Woven Programs

By Chris Thurber

“Underwater Basket Weaving” is routinely maligned as the ultimate gut course. Yes, rattan vine reeds need to be soaked in water before they are flexible enough to weave without breaking. But that’s not the point. The image of donning a scuba tank to fully submerge students and their crafts project is so comical that the joke works. No, it doesn’t reliably evoke laughter, but it does motivate students to think carefully about their college education. It’s time we did the same for camp programming.

For more than a decade, serious directors of camps, schools, and other youth programs have repeated the mantra of “intentional programming.” Worlds of leadership and education have recast their activities as goal-directed diversions. Outdoor summer programs were no longer simply about having fun and making friends; they were also about “achieving outcomes,” such as resilience or problem-solving skills.

Camps’ founders were less empirical but no less emphatic about both activities and the setting being the vehicle for positive youth development. In other words, a canoe trip wasn’t just a canoe trip. It was a method for promoting social skills, physical and thinking skills, independence, and self-esteem. Today, research from the American Camp Association, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of America, Canadian Camping Association, 4-H, Youth Development Strategies, Inc., and other venerable organizations support the founders’ vision with data. But it’s not enough.

Teaching Over Preaching
The next wave of program innovation involves weaving elements of the camp’s mission into activities. In so doing, we can teach lessons and principles far more powerfully than preaching. Not every activity can become a woven program, but most can.

Take recycling. It’s both trendy and responsible to “green” an organization. Throwing away paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum is so very 2000. Now that most youth programs have recycling bins, all that’s left to do is ask staff members and kids to recycle, right? Wrong. Have you looked in a dumpster recently? You’ll find all kinds of recyclable items in the trash, not out of ignorance or even laziness, but out of dismissiveness. Recycling is not important to some people, especially the young ones.

Lecturing staff members and campers about the importance of recycling is about as effective as lecturing them about being on time. Neither target behavior will stick unless they feel a reason to do it. Weaving does that by creating a fun activity out of the target behavior itself. By manifesting their mission, camps can imbue values.

Making Paper Leaves An Impression
To wit: This summer at the camp where I’ve now spent 35 seasons, we introduced homemade paper-making. We bought a commercial blender, paper-making trays, and a T-shirt press. We repurposed a few bus buckets from the kitchen, and the maintenance team installed gutters on the environmental center to divert rainwater into a 200-gallon cistern. The main office then gave us some of the paper they would have put in the recycle bin, and we were up and running.

A few times a week, some of the younger leaders and I taught a dozen campers how to make pulp by blending paper scraps with rainwater, straining and dehydrating it in frames fitted with super-fine screens, and drying it fast and flat in the T-shirt press. Granted, an even more environmentally friendly way to dry the paper would have been on home-made wire racks in the sunshine, but we made a deliberate choice to electrically accelerate the process so our campers could write home on paper they made, on the same day they made it. And although there’s an alluring novelty to that activity, our goal was larger than putting a smile on a parent’s face.

By weaving part of our sustainability mission into a fun activity, we were able to make campers feel the importance of recycling. The activity only recycled 5 percent of what the office created in waste paper last summer, but I think we were 95-percent successful at not simply showing campers what recycling is, but in letting them experience what it feels like.

During our paper-making periods, I asked the following probing questions:

  • What does the “re” in the word recycling mean?
  • How else could this paper be re-used besides making more paper?
  • What can be done with scraps of paper at your house?
  • If this paper wasn’t recycled, where would it go?
  • Which natural resources, besides trees, are used to make paper?
  • What are we saving by not having to transport what we make?

A few youngsters told me during the paper-making activity that they thought about the meaning of the word “recycle” for the first time. Some personalized their product by adding bits of pine needles and ferns to the pulp. Most importantly, all of the campers left having experienced a full cycle of recycling. We turned paper back into paper, and they witnessed and felt—both emotionally and physically—the process behind the practice.

The best evidence of effective weaving would be data that I lack, namely, whether all of the participants recycled a greater percentage of paper, glass, plastic, and aluminum after a single paper-making activity. I do, however, have lots of anecdotal evidence from which I was able to splice a strand of our mission into a meaningful 75 minutes. Whenever I asked campers, “How did this change your attitude about recycling?” they answered with a version of “Now I know why it’s so important.” And when I asked, “What will you do differently?” they answered, “Recycle more. Look at how cool this is!” True, some campers may have told me what I wanted to hear, but surely others were moved.

Use It Again And Again
Here are some other examples of woven programs that move youth to action:

  • Activity: Visit the local pig farm where campers can see where the camp’s edible food scraps are taken. Result: Increased motivation to properly separate garbage from compost-ables.
  • Activity: Challenge campers to design their own unit game or all-camp activity.

Result: Enhanced appreciation of planning, rules, and care of equipment.

  • Activity: Allow campers to referee some competitions among staff members, such as a basketball game or archery tournament.

Result: Better sportsmanship and appreciation of healthy competition.

  • Activity: Create a Big Brother/Little Brother or Big Sister/Little Sister program that pairs the oldest and youngest kids.

Result: Inspiration to lead, social connection, and enhanced kindness.

  • Activity: Give campers who have completed the highest skill level in an activity area, such as swimming, a chance to apprentice adult instructors.

Result: Growth of teaching, leadership, and supervisory skills.

Now is the time to plan ways to weave sportsmanship, selflessness, service, sustainability, leadership, or another element of your mission into a fun activity. In the planning, you’ll discover the woven programs you already possess, and you’ll think of original ways to devise more. And while there is nothing wrong with stating what’s important, it’s always better to play what’s important so the lessons stick. For good.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the Strategy Director at Camp Belknap. He is a psychologist, author, and professional educator who co-authored The Summer Camp Handbook and co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com. Reach him via his website, CampSpirit.com.