A Sense of Place

horse riding camper girl

These past few days, between the two July mini sessions, have allowed the full-session campers to dig deeper into various activities and spend a little more time honing their skills and knowledge of techniques. For example, down closer to the French Broad river where Rockbrook’s Riding Center is located, our young equestrians have been riding and working up to more advanced skills. The covered arena with its engineered footing (2 types of polyester fibers blended with a fine silica sand, and kept moist with regular watering) has been an ideal place for setting up cross rails and other vertical jumps for the girls. Some of the more popular horses, like Smoke, Snoopy and Rodin, have been working on the jumps with the girls. These are horses that train throughout the year at St. Andrew’s University, and are very good at trotting and cantering over poles, as well as experienced jumpers. They know exactly what to do when their rider approaches a jump, eager to clear it. It’s wonderful to see the smile on the girls’ faces as they zoom over the jumps.

counselor and camper working on weaving

The same is true for adventure activities. Climbers ventured off-camp to Looking Glass Rock for a day working on the climb called B-52, while kayakers tackled the more advanced section of the Green River. Even in the craft activities, the weavers finished edges, t-shirts were dyed with a new pattern, and the pottery folks learned more about throwing on the wheel. The friendship bracelet patterns are becoming more complex and the needlecraft projects more intricate.

On the other hand, these few days also seemed to take on a slightly more relaxed pace of life. With added familiarity came greater comfort, making moments of free time feel great. We seem to be hanging out more naturally and simply enjoying each other’s company. Instead of a race, we’ve discovered a sense of place. Instead of a goal, we’re taking a leisurely stroll.

jug band campfire

Tonight’s evening program was an all-camp campfire, but one with a silly theme— Jug Band. Inspired by aspects of Appalachian culture, but along the lines of the old TV show “Hee Haw,” the campers and counselors dressed in their mountain attire (flannels, overalls, bandannas), tied their hair in pigtails, and in some cases painted freckles on their cheeks. Even Sarah arrived dressed as “Sayrry,” a mountain granny wearing a long dress, carrying a walking stick, and a pet (rubber) rattlesnake. The program included group songs, skits, and folks taking turns telling jokes. We sang “Rocky Top,” “Sippin’ Cider,” “Mountain Dew,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” and others. There was a skit performed to the “Rooster Song.” All along, the girls played improvised “musical” instruments like shakers, cans, and other things to tap or bang. For jokes, we heard that you call a pig that knows karate “Pork Chop” and when a horse is being negative it’s a real neigh-sayer. With a nice campfire glowing with orange flames and the whole camp gathered around, it was a fun and amusing evening.

Independence with Responsibility

Pancake Picnic
Camp Fire Starting Class

It has always been part of Rockbrook’s mission to go beyond simply entertaining our campers and to focus also on how we can provide more lasting benefits to the girls who attend camp. We certainly work to make sure everyday here includes something delightful, surprising and fun. If you merely look at the variety of activities available, all the free time options, and daily special gatherings (Twilight periods, Evening Programs, dining hall skits, assemblies, and all-camp events), it’s clear Rockbrook girls are having a blast. They’re outside, they’re actively engaged with creative, adventure, and athletic interests, and they’re laughing their heads off along the way.

But of course camp is much more than a series of amusements. It’s almost cliché to say it— partly because we (and others) talk about it a lot! —but there’s no doubt that a positive sleepaway camp experience helps build important character traits that serve children well later in life, traits like those “21st Century Skills” you may have heard about: Communication, Confidence, Compassion, Cooperation, Collaboration, Creativity, Courage, and so forth.

There are many aspects of camp life one could name that contribute to this transformative power: its emphasis on positive human relationships and the friendly, tight-knit community we enjoy, coming immediately to mind. There’s a starting point, however, I would say even a prerequisite to this character growth, something that if missing will reduce the camp experience to merely a vacation, or some other fleeting form of entertainment.

Camp Needlecraft Class on back porch

At the most fundamental level, camp is a powerful environment for character development because to provides children an opportunity to act independently. On a daily basis, kids at camp can exercise their independence. Without being tightly managed by parents or teachers, they get to make their own choices about what they’ll do, where they’ll go and ultimately, who they’ll be. This is quite a lot of freedom for kids when you think about it, and it might even make a parent nervous! What if she doesn’t brush her hair, or wears the same dirty shirt over and over again!? What if she doesn’t take tennis and finds rock climbing more her style? What if she stays up late and sleeps less (or more!) than usual? What if the freedom of camp meant “Do whatever you want?”

This would be a legitimate worry if not for the structure of camp life. Keep in mind that at camp the campers can’t do simply anything they chose. The freedom camp provides to act independently without parental authorization comes with significant limitations as well. There are, for example, clear procedural rules at camp— a daily schedule of activities, safety protocols, and how to clear dirty tableware after a meal, to name a few. Perhaps even more importantly, there are likewise social expectations where the girls realize the importance of treating each other with kindness, caring, generosity, honesty, and respect, for example. The camp environment, our culture and community, is built upon the support of these structural and social limits, and the camp staff, our cabin counselors primarily, serve as nurturing role models who embody the ideals from which they are derived.

Girls waving while in whitewater rafting boat

What we have at camp is freedom with limitations, or to put it differently, independence with responsibility. This is important because one without the other would critically fail our campers’ developing character. At one extreme, unstructured independence would lead to an “anything goes” form of chaos, and kids would fail to grapple with the 21st Century skills mentioned above. At the other extreme, rigidly scripted behaviors would rob kids of their decision making power leaving them with mere recipes for life poorly suited to cope with the complexities of a changing world.

Camp life finds that balance by providing girls the freedom to make their own choices while also taking great care to guide those decisions appropriately.  And it’s this balance that teaches kids how to be responsible. So while she’s choosing to go whitewater rafting, or to spend a quiet afternoon decorating a memory box in KIT, or perhaps chatting with a friend on the hill after dinner instead of taking a shower, she’s exploring how to act responsibly as well.  By absorbing the positive values of camp— things like respect for others, appreciation of Nature, and courage to try new things —she’s developing qualities that will help her navigate responsibly in the future.

Rafting the nantahala river falls

Well, I may have gotten a little carried away here, but I wanted to report that your girls aren’t just eating pancakes on the hill in their PJ’s, or learning to build a fire, or blasting through the Nantahala Falls, or singing ’till their their throats hurt, or zipping down sliding rock— all things we enjoyed today. They’re making independent decisions all day long, and you’d be very proud, maybe even a little surprised, to see how confidently and responsibly they are making their way.

A Part of Something Bigger

The Pottery Workshop


Hello there friends, Emily the assistant director of pottery here at Rockbrook!  As camp draws to an end, we are busy loading and unloading kilns.  During this last activity rotation, there isn’t enough turnaround time for the girls to take home the pieces that they make.  Instead, we are making group projects (like a collection of mini animals that will decorate upper pottery and large coil pot planters that will be filled with beautiful floral creations).  The girls really enjoy leaving a piece of themselves behind at Rockbrook – they feel like they are part of something bigger.

A Little Creation

In fact, everyone at Rockbrook is part of something bigger – all together, every smile, counselor, dip in the chilly lake, skinned knee, hug, squeal, and camper join together to form the spirit of Rockbrook.

One striking part of this spirit is the drive that the girls put into their activities.  Since the girls get to choose their activities, they are very eager to learn and participate.  I get such joy when girls sign up for pottery for more than one activity rotation.  Soon, girls that have been pottery regulars can pipe in during class to remind their friends to slip and score the handle onto their mug so that it stays.  We do a lot of handbuilding, but the activity that the girls love the most is going on the wheel.  I have had a handful of girls that have become so invested in throwing on the wheel that they have signed up every rotation period.  Now, throwing is much more difficult than it looks, and I always tell the girls that throwing is still fun whether you get a beautiful bowl, or a silly looking pile of flopped clay.  We want the girls to feel accomplished with their pot that they make on the wheel, so they do (almost) every step on their own.  After we center their clay for them (just because it is too difficult for beginners to learn!) they do everything else on their own, the opening, widening, pulling up of walls, and shaping of the pot.

Getting it Just Right

My dedicated wheel throwing girls have progressed so much this session.  They started with half pound balls of clay.  Each time they came back, they requested heavier balls of clay.  They finished out the session throwing almost three pounds of clay with minimal help!  At camp, the girls are able to come into an activity with no knowledge, and if they have the desire and dedication to keep signing up for the activity, they walk away with a new artistic skill.  So parents, when your campers return home so soon (too soon!) be prepared to hear stories of crazy camp antics, their favorite muffin flavors, and facts about their new friends, but also get them to tell you what they made and what they learned.  Encourage them to keep working on their new skills, and to hold onto their drive and Rockbrook spirit.

Emily Williams

Assistant Head of Pottery

Passion Trumps Popularity

Teen girls at summer camp

A parent mentioned the other day that she is impressed, and so pleased, that her daughter feels “successful” at Rockbrook. That got me thinking about how and why that’s such a common sentiment around here. What is it about life at Rockbrook that makes girls feel comfortable and successful? And in what way is this special, different from ordinary life?

It’s certainly not because everyone here achieves some distinction, wins some kind of contest, or acquires a superior skill (though these can happen). Not every shot hits the target, every stitch is even, or climber makes it to the top. There are plenty of challenges at camp, activities that require practice and skill development, even social challenges… resolving a disagreement between cabin mates, for example …each that may or may not work out perfectly. With these kinds of “failures” (“opportunities to grow” might be a better way to put it) intentionally built into the camp program, with having the best skills of some sort being insignificant, how do girls feel successful at Rockbrook?

It’s also not because the girls here are suddenly popular, that they have succeeded by joining a cool “in crowd.” That phenomenon —social grouping dictated by who is considered most liked or admired— is simply not prevalent at Rockbrook. Instead our camp community is defined by a more inclusive culture driven by kindness, caring and generosity. Everyone has a place here and feels like they can be their true selves. In this way, Rockbrook really is comfortable. It’s a relief from the popularity contests that affect school life. So if success at Rockbrook isn’t about having a social standing, what is it?

Throwing pottery on the wheel
Girl archer aiming her arrow

I think success at summer camp is about enthusiasm. It’s about passion for what we do and who we are. At camp we find a spirited attitude infusing just about everything: singing show tunes while setting the tables for meals, skipping arm-and-arm down the path to the bathroom, greeting everyone who passes by, laughing hilariously with friends during evening program, stopping to marvel at a spider spinning a web, and diving into all the creative, adventure and athletic challenges of the many activities offered. In all these ways, and in our close relationships with each other, this joyful, enthusiastic attitude is the secret of success at camp. We all, campers and staff members alike, are “successful” here because we have wholeheartedly joined an positive community, one filled with passionate people ready to support and encourage everyone. We are successful through that infectious attitude. At Rockbrook, we don’t succeed by striving to be popular or by acquiring exemplary skills; those measures carry little weight for us. Instead, passion trumps popularity, and enthusiasm outshines talents.

There are many ways that Rockbrook is a haven for girls. Being a place to live a passionate life is one of the best.

Huge Bubble blowing girls

More Benefits of Youth Camp

Camp Benefits Girls

I spotted an article discussing how parents can understand why residential summer camps are worth their cost. It’s true; sleepaway camps are usually expensive and can cost between $1000 and $2000 per week. And while it’s also true every summer activity (e.g., other educational opportunities, extracurricular activities, family vacations, trips, and entertainment) costs something significant, what are the unique benefits of an overnight camp experience that can justify its price?

First of all, the American Camp Association has a lot to say about the benefits for youth of attending summer camp. We have written about it before here and here (and especially here!), but you should visit the ACA Web site to see what they say.

One clear, obvious benefit to camp is the fun and concrete skills kids gain from the wide range of camp activities available.  By trying everything at camp, girls learn how to be an archer, a swimmer, a knitter, a tennis player, an actor, and a horseback rider, to name just a few.  They learn to do things, exciting new things that can easily turn into life-long pursuits.

Perhaps more importantly, a quality camp experience provides kids intangible benefits as well. Here’s how one camp director in the article put it.

“Besides all the exciting activities and friendships made, the immense value in camp comes in the development of key lifetime skills and attributes such as confidence, cooperation, communication, new skills and decision-making, to name a few. Camp goes beyond a summer session. It’s unique in that it really is about each camper developing their best self for life… In that regard it is priceless.”

More than other summer activities, a sleep away summer camp experience endows children with valuable life skills, provides positive adult role models, supports them with consistent encouragement, and all within the kind of well-rounded wholesome environment all too rarely found these days. These are lasting benefits that can really make a difference in a child’s life as she becomes an adult.  It’s pretty clear; with that kind of benefit, camp is definitely worth it.

The Importance of Play

Did you know that play is about more than just “fun and games?” You might have heard that “play is children’s work,” and maybe you’ve realized that play often boils down to having spontaneous fun, but what makes play beneficial? What about the long term benefits of play?

Girls Play

It turns out there is a ton of research indicating that play is very important for human beings, even essential for our well being throughout our lives, from childhood through adulthood. One leader of this research and an advocate of what we might call “play for all,” is Dr. Stuart Brown, MD. He is the founder of the National Institute for Play, an organization

“committed to bringing the unrealized knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life. [The Institute] is gathering research from diverse play scientists and practitioners, initiating projects to expand the clinical scientific knowledge of human play and translating this emerging body of knowledge into programs and resources which deliver the transformative power of play to all segments of society.”

One general conclusion Dr. Brown’s research has shown is a strong correlation between adult success and play. Language skills, thinking skills, and of course, social skills all benefit from unstructured play. And since these are crucial areas for adults as well, it’s important to develop a habit of playing throughout our lives. We can improve these adult level skills by continuing to play.

Here’s a great video of Stuart Brown giving a lecture about the importance of play. He argues that “play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults — and keeping it up can make us smarter at any age.”

We like this a lot.  It verifies something we’ve been talking about for years; play, and in particular outdoor play, is really important.  More than just entertainment, it’s a powerful benefit for children’s health and happiness.  This research helps us understand how these benefits extend far into adulthood as well.  Naturally, camp is the perfect place to experience all of this.  Free from the over-structured, over-scheduled nature of school, and free from boredom-inducing electronic media, camp provides daily opportunities for play.  Children are so much better for it.

Hey, don’t forget to play!

Because of Camp…

What do Emma Roberts, Lisa Loeb, Blair Underwood, Frank Sesno, Ashlan Gorse, and Lisa Raye have in common? They all believe who they are today is, at least partly, because of camp. Take a look.

It’s hard to predict how children will benefit from the experience of summer camp, but there is overwhelming evidence that they do. The American Camp Association has studied this, and written about it, and now produced this great video illustrating what real people feel about camp. It’s heartwarming to see that camp can be such a powerful force in the lives of adults, and exciting to know today’s children have the same opportunity.

camp makes friends

RBC in the Press

Summer Camp Girl Friends

We bumped into an article the other day by Anne O’Connor entitled, Is Summer Camp Good for Her?  It’s a great discussion of why traditional overnight summer camps offer so much, and how many “specialty” camps (e.g., computer camp, soccer camp, etc.) often lose track of important social benefits.  The article quotes Dr. Chris Thurber. He says camps are not about “the equipment or specific attractions— it’s the friends.” He claims, “it’s much more valuable to have social skills and a friendship base than to be an expert soccer player.”

What caught our eye was the quote in the article from a Rockbrook dad describing the value of the camp friendships his daughter made over the years. He also describes the skills she developed as well. “When they have to be independent, when they have the responsibility for planning their days, their self-esteem goes through the roof,” he said.

Camps— so good in so many ways! 🙂