Novelty: Naughty or Nice?

By Chris Thurber
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / diego_cervo

It’s fun to ponder our love/hate relationship with newness. We wrap presents for birthdays, Chanukah, Christmas, and other special occasions, in part, because it’s pleasant to be surprised. Not only do the event of receiving something and the object itself bring us joy, but we also enjoy the feverish unwrapping of an unknown article. Call it the “Ta-Da!” factor. The sudden reveal amplifies our happiness—usually.

Some surprises, however, are unpleasant. I’m not talking about sudden bad news, where the unexpected delivery heightens our shock and sadness. I’m talking about the startling musical blast during a scary movie that causes us to jump in our seats or a friend who hides under the bed at a slumber party and grabs our ankle unexpectedly, causing us to shriek. We toy with these quasi-entertaining surprises in cinema and in our social lives, but we can all remember wholly unpleasant surprises as well. What are the factors that make novelty naughty or nice?

Unpleasant Novel Experiences:

  • Contain too much new information. Whenever we encounter a new place—such as camp—then the novelty of place, people, and activities is exciting. However, when we arrive in a new place without enough information, or when the cultural or environmental contrast between home and the new place is stark, it can feel overwhelming.
  • Tax our physical skills beyond what is comfortable. When we have specific fundamental skills, such as balance, strength, and coordination, then trying something new (e.g., waterskiing) is exciting. But when some measure of baseline skill is absent, activities become scary or dangerous.
  • Tax our intellectual skills beyond what is comfortable. When we possess certain cognitive skills, such as speaking a second language, understanding a foreign culture, or deciphering a complex problem, then novel experiences (e.g., traveling abroad, standardized testing) are engaging, if not intriguing. Lacking those skills, we may become disoriented, discouraged, or dismayed.

By contrast, pleasant novel experiences are those in which the content or character is comfortably situated in our physical and intellectual “challenge zone.” They’re new enough to be eye-opening, but not so alien or taxing to be eye-popping or downright eye-watering.

As youth-development professionals at camp, we can leverage the enticing properties of novelty and avoid surprise backfires by embracing these powerful practices:

Orient. Orientation should begin long before opening day. Familiarize young participants with the facility, schedule, activities, menu, social conventions, and lexicon (the special words used only at camp) by creating a video for the website, sending colorful booklets to families, and inviting local families to an on-site orientation. These and other mechanisms of reducing novelty also create positive expectations or “buzz” about a program. Remember, anxiety is fear of the unknown. The more we make known prior to opening day, the more comfortable the experience will be for everyone.

Re-orient. Some children and parents will miss key information the first time around. Printed materials will get recycled, emails will get snagged in spam firewalls, and busy families will put off reviewing materials until it’s too late. Even when you make rules and schedules explicit during an on-site orientation, some campers will be so distracted they will miss essential concepts. To counteract this information overload and novelty-induced ADHD, be patient and ready to restate important information, especially on opening day. Some repetition is normal; the rest will be learned through experience. And, just for back-up, be sure that parents have access to forms and answers to FAQs on the website.

Preview. Once a session has begun, leaders can interest campers by previewing new experiences. Staff members are typically familiar with the activities, schedule, and special events at camp. To them, even the surprises are expected. But to campers—including those returning for a second or third summer—the unfolding program is not yet routine. In many ways, this is good. Camp stays fresh and exciting. And, giving everyone a glimpse at what’s coming up will increase anticipation while buffering feelings of disorientation.

Teach gradually. Learning is fun, which gives everyone on staff an advantage when teaching a new skill, such as swimming or archery. Most people—especially young ones—have a natural curiosity that is motivating. To keep interest high, staff members should teach new skills gradually. Swim instructors, for example, can teach bubble-blowing before they teach rotary breathing. Early success experiences keep motivation high.

Teach sensitively. The pedagogical scaffolding of early successes can also be coupled with sensitivity to different learning styles. We sometimes forget about style differences when outside a traditional academic setting. However, most staff members are excellent at combining verbal and visual explanations. Staff members are even better at setting a good example through their own behavior. If a camper is having trouble learning something new, we can change how the lesson is delivered.

Encourage participation. When novelty is overwhelming, most humans withdraw. At camp, it’s not uncommon to see youngsters sitting on the sidelines of an activity they find difficult and therefore discouraging. Because it’s a blow to our pride to admit either a lack of skill or an inability to cope, we often find a reason for failure that is outside ourselves. Psychologists call this an “external attribution.” What does this look like at camp? Boys and girls say “This activity is stupid” or “This equipment stinks.” These types of disparaging and dismissive comments are code for “I’m not comfortable doing this yet.” Because it’s easier to blame the activity than for a camper to look stupid, staff members should encourage participation by demonstrating a willingness themselves to try something new, even to fail and then persevere after failure.

Treat homesickness. Nearly 70 percent of the factors that contribute to homesickness can be identified and counteracted prior to opening day. When day and resident camps invest in homesickness-prevention programs, they can lower the intensity of first-year campers’ homesickness by 50 percent, on average. Once at camp, those boys and girls who experience a distressing preoccupation with home must also receive the proper care. A combination of normalizing, empathy, encouragement, distraction, social connection, and teaching coping can be extremely effective in reducing homesickness. Uncomfortable novelty, of course, is at the root of homesickness. Any technique that makes camp feel more familiar is likely to reduce this problem.

Offer choices. This classic behavior-management strategy is also a creative way to manage novelty-induced discomfort. When staff members give youngsters a sense of agency and personal responsibility, they redirect their focus on what is new and different in the environment to what is familiar—namely the person himself or herself. In practice, this sounds like, “Whoever wants to try this element next is welcome to” or “Jump in when you feel ready” or “Come over to the sidelines when you need a break.” Once participants are comfortable—as soon as new feels not-so-new—staff members can push a little harder.

Novelty Reduction In Practice
Are you ready to put it all together? Let’s take swim lessons as an example because they are common to most day and resident camps. Beneficial novelty reduction starts with explaining in both promotional and post-registration materials that the camp provides instructional aquatic programs [Orient]. Perhaps you can mention how often swim lessons are offered, what the levels are, and whether campers have a chance to be part of a swim team. Then, during opening-day orientation, repeat the same information, with an emphasis on how much fun it is to learn to swim [Re-Orient and Preview]. When counselors or cabin leaders tout the benefits of lessons and share their excitement about the activity, the campers will really look forward to it [Preview].

Once the campers show up at lessons, it will be the instructors’ job to provide some fun and early success experiences by introducing some games and basic skills prior to teaching advanced techniques [Teach Gradually]. It will also be the instructors’ job to demonstrate skills in the water while children watch, to play Simon Says with stroke work on the dock or shore, to describe skills in a verbal way, and perhaps to diagram the skills on a white board [Teach Sensitively]. When some kids become intimidated or overwhelmed, staff members need to change the pace of the lesson, vary its intensity, help campers feel safe taking risks in the water, and become their cheerleaders [Encourage Participation].

Finally, if any campers are feeling homesick, the leaders can distract them with an engaging waterfront game or use some one-on-one coaching on the most effective ways of coping [Treat Homesickness]. Naturally, giving campers some choice about when to attend a swim lesson, what to focus on during the lesson, or even assisting in teaching the lesson will enhance their intrinsic motivation and the joy inherent in learning something new [Offer Choices].

When integrated thoughtfully, the newness of what we expose young people to becomes an attractive element of the camp experience. This summer, when you observe problems with participation, adjustment, or behavior in campers, ask yourself if you are managing novelty skillfully. Work to transform the new and scary into the new and shiny.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of PhillipsExeterAcademy in Exeter, N.H., and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit