A Recipe For Magic

Summer camp for youth has been around since 1861. How could anything continue to be so popular for so long, with such passionate proponents in every generation, unless it has real magic? Most of my previous Camp Business articles have dealt with a leadership dimension--making wise choices based on listening, caring and measuring--creatively borrowing ideas that have proven successful (in camping and elsewhere) and taking action.

But is there something more elemental than that? Could much of the success of youth camping be attributed to an original formula--a secret recipe that’s been duplicated, altered but often unwittingly ignored? I’m eager to hear what you think about this thesis-in-progress, and what it might mean for camps.

Walt Whitman Was Right (And So Was Your Mother)

It was 150 years ago when Walt Whitman wrote, “Now I see the secret of making the best person: It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” Your mom paraphrased him every time you sat in front of the TV during the day: “Go outside and play!” Richard Louve in his famous book, Last Child in the Woods, laid out the consequences of moms today being too fearful to repeat their own mother’s words. (Signs that the pendulum may be swinging back are the many grassroots “No Child Left Inside” initiatives.) Louve used anthropological and biological research to strengthen his message. Seventy years before, Anne Frank said it from her heart: “God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.” So the first ingredient of camp is a beautiful outdoor setting.

Most traditional summer camps have been built in places of great natural beauty. It was an integral part of the mission of early camps: to help kids find the regenerative properties of nature away from a stressful world full of bad influences (actually that was printed in the brochures, even before 1900).

The rich have always been able to afford this pleasant time in beautiful surroundings. The first of the rustic great camps--private summer estates in the Adirondacks--was built in 1896. But the youth camping movement brought it to everyone. The colorful testimony of those early leaders who experienced it firsthand easily attracted money and volunteers for “the good of the kids,” and camps spread quickly from coast to coast by 1910.

Today, some camps have forgotten that a primary reason campers, parents and guests choose camps is to spend time surrounded by natural beauty. Too many camp staffs focus more on what’s convenient, like conducting activities indoors; or they ignore how their unmaintained buildings destroy the camp’s original beauty. Then, of course, there are the “camps” held on college campuses that miss out on all of the benefits of the great outdoors.

Excitement and challenge aren’t the main forces at work in camping. “Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods,” said John Muir, father of YosemiteNational Park.

Teach Responsibility

If you read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden today, you would swear much of it was from a current healthy-living magazine, instead of from 1845: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

The allure of a “simplified lifestyle” has been at the core of groups wanting self-improvement for hundreds of years. The nineteenth-century utopian communities in America, and even the scouting movement (Boys, Girls, Campfire, Woodcrafters, etc.) of the first decades of the twentieth century believed that living closer to the land brought people more in touch with the effects of their own actions, and amplified the dependency they had on each other. Thus the next ingredient is a separation from home that makes responsibilities for daily living very real.

From its beginnings through today, camping has used the simple skills of supporting each other in a separate community, (or “a manufactured wilderness” as Abigail Van Slyck called it), as a way to let children and young adults practice providing for themselves and each other. It might be building a shelter (or at least keeping it clean), cooking meals (or sharing in serving each other) or just dealing with bugs in the sink and the sounds of the night. The consequences of social interaction are especially amplified when there is no place to hide, and no parent to save one.

At camp, it’s much easier for campers and staff to see the direct effects of their actions, and to enjoy the rewards of success, when their self-dependent community is isolated by wilderness and distance. In this small community, the tasks usually claimed by adults are opened up to the young. Kids (and their college-age counselors) need to try and fail, and try and succeed to know they are growing in competence and confidence. These are lessons too important to leave until adulthood. “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently,” said Henry Ford.

Create Relationships

Research done by DartmouthMedicalCenter (“Hardwired to Connect,” co-sponsored by the YMCA) shows that not just children, but people of all ages, require human interaction in order to grow and thrive.

Think of the first day at a new school for any child. “Will I fit in? Will somebody let me eat lunch with them?” Childhood stress can be balanced by a caring family that provides comfort and encouragement and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. But kids grow up and out of the house, many families are dysfunctional, some are broken altogether. Stress builds, and kids’ coping strategies can be self-destructive.

Now think of the first hour at your camp. Each camper is introduced to his new “club” and shown that he or she is accepted and welcome. The club leader (counselor) is “way cool” and has his or her “clubhouse” (cabin or campsite or picnic table). This club has a name, a proud name! There’s a code of conduct and a “secret handshake” (maybe not literally) that includes chants, cheers and songs that only members know.

This critical camp ingredient is a foundation of small groups that invite and reinforce membership through rituals and traditions. A camper may only have a small sense of privacy (adding to the feeling of membership earned), but the fellowship and camaraderie of the group make it worth the sacrifice. The members gain confidence to take on challenges and try new things that would seem unthinkable without the support of the group. It’s much more than “Come on in! Jump!” It’s also “Man, that was cool! Look, he made it!” And by the end of the day, everyone has had a chance to talk about things important to them.

I wrote a brief article once about a camp I had visited where no traditional camp songs were sung, only current pop songs. “The kids love it!” I was told, but enrollment was dropping. The response to the article was overwhelming; each of the 70 responses stated in one way or another that without traditional camp songs, one was not a member of the camp clan; one was still at school or at home. Camp songs are the secret password.

The informal and formal rituals that a camp group repeats strengthen the bonds of membership, and help store the vivid memories of friendship, accomplishment and joy. These memories not only last a lifetime, but improve with age.

The Cool Counselor

Anyone over thirty who has asked a camper, “How old do you think I am?” often gets a naïve (and annoying) answer that’s off by ten to twenty years toward the “you’re too old” side.

These kids can’t imagine ever being that old. That’s not the case for their college-age counselors. They have the freedoms that kids can’t wait for, and they’re close enough in age that kids can see themselves getting there, if not soon enough. The best description I’ve heard of a camp counselor is “not-a-parent.” I love the double meaning.

To a camper, counselors are awesome. They work outside and get paid for it, they have their own cabin, they make their own decisions, they have more people coming up and hugging them than anyone they’ve ever known. They have the energy to keep up, the courage to lead, and they’re so cool they don’t even care if they act cool. How cool! They’re the delivery system of so much of the character of camp. What’s one difference between child care and camp? It’s the ingredient of youthful staff with a small group of their own.

I have the opportunity to see camp evaluations from thousands of parents every year, and the item that rates number one most often is, “We just love your staff.” Some camps may have an organizational chart many layers deep, but it’s the counselors who live with the kids every day and have by far the biggest impact.

But with great power comes great responsibility. When we choose the wrong counselors, all of their built-in advantages can multiply the damage they may cause.

What’s a key ingredient in all those successful summer love movies like Grease, Dirty Dancing and this summer’s Camp Rock? The young lovers come from different towns, and go back to different towns, so their memories stay more perfect than any in-person relationship could ever maintain. The movie line (and the song) goes like this: “I’ll remember you just the way you are.” Fishermen have the same phenomenon--the big one that got away will always be bigger than any they take home.

Successful camps give kids the opportunity to make new friends. Parents often insist their child is in the same cabin or group as that of a best friend. Wise camp directors don’t argue because they know as soon as the camper is assimilated into the new group, he or she will make new friends and often forget their pal until it’s time to go home.

But what if the group is nothing but friends from home? Then they bring all of their baggage with them and none of the excitement of new friendships. And when they return home, their magic memories aren’t tied to each other because they see each other every day. It’s the lucky kid who meets at least a few fellow campers from far away, a counselor who’s in college and a camp with places to sit and talk and make photographic memories while practicing what it takes to make and keep friends.

Putting it another way, New Yorkers never visit the EmpireStateBuilding because it’s always there. So for now, our last element is rarity of friends and place.

A family vacation doesn’t provide the same result as summer camp; neither does a school outing, even though they might have much in common. Camp has a special spice, from kids saying goodbye (and crying because they know something special is coming to an end); from the anticipation of returning next year and again seeing a special counselor; to actively keeping in touch with those kids from another town far enough away that texting and e-mailing make sense! These are the campers more likely to cover their bulletin board with camp mementos, or build a shrine to camp in their bedroom. Camp represents a personal accomplishment; it is a private perfection that they don’t have to share with just anyone because it is to be shared with special friends.

So What?

“How come when you mix water and flour together you get glue ... and then when you add eggs and sugar you get cake? Where does the glue go?”--Rita Rudner

For almost one hundred years, resident camps have shared every one of the above ingredients. As a result, they were successful, even when many things weren’t perfect. (Talk to “old timers” and they’ll laugh about all the things they did that “you’d never be able to get away with today!”) I have no beef with camps experimenting with new ideas. But here’s my warning: When your change includes eliminating one or more of these core ingredients, your chance of success immediately drops unless you can compensate with extraordinarily good planning, staffing and implementation. Are you that good? I’m not.

For people to love your cooking, you need at least one great dish. And if you can deliver on a great recipe, everyone will ask you for it.

Gary Forster is the Camping Specialist for the YMCA of the USA, and has obviously made many mistakes in order to know so well what doesn’t work. But he’s terrific at borrowing other people’s ideas and mixing them together in new ways. You can reach him at gary.forster@ymca.net

Bryan BuchkoComment