The Psychology Of Programming

By Calder Cheverie

Every person on the planet usually knows what he or she does. This seems to be the easy part; it’s in the manual.

But how about an honest and often unasked question: Why do they do what they do? Why do they get up in the morning? And when thinking about your own camp, why does your organization exist?

Over the last 15 years, the children’s-camp industry has been in a state of change. The end point is not entirely clear, and for many camps even the need for change itself hasn’t been recognized. But what’s happening is fundamentally at the industry’s core.

Whether adventure-based, faith-based, or with a focus on special needs or leadership, the transformation is one of intention--from knowing what we do, to an understanding of why we do it.

This tectonic shift is affecting programming and the culture, and it is re-shaping the very idea of what camping can and should be doing for children, adolescents, and communities.

In the 1970s and '80s, summer camps were focused on two approaches: 1) activity for an activity’s sake--for the immediate, intrinsic benefits (fun and laughter, physical challenge, etc.); and 2) teaching a skill--imparting a technical set of knowledge with which a child will be able to leave camp (how to build a fire, carve a stick, fire a bow and arrow, paddle a canoe).

In terms of what and why, the structure looked like this:

What do we do? Teach fire-building.

How do we do it? Give kids matches and teach them about sparks and kindling.

Why? It is a good skill to have.

As professionals in the industry, we operate now in a generation of camp that emphasizes fewer “skills” and more “experiences.” It is not enough these days (and thankfully so) to design and facilitate a program without contemplating its emotional intention, along with its intrinsic risks and benefits.

So the current structure looks more like this:

What do we do? We build confidence in a child’s abilities.

How do we do it? By fire-building.

Why? Confidence in one’s abilities is a transferable skill.  At home, a child begins to think, “Well, if I can do that, then I can probably do this too …”

Programs are being implemented based on the emotional or spiritual element they target, and facilitated based on how best the participants can be emotionally supported in their challenge.

In the summer of 2013, if you’re not considering your operations in this way already, I implore you to, because the plates are shifting.

Personally, this is why I do what I do: I believe those within the children’s-camp industry are in the best position of any organization to impact the way children view themselves, consider the world, and shape the way they operate within it.

Fostering a connection between children and nature is vital, particularly for a generation of youth that is losing that connection. My intention is to use nature as a tool to build the necessary emotional skills for a happy, successful life: self-confidence, empathy, patience, and communication.

Each of you has your own specific site and program intentions, with a unique reflection:

“Why does my organization exist?”

“Why do I offer this program?”

“Does it further the organization and/or my intentions?”

If the answer to the last question is no, here’s how to ensure that it does.

An adult’s ability to register and comprehend complex information is based on the success at which he or she was able to build a base of practical experience as a child.

If the intention at camp is to build trust, for example, leaders need to ensure that the right activity for the right age group is chosen. The information gleaned from experience and how a child feels towards himself or herself and others is registered through different experiences at different ages.

David Sobel, author of Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education , describes the various stages of cognitive development:

Stage One--Ages 4 to 7: The Becoming stage is characterized by a child’s inability to differentiate between the self and the other. Empathy plays a central role as a child wants to be the animals as opposed to watching them--to fly like birds, run like rabbits, hunt like foxes, dig holes, play with bugs, and get dirty.

Obstacle/Challenge: An extremely small comfort zone; needs are great.

Goal: To design a program that encourages a sense of wonder and allows a child to “become,” rather than “objectify.”

Activity Examples: Hunting for fairies, building cardboard wings, watching insects, searching for worms.

Stage Two--Ages 8 to 11: The Explorative Years are characterized by a child’s innate desire to explore the periphery and the natural landscape. A child in this age bracket is beginning to understand how the laws of nature work. He or she wants to be challenged, to be engaged by exploration, and to be encouraged by achievement to discover, build, test, demolish, and rebuild.

Obstacle/Challenge : Difficulties are often literal and physical, i.e. bullying.

Goal: To design a program that encourages safe exploration of landscape and builds social relationships.

Activity Examples: Fort construction, raft races, creek exploration, crayfish hunts, tree climbing, camouflage, and hide-and-seek games.

Stage Three--Ages 12 to 14: Social Action is characterized by a child’s abandoning the explored, discovered spaces of middle-childhood and coming into communal spaces (i.e., parks, hallways, the mall, coffee shops, diners). There is a desire for intellectual stimulation through problem-solving, socializing, working through complex challenges, reflecting, and gauging one’s comfort zone. This is a time of self-discovery.

Obstacle/Challenge: Emotional, social, and spiritual.

Goal: To create opportunities in which social relationships can be built upon and tested in a positive way through exploration of self and one’s strengths in relation to others.

Activity Examples: Starting a recycling or creek clean-up program, directing a play, tackling a high ropes course, leading games and campfire songs.

The success of our intentions depends on our ability to know the characterization of the age groups we’re working with and understand how children take in and register information. The scope of our programs should reflect these differences, allowing participants to confront obstacles directly.

If we can do that, we’ll see campers who are not only engaged, but return year after year because they never learned to grow as much or as well as they did at our camp. Our job as facilitators should be to create opportunities for growth at all ages, and we cannot do this without first understanding why.

Calder S. Cheverie is the summer camp and outdoor education director at Sasamat Outdoor Centre in Belcarra, British Columbia, Canada. Reach him at calder@sasamat.org .