Learning To Pack Light

Creative ideas come out of minimalism. canstockphoto19242933

The Virgin airline lost my suitcase, forcing me to buy a week’s worth of clothes and toiletries in Oxford, England. That was an inconvenience, as well as an important reminder to always pack necessities in one’s carry-on luggage. However, the real value in the experience was the requirement that I now conduct four days of staff training workshops without props.

Several good books on low-prop or no-prop games exist, but I’ve got enough of those memorized that it’s easy to pull one or two out of a hat each day. However, games were not the issue anyway. I always pepper full-day trainings with a couple of games, but I’m hired for my expertise in child development, leadership, mental health and behavior management. So without my golf pencils, index cards, battery-powered speaker, candy and nametag stickers, I was a bit disoriented. I guess all professional educators have their personal bag of tricks. Mine was literally inside another bag, somewhere between Boston and Logan.

I suppose that I could have purchased most of what I wanted—or what I was used to having in my teacher toolkit—but I quickly realized that I didn’t need any of these accoutrements to engage the staff. I was fortunate to have my laptop with me, so I clicked through some slides and showed several Expert Online Training videos, but most of the training consisted of small group discussions, role plays, demonstrations, peer supervision and large-group critiques of last summer’s challenges and successes.

Although I prefer having props and other teaching aids on hand, the lost luggage experience pushed me to think about what else at camp—or in life—might be better when it’s stripped down a bit. There is a kind of creativity born of minimalism that has an appealing, Zen-like quality.

For example, rather than my usual slides, videos, handouts and brain drawings used to explain ADHD, I had staff break into groups of 8 or 10. Each group had one person I had secretly assigned to act a bit impulsive and somewhat challenged by sequential, planful activities. I then had each group make up a new game, using only found objects. Next, they had to explain the rules to the game and demonstrate a few minutes of play in front of the rest of the staff. There were lots of laughs and some excellent discussions about sportsmanship, safety, inclusiveness and competition. I then asked the groups how well they had dealt with ADHD.

At first, no one understood the ruse. Then, I asked each group to identify the person in the group who had behaved most impulsively; who had struggled to sit still, listen and follow directions. Although these aren’t the only symptoms of ADHD, the portrayals were subtle and realistic enough to give the groups an authentic opportunity to cope. Most had compensated without even knowing what they were responding to. In turn, this led to a confidence-building discussion about recognizing and supporting campers and colleagues with attention deficits.

It’s easy to get caught up in the notion that equipment is necessary for learning and entertainment; for communication and connection. In truth, some material objects enhance these constructs; others distract from them. The key to discerning which is which may simply be to give the usual set of “things” we rely on a break. See what creative ideas come out of a period of minimalism or abstinence. Learning what you don’t need—both at camp and in life—is also the most effective way to learn what you really do need.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training .