Unscheduled Time

By Riel Peerbooms
Photos Courtesy of Trail Blazer Camps

If the term “decentralized camping” is Googled, you will find a wealth of papers and books dedicated to the subject, yet you would be hard-pressed to find many current programs or camps that utilize this approach. After 150 years of summer camp, this philosophy apparently has all but vanished from the diverse world of camps.

The original idea was developed in the early 1920s by Lois Goodrich and Dr. L.B. Sharp at Life Camps (later to become Trail Blazer Camps), but over time it became clear to Goodrich that despite the concept’s potential, translating theory into practice proved challenging. In the 1982 reprint of her work, Decentralized Camping , Goodrich wrote of the need for a reprint, and noted the large number of questions directed at her about specific aspects of the program. It appears these questions are still relevant today, and suggest a need to offer modern summer camps ways they can benefit from this approach.

Currently, most camps are centralized--that is, they function from a central hierarchical structure that exercises control over schedules. The programs often include specialty areas, and are delivered by specialist counselors. The decentralized program offers an alternative approach--children live in small, family-like groups with two counselors, and are largely responsible for the entirety of their day-to-day program. In its original conception, this included all aspects of life, from cooking to playing and even laundry. The decentralized philosophy is grounded in the basic premise that children learn best from the things they experience on their own, and that the problem-solving and planning to set up an activity--the process -- is of equal or greater value than the activity alone. If a group of children can agree on the distance and destination of their hike, and the necessary preparations, they have learned important skills and lessons before setting one foot on the trail! Children are given an opportunity not only to experience, but also to take ownership of every aspect of their time at camp. More often than not, the process has allowed all group members--both children and adults--to access and improve skills they did not know they possessed.

Desirable Skills
Operating a fully decentralized program is time-consuming and unpredictable, not to mention the staffing and training requirements it imposes; this is why running a fully decentralized program is so rare in today’s summer camps. Yet the decentralized model and many of its elements have much to offer. Here are some ways how decentralized approaches can transform a camper’s experience, a counselor’s performance, and the short amount of time in camp in a positive way.

Creating The Environment
The most important and immediate improvement in a program is simple: children experience the most learning when you are not trying to teach anything! Much of creating a decentralized program involves preparing the right environment and then having the courage to step aside and let learning occur. This begins with training a counselor to adopt a decentralized mindset, putting him or her in the position of a camper so a counselor can develop as a “mediator” between the camper and the environment, rather than as a teacher structuring that environment for the child. While mock schedules and role-plays are typical elements of most camp-training programs, give staff an actual camper experience for a minimum of two days. This must be experienced as a group, led by seasoned senior counselors. Several broad guidelines (i.e., the types of activities and experiences the group desires) should be the guide. Finally, there is one main principle: What needs does the group have--relating to the developmental phase--to help the group progress and grow? To arrive at these needs, a co-working team of counselors spends 30 minutes each night planning the next day, based on their observations and discussions with the group. This allows the counselors to adjust, individualize, and mold programs in response to the group’s needs.

The Decentralized Schedule
Although some may consider this heading a contradiction, it is possible to schedule “unscheduled time.” Trade Winds Lake Camp, a traditional centralized sleep-away camp located in Windsor, N.Y., adopted into its schedule a block of time from 1:00 to 3:30 every afternoon, in which the responsibility of the day-to-day experience was shifted to the group and the counselors. The counselors were given three categories of initiatives (team-building, literacy, and recreational), and suggested activities in each of the categories. Counselors chose fewer of the suggested activities, and began to develop their own. Gradually, they were able to respond to the campers’ needs, and take more initiative for the experiences of the group. The senior staff reported an immediate effect on group cohesion, team spirit, and overall group performance.

From Outcomes To Experiences
Finally, it’s important to mention that a decentralized component can be introduced into an individual activity. Shifting the focus from specific outcomes to processes is a start. In practical terms, counselors can rethink an activity to turn instructions into questions. For example:

We are getting ready to hike three miles.


How long should our first hike be?

The question challenges the group to assess what the members already know or need to find out to answer the question. The counselor’s job is to guide the conversation and connect the group’s choices to available resources and to consider the reality of the group’s ability. This also involves allowing the group to fail; if properly mediated, this can be a positive learning experience!

What camps, centralized or decentralized, have in common is they view themselves as educators and role models, adding an essential dimension of a healthy upbringing to countless children each summer. The decentralized approach has the potential to enrich and deepen the campers’ experience, and that is--after all--the most important goal.

Note: Trail Blazer Camps was founded in 1887 by John Ames Mitchell, the original editor of Life magazine, who raised $800 to send 266 underprivileged children from New York City to the Life Fresh Air Farm in Branchville, Conn. This past summer was the 125 th consecutive year of operation.

Riel Peerbooms is the executive director of Trail Blazer Camps. She can be reached via e-mail at rpeerbooms@trailblazers.org .