining Hall? No problem. Creating a skit about Cinderella and Hannah Montana starting a dance party on the moon? Totally normal. Wearing pants on your head to dinner? All par for the course.

Embracing the WeirdThere were three Juniors in particular who embraced that philosophy last night, when they stood up and made the announcement at dinner that, “Rockbrook is all about having fun, and sometimes to have fun you have to get a little weird.” They then challenged their fellow campers to dress as weirdly as possible for today’s meals. Our Rockbrook girls, new and returning, rose marvelously to the challenge. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were populated by walking bananas, ketchup bottles, aliens, pants-on-head wearers, giant sunglasses, and more.

It is amazing to see the transformations that only a single day at camp can bring about; and even more amazing to consider how our campers will continue to grow and change between today and Closing Day.

Embracing the Weird

A parent asked me recently what it is about Rockbrook that makes it so special–what it is that has their daughter coming home year after year happier, more confident, and more comfortable with herself and her quirks.

So Excited!I rambled a bit in response, and gave some rote answer about the strength of our community, and our encouraging of independence, and the surprising bits of spontaneity in our schedule that keep the campers on their toes.

The parent nodded along as though satisfied with my answer, but as I thought about the conversation more and more over the next few days, I became more and more dissatisfied with it. It’s not that all those things I mentioned aren’t true–they are, and they are wonderful facets of camp life. But they are not the heart of what makes Rockbrook special. I’ve been thinking for days now, trying to distill all of the magic and wonder of camp down into one phrase that sums it all up. One phrase that explains why everything about camp means so much to so many people.

I don’t know if such a phrase even exists, but I think I’ve come up with a contender: here at Rockbrook, we embrace the weird.

GotchaIt isn’t so much that we make people weirder exactly; it’s that we provide a place where kids can let their inner-weirdness shine. They spend so much time at school, struggling to be thought of as normal, and learning from their peers that their differences and quirks aren’t something to be celebrated, but rather something to be suppressed. Often it seems that, despite the efforts of all the people who see and love their beautiful eccentricities, children (and especially teenagers) teach themselves to imitate “normalcy.” The logic seems to be that if they look and act like everyone else, their uniformity might earn them acceptance.

The beauty of camp, I think, is that we not only appreciate each other’s differences, we downright celebrate them. The girls that earn the biggest cheers in the Dining Hall aren’t the ones with their hair done up in the latest style, and their makeup done just right: they’re the girls wearing giant banana costumes for no particular reason, and singing a rousing rendition of “Banana Phone” into the microphone during announcements. The girls who begin the fashion trends at camp aren’t the ones sporting RayBans or the coolest swimsuits–they’re the ones that discover that tie-dyed knee socks and duct-tape headbands are without a doubt the most fabulous things since sliced bread.

Makeshift MaskMost importantly, the ringleaders in the cabin are not the girls who think they have to be catty to impress people–it’s the class clowns, the includers, and the girls who can make even the most boring day fun and interesting who steal the show.

If a girl doesn’t want to be weird, though–if she doesn’t feel comfortable being the only person in the room wearing a chocolate-chip cookie costume–that’s just fine. No one will think she’s boring or, well, weird for not being weird. She can be the person whom she feels most comfortable being, while still learning to love the weirdness of others. Learning to appreciate the eccentricities of others is just as important as learning to express your own, and that’s a skill that is honed here every day.

I don’t know if this phrase is the winner. Maybe it isn’t our love of weirdness that makes Rockbrook what it is–I’m sure the truth of the matter is something much more indefinable. But I know that it’s the quality that has meant the most to me in my time here. It was here that I first learned that it was okay to be a tomboy, okay to have a laugh that is louder than everybody else’s, and okay to spend most of my free time daydreaming about getting my letter to Hogwarts.

No, camp taught me that these qualities were more than just “okay.” They were the parts of myself that I should be proudest of.

What's That?

 

Instant Enthusiasm

Moving into summer campLet’s get started! The day that so many of us have been waiting for has finally arrived. For the directors, all of us who work year round, today begins the unfolding of many plans and the thrill of seeing everything come together— the people, the equipment and supplies, the activity ideas, special events, new camp buildings, and surprises for the campers. For the staff, today is the culmination of their week-long pre-camp training where they learned about the Rockbrook Camp philosophy, protocols, teaching methods, and ways to focus on their campers’ needs in the cabin. And of course, for the campers, today is when their time at camp finally begins, when the fun and excitement of the next few weeks can get started.

Most importantly though, today is the day when we can all come together in “the Heart of a Wooded Mountain” and form the caring, and proudly a bit zany, community that is camp. We can all now begin to do things together— share our meals, dress up in costumes, sing (!!), be creative as we make things, reconnect with nature, truly feel the weather, laugh, and play all day long. It’s this sense of community, energized by all the wonderful people here, that makes the fun of camp life so powerful, and ultimately meaningful.

Swimming Tag boardThese blog posts, we hope, will dip here and there into life at camp. They will report items of news, announce special events, outdoor adventure trips, or just what we had for lunch. Please don’t be shy about giving us feedback or asking questions in the comments. We’ll be happy to respond!

Once all of the campers had arrived today, and we finished up a delicious lunch of Rick’s homemade Mac-n-Cheese with fresh fruit and salad, all of the girls joined their counselors for a trip to the lake. It’s been a long tradition to begin each camp session by orienting everyone to Rockbrook’s lake, explaining the various safety rules, and assessing everyone’s swimming ability. With everyone dressed in their swimsuits and with towels at the ready, each girl takes turns demonstrating that she can swim out about 50 feet, back another 50 feet using a back stroke, and then tread water for one minute. It can be a little shocking to first feel the temperature of our mountain stream-fed lake, but it also makes most girls swim that much stronger/faster. Successfully performing the “swim demo” earns each girl a green bracelet and a buddy tag with her name on it for the tag board. If a girl has difficulty with the swim demo, she can still use the shallow area of the lake while wearing a life jacket. With the sun shining, and lots of cheering and congratulations going around from all the counselors, special staff and directors, it was wonderful to see the girls enjoy the lake for the first time this summer.

Camp Activity TourAfter changing back into dry clothes, all the girls gathered on the hill in the center of camp for a quick assembly to meet all of the special staff members, sing a few camp songs, and learn a few more guidelines about camp. For example, we demonstrated the lightning prediction and detection system we recently installed at Rockbrook. Called the “Thor-Guardian,” this system is a sophisticated sensor that measures electrostatic energy in the atmosphere near camp, and sends out a loud warning when there is a danger of lightning. It continues to monitor the atmosphere and sends a different warning sound when it is all clear. Everyone at camp will take shelter in a building whenever there is a warning, and stay there until the system indicates it is safe to go back outside.

The other highlight of the day was the activity tour, where the counselors introduced the campers to all of the activity options here at Rockbrook. Split into several groups, the girls toured camp stopping at each activity area to hear a brief presentation from the activity instructors. They saw kayak rolling at the lake, bows and arrows at archery, looms at Curosty, and flips at gymnastics. Many of the counselors made up songs and skits to illustrate what their activity involved, as well. It was a fun and informative afternoon giving the campers what they needed to sign up for their activity schedule later after dinner.

For the first day of camp, this one ranks right up near the top. It seemed like there was instant enthusiasm, loud excitement for everything we were doing and about to do. This session is off to a fantastic start!

Young girls camp friends

The Simple Things

Last night, we held my without-a-doubt favorite event of each session: the shaving cream fight. It is an event at which girls leave their manners in the cabin, put aside all their instincts that demand that they stay clean and orderly, and give no thought to the rules–because there aren’t any.

Sneak AttackGot ya!Messy and HappyWatch out!The Latest StyleThis event is camp’s equivalent of giving a child an expensive gift for her birthday, only to have her play with the empty box for the next month or so. We spend a lot of time and energy putting on elaborate events for the kids throughout the session. And they do enjoy them–but nothing can quite equal the utter, visceral joy of being handed a bottle of shaving cream, and told to just go nuts.

Something about the simplicity of it all–pick up shaving cream, shake can, spray onto as many people as you can, get as messy as possible–lends itself to a beautiful sort of mindlessness. There’s no goal that you must reach, no way to win or lose, and, most importantly of all, no fear that someone might judge you for looking like a walking marshmallow. There is only the can in your hand, the grass between your toes, and the grin on your face.

It’s the simple pleasures such as this one that I believe is camp’s greatest gift to campers. Too often in the real world (and yes, sometimes even in the camp world), we overlook the tiny things in the world around us that can bring us joy. We are too intent on the big picture, on making this world and our lives exactly what we want them to be, to stop and focus on the details that are of no real use to anybody, but still can chance our lives and make them more beautiful. We tend to miss the trees for the forest.

Take the campers I saw in the lake yesterday, swimming back and forth, intent on finishing their mermaid laps in time to get the Dolly’s trip prize. Would there have been any real harm done if they had stopped their swimming, and floated silently in the sunshine for the rest of Free Swim? What about the camper I talked to a few days ago, trying to race through “Hamlet” before the end of camp, so that she would have time to write her report when she got home? What if she had forgotten the deadline, and taken a few moments to slow down and appreciate the mellifluous rhythms of Shakespeare’s language?

But I know it’s not that easy. Of course everyone would prefer to slow down and appreciate the little things, but the big things feel too important, too pressing to ignore even for a moment. Stopping to smell the roses feels like a luxury that simply cannot be afforded.

But at camp, thank goodness, that particular luxury comes cheaper. Camp gives both campers and staff the chance to slow down and focus the significantly less important, and more joyous, things. Of course there are still moments, even at camp, when we too get caught up in the big picture. The completion of mermaid laps, the execution of the perfect skit, the nitty gritty and ins and outs of the daily schedule, even the completion of a blog post–all of these things can draw our eyes away from the joys all around us.

Which is why the shaving cream fight, and other camp events and activities like it, are so important. They strip down our priorities and interests into those that are most vital to our happiness. They train us to look past the things that seem important, and focus on the quieter things that really are. Put more simply, they allow all of us–camper, counselor, and director–to just slow down for a minute and remember what it feels like to just be kids.

Immersed in the Unfamiliar

Glancing through our online photo gallery today, you may have noticed that the girls are all wearing long sleeves. It might be a t-shirt or a sweatshirt, or likely a Rockbrook fleece, but all morning long we needed to bundle up a bit because it didn’t feel much like summer around here. It was more like the fall with the low temperature of 54 degrees when we woke up at 8am this morning. While odd for us in late July, this kind of cool, low humidity weather makes everything sparkle at camp. Waking up under warm covers in our open-air cabins, adding a layer of fleece while clicking the floor loom in Curosty, and biting into the fresh mint chocolate chip muffin, all felt especially good this morning. Up above was the deepest blue sky, not a single cloud anywhere, and the sun felt instantly warm when you stepped out of the shade, even as it warmed to about 75 degrees in the afternoon. Summer in the mountains can bring the most surprising and wonderful weather.

Whitewater Paddle and Helmet Arrow nocked and pulled Clay-covered kids hand doing pottery

Yesterday, Bentley wrote about how camp has helped her daughters (and herself) gain social confidence when meeting new people or encountering unfamiliar social settings. She saw attending a sleepaway summer camp a perfect setting to develop that skill because, after all, it’s inevitable you’ll be doing unfamiliar things and meeting new people at camp— the girls in your cabin, in your wheel-thrown ceramics class, or in your whitewater raft on the Nantahala River. Everyday, there’s someone new to meet and something new to do and experience. (“Did you try that pineapple salsa at lunch today?”) From this angle, camp life means immersing kids in the unfamiliar— experiencing first-hand strange food like homemade ginger coleslaw, odd weather like this morning, quirky people like that counselor from out west, challenging activities like aiming a real gun, alien creatures like those HUGE wolf spiders occasionally found in the shower, and so forth. While camp is providing girls new experiences and offering a range of fun activities to try, it’s more importantly pushing them beyond what they know, confronting them with the exotic. Camp life happily leaps right out of every “comfort zone,” and in this way, is intentionally un-comfortable.

Riflery Ready Girl at CampAnd that’s a good thing! Obviously, we don’t want camp to imitate the comforts of home. Many of the benefits of camp life spring from those differences— unplugging from technology, being active outdoors, and managing everyday decisions, for example. Personal growth, learning of the most profound kind, requires a little shaking up and a surprise now and then. We want our kids to have these novel experiences because they are unfamiliar and because they challenge them to grow more competent. For this reason it would be a mistake to insist we make everything “easy” at camp, for example to make sure the lake isn’t too cold or that she already know everyone in her cabin. As parents, we often spend our time helping our children be comfortable, keeping them happy, and providing everything we can to smooth their path, but that’s the paradox of camp. It’s both uncomfortable and fun. It makes our girls happy while safely challenging them. Camp is as joyful as it is unfamiliar.

What makes this paradox possible at Rockbrook is our camp culture. It’s our emphasis on community, and the values that support it like kindness, caring and generosity. We all know that everyone here (counselors and campers alike) will be quick to support our efforts and is more inclined to cooperate than compete. Enthusiasm and encouragement bubble up everywhere at Rockbrook strengthening our courage to let our true selves blossom. We celebrate silliness, creativity, and costumes! We love singing, dancing, playing, and doing almost everything together. In this kind of community, what’s unfamiliar becomes part of the fun, and what’s at first a challenge becomes another opportunity to experience something new regardless of the outcome. What makes camp “fun” is another whole topic to consider, but I think the Rockbrook camp community is a big part of it.

Zoo Costume GirlsFor about half of the camp, almost all of the Middlers and Seniors, today included a whitewater rafting trip down the Nantahala River. We ran 2 large trips, using our own equipment and guides: one in the morning and a second in the afternoon. Perfect sunny weather added to the excitement of rapids like “Delbar’s Rock,” “Whirlpool,” “The Bump,” and of course the “Nantahala Falls.”  These are high-pitched trips, partly from the rapids but equally from the icy cold water splashing about. It was a great afternoon of whitewater adventure.

When we all arrived back at camp, a special jungle/animal themed dinner called “A Night at the Zoo” was ready to begin. We had just enough time to race back to the cabin to throw together an animal costume. Maybe that meant simply wearing a squid hat, or painting a few whiskers on your cheeks, but there was also a giraffe and several tigers in the dining hall too.  Jungle-themed decorations and posters on the walls helped set the mood, while the girls had a great time singing animal songs (e.g., “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) and dancing to a few related pop songs (like “Roar” for example). We gobbled up pizza and salad, and finished with chocolate chip cookie dough for dessert, making the whole dinner a special event.

Rafting Rapid Splash

A Single Afternoon

Emily’s made another short video, this time focusing on some of the fun packed into a single afternoon at Rockbrook. Take a look!

Fun is for the Making

Girls learning to roll a kayak at the lakeOne of the technical skills we teach to the girls who select kayaking as one of their activities is the “Eskimo Roll.” This is a self rescue technique used to return your kayak right side up after flipping over. An experienced kayaker makes rolling look effortless, but in fact it takes great timing to coordinate several actions… tucking forward, setting and sweeping the paddle, snapping the hips, and positioning the head. And most of this is done upside down and underwater! Leland and Andria, our expert kayaking instructors, have been teaching roll clinics at the lake and report many girls are “getting their rolls.” A few have even successfully performed something much more difficult— a “Hand Roll.” You might be thinking sushi, but in kayaking this is rolling up a kayak without a paddle, using just your hands. Some kayakers try for years before successfully hand rolling. We’ve got 13-year old girls doing it! As the girls head out on kayaking trips, they are putting to use all this and other whitewater skills… reading the river, eddying, ferrying, peeling out, and navigating ledges and drops. It’s neat to see.

Camp class to make a tie-dye t-shirtThis week has been a big one in the “Hodge Podge” craft activity because the girls have been tie dying. Set outside near the upper pottery studio, the instructors have tables, newspaper, bottles of liquid dye (plenty of colors!) and lots of rubber bands ready for the tying. This is particularly fun for the girls because they can not only dye a t-shirt, but also any other cotton item they already own.  So look out parents! You might find a rainbow spiral pair of underwear in your daughter’s trunk when she gets home, or a bright orange “target designed” hat, or as I saw one girl designing, a newly striped pair of Converse tennis shoes! All of these items first soak in a mild solution of water and urea (which helps keep the cloth damp while the dye sets) before being twisted, folded, and then bound up tightly with the rubber bands. The resulting pattern is the result of both the different colors of dye applied and the alternating areas of dyed and un-dyed (the “resists” created by the rubber bands) cloth. One quick tip when these items arrive home… They will still need quite a bit of rinsing, and I would suggest washing them separately at first before it will be safe to launder them with other clothes.

camp girl aiming a rifleDecorated Riflery TargetThe ostensible goal for Archery and Riflery is, of course, hitting the center of the target and, using multiple shots, scoring points based on how close to the center each shot lands. We recognize this almost daily, in fact, during the lunch announcements when the instructors announce which girls have joined the “Bullseye Club.” Careful aim along with improving strength and technique allow the girls to better both the accuracy and precision of their shots. There is some keen interest in improving also since in a couple of weeks we will be challenging the boys of Camp Carolina to a scored tournament. But if you visit both Archery and Riflery, you won’t find girls just shooting for a score. Instead you’ll see balloons filled with paint, posters and markers, and even pieces of fruit. Now the targets are much more interesting, and the resulting splatter more colorful and yes, more glittery. Success and a good deal of the fun can now mean popping the balloon, piercing the apple, or destroying the banana.

learning to canoe at summer campLike so many other things at Rockbrook, what we do is driven by a spirit of creativity guided by a simple goal of having fun.  Why shoot a banana? Just for the fun of it.  Like all examples of free play, the primary goal is the play itself and not something external to the moment. That’s why we’ll play slow motion volleyball using a balloon for the ball, or we’ll wear costumes all day long (like for twin day), or we’ll stop lunch to dance and sing to a fun pop song. Without sacrificing the serious subject of safety— shooters always wear eye protection, for example —we encourage all of our activity instructors to restyle what they do occasionally, to add an unexpected element or substitute one aspect with another. That’s why Rockbrook girls might climb the Alpine Tower blindfolded, or add a pebble to their lanyard, tie dye their shoes, or paint with a leaf instead of a “proper brush.”

We think this kind of playful creativity is a wonderful approach for girls to experience, even acquire as they go forward. It’s a skill that easily conquers boredom, can be extraordinarily beneficial when problem solving, but perhaps most importantly, makes the world a joyful place. It proves that fun is for the making, and that we have the power to brighten up what we’re doing and en-joy ourselves along the way.  Everyday, Rockbrook lives and teaches that insight.

One Direction band costumed skitTonight we celebrated our first July Mini session with a banquet dinner party presented by the 9th graders and their counselors. The theme was “Night at the Red Carpet” and included appearances by an impressive list of celebrities, some of whom performed as well. We saw Lorde (Claire) sing, an original performance by Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez (Sam and Matilda), and the girls’ favorite English “boy band,” One Direction (counselors Miranda, Maggie, Paige, Gabi and Jenna). The celebrities were kindly signing autographs all night while they helped serve the dinner of pasta, salad, garlic bread and mozzarella sticks. For dessert, everyone enjoyed a “Red Carpet, Red Velvet Cupcake.” All the campers and counselors came dressed in their blue RBC t-shirts making the spontaneous dances a jumping, swirling crowd of long hair, blue and white, and smiling faces. Fueled by music, candy and the exuberance of this many happy, comfortable girls, the banquet was a great time and a wonderful success.

Great Camp Friends