What I Learned in the Woods

by Sarah C. Davis

I spent the las t four summers of my life hidden behind a mass of trees and rolling hills. Separated from civilization by mere miles, I entered a world that sent my imagination whirling and my sense of reality to a screeching halt. As I woke every morning to the reminder of hundreds of trees waving and undulating over the expanse of nettles and clovers, I somehow had to convince myself that this place really existed. My heart still owns much of those 200 acres, where even the smell of rotting forest only serves to remind me of what it will become.

Somewhere in that chasm of breathing soil and trees, I started learning; and I found a library of knowledge more expansive than I imagine I will find for a long time. I learned books upon books about life and people and myself. Camp has this way of changing people, aiding them in some strange evolution . . . helping them grow. You can see it in the rouged skin of children who have discovered poison ivy for the first time or in the wide eyes of those who didn't know there were so many stars. Sometime within their week at camp, those children become startling images of themselves, untarnished by fear or misinterpretation or technology or judgment. And even if it's just a moment, the impact leaves the mark of a coal train. The all-encompassing universe that embodies camp is a frightening and awe-inspiring thing to find one's self in. But once you do, it's hard to make yourself leave. You become a part of the atmosphere. It seeps into your skin; your soul finds shelter in a gravel- and mud-filled gully. And all of this happens before you get a chance to realize what's really going on.

The effect you're having on hundreds upon hundreds of young lives, the effect you're having on your peers, the effect all of this is having on you . . . it all starts out masked behind cookouts and song singing and capture the flag. And then, maybe if you're lucky enough, you'll be sitting on the porch of your cabin, surrounded by a silence that has taken weeks of getting used to, and you'll come to the dizzying realization that you are at an institution of learning. What's going on inside this open-air classroom is something that could never be captured by the walls of any "proper" educational establishment. It's too organic, too natural, and too accidental to happen elsewhere. And, in many ways, that's why it's so necessary.

Within the ten-foot radius of a pond, a seven-year-old learns science and maybe even a little bit about respect. "Nicky, please put the tadpole back in the pond . . . A tadpole is a baby frog . . . Look, that one by the rock has tiny back legs . . . Really slowly all of those tadpoles in the pond will become grown-up frogs . . . Well, there are so many because the pond is their home; they live here . . . Yes, you can catch the grown-up frogs, but you need to be careful with them and put them back in their home afterward."

On an embankment overlooking the Platte River, several preteen girls learn history. They compare cabin names, bragging about what they know about their cabin's tribe — Blackfoot, Arapahoe, Tonkawa. And perhaps one of them mentions something about Native Americans losing their land, and another brings up civil rights.

And maybe they're a little a too young to have an actual discussion about civil rights. A few feet away their counselor looks up from patching a skinned knee and just listens. Later, she'll talk to them about what it is to be fair, how it feels to be different, and how their differences make them special. Below a mid-July sun, eighteen teenagers tackle math and science as they calculate how to get eighteen people over a twelve-foot wal l with only a certain number of lifts per person. Some aren't allowed to talk. Some aren't allowed to help. And they all must gain one another's t rust. Through an activity of team-building and trial and error, they come to know one another and their strengths and weaknesses.

And everything sounds a little corny and a bit unrealistic. That's because it is. When you compare camp with other places of learning or life, it's surreal by definition. This is not your traditional classroom. It doesn't have the same goals, rules, or practices. But in many ways it does the same thing — causes productive learning and social skills in chi ldren. Children create friendships in the span of a week that at home could take years — years of calculating social risk and social standing, years of fearing rejection from a "cooler crowd."

At camp there are people, individuals, and that's it; and then they're friends. Some of them have never had real friends before. Some of them consider camp home. In this land of invisible backgrounds and muffled personal histories, children judge one another on their depth of character and how kind they are. When ten nine-yearolds are covered from head to toe in mud, it's hard to tell how many toys they have, what school they go to, or where they shop. It's this stripping of material identity that allows these children to become open to the idea of acceptance, friendship, and growth.

"There are no bullies at camp." It's a rule every child who enters camp hears. It's a rule that is imperative to creating a safe environment in which the relationships mentioned before can thrive. "If you're a bully, you don't belong at camp." It's a part of the one and only rule we enforce at camp — respect. Respect yourself, others, other's belongings, counselors, and the earth. This lack of strict, manufactured rules and guidelines offers a lot of leeway for children. It allows them to say to a young girl sitting on the edge of the pool who doesn't have anyone to play with, "Do you want to play color tag with us?" Or it prompts them to start a "Save the Frogs" campaign and picket the pond because people have been throwing rocks and trash into it.

And these children have no idea that they're learning about convictions, social inclusion, networking, or character. This learning becomes more authentic because of how and where it appears — facilitated but not forced by authority figures, privately created between groups of children who don't notice adults standing just a few feet away (otherwise these stories wouldn't be told). It's an organic form of learning that lacks authority unless authority is called for — and when it's called for, authority comes in the form of conversations, reasoning, and questions. "What happened? Why did it happen? What should we do about it?" Authority shifts from enforcement to mediation as children take more responsibility for their actions and the actions of others.

Over the wood chipped trails and spongy grass, children gain a sense of empowerment. They hold within their hands the choices of what their week at camp will yield. And as they mature in age, so do their decisions. Ages ranging from seven to seventeen coalesce to form a community where learners of all ages interact.

Learning occurs where role modeling and audience are taken very seriously. Every situation at camp has an audience. Every day, hundreds of little eyes track counselors' every movement; and those eyes also watch campers who are older than them. Older campers are taught that they are role models, that their attitudes will influence the attitudes of those campers younger than them. This is shown at an early morning announcement where older campers aren't yet awake enough to react to anything, let alone the news that they will be having a picnic lunch. However, an evening announcement about cookout dinners gets them on their feet and bouncing around the room as 200 younger campers follow suit. And you can feel the excitement in the room by the vibrating of the windows as hundreds upon hundreds of feet move with anticipation.

Counselors, typically between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, aren't too old to relate to their campers. They can understand where their campers are coming from and where they're going. And they're able to connect on a level that's accessible and meaningful. The relationship between camper and counselor rides a fine line of friend, role model, and teacher. It is a difficult job to create education in a way that can't be found elsewhere. At camp, as the "teachers" facilitate education, they also learn in this circular, never-ending wheel of self-improvement and self-discovery and life. Just as camp is a stepping stone in the social and intellectual development of its campers, camp is just a stepping stone to what its counselors hope to someday achieve. I'm a walking, breathing, living example of the educator being educated. Learning what I learned at camp has brought me to the realization of what I want from life — to have a family, to be a teacher, to continue to educate, and to continue to learn.

And maybe this type of learning and growing isn't exclusive to camp. But it is unique. It is uncommon. It is special. It's a type of education that surpasses the walls of schools and the assistance of technology and importance of subject matter. It's a type of education that comes from people. I've been at camp during the school year; and I'll tell you the truth: Without kids and staff there, it's just 200 acres of trees and dirt. It's beautiful but it's empty. It becomes camp when a community of people is living in an atmosphere that reflects a feeling of mutual respect. The teachers don't look at the deficits in their students; rather, they trust their students to exhibit positive behavior and positive decisions. In turn, the students find trust in role models who have finally seen them as not what they have done but what they are doing, who they are. The type of learning that occurs at camp could occur anywhere. But it doesn't. Some type of magic lives in those hills during the summer, and it's what causes so many tears to fall from the eyes of campers as their week at camp ends and later from the eyes of staff members as early August rears its ugly head. I think it's the fact that leaving means the magic goes with them; and who knows where it will reappear? 

Sarah C. Davis graduated from University of Nebraska — Lincoln where she studied journalism and English. For the past four summers, she worked as a lifeguard, counselor, Unit Director, and Senior Counselor at YMCA Camp Kitaki near Southbend, NE. Inspired by her work at camp, Davis is now working on a master's degree in secondary education at Creighton University in Omaha. E-mail the author at davis.sarah.c@gmail.com.

Originally published in the 2010 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

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