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Lessons from an Urban Day Camp: Program Features That Help Children Thrive
I have recently had the privilege of working closely with a newly established day camp called Boston Explorers. This urban day camp has a number of features that make it a unique experience for children. Boston Explorers has a small “base camp” that it uses as a launching site for explorations throughout the city — places that many of its younger residents seldom visit in their everyday lives. Based on Self-Determination Theory developed by Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester and the “habits of mind” put forth by education pioneer Deborah Meier, Boston Explorers gives campers the opportunity to flourish in a learning environment that fosters autonomy, supports competence, and enhances personal relationships.
My conversation with the Boston Explorers founder and director, Alphonse Litz, highlights some of the camp’s distinguishing features that could benefit other camps and youth programs.
Bob Ditter: What was it that motivated you to create Boston Explorers?
Alphonse Litz: The reality in school today is that there’s an overemphasis on teaching to standardized tests. As a result, there has been a loss of collaborative and experiential learning in many schools. It’s what’s missing — what’s not being taught — in many schools that compelled me to start Boston Explorers. I wanted a camp that would allow children to be creative and develop their natural sense of wonder, while giving them an increased sense of autonomy — that is, of being in charge of their own learning and fun.
When I started working in schools twenty years ago, it was a time when there were more possibilities for educating the whole child. For eight years, I had the privilege of teaching at Mission Hill School, a Boston public elementary school founded by the educator Deborah Meier, who received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius Grant” for her work in public schools.* Our K–8 school predated much of the high-stakes testing that is now endemic in most U.S. schools. The concept was pretty simple: We took a child’s ideas and interests seriously, and we used them to develop our curriculum and drive that child’s academic growth. We engaged children in long-term projects, where the work of their hands was held in the same regard as the work of their minds. We used the city as our classroom, frequently walking or taking the subway to explore a primary source, visit an historic site, or take in an ancient artifact at a local museum.
Ditter: My question for educators is — and I include camp professionals in this — “What good is it to teach children to learn if we don’t cultivate their love of learning?” So you decided to address this in the way you designed your program?
Litz: Yes. The school programs our campers have been enrolled in are frequently based on academic deficits — what children cannot do or do well — rather than on character building, socialization, and creative exploration. I like to think Boston Explorers is the antidote, a counter narrative to what so many children experience in their daily school lives.
Ditter: I know Boston Explorers has several defining characteristics, one of which is that you start with camper home visits. You personally visit the home of every child who wants to enroll. You also have several elements that characterize your program, such as morning meetings, the “Four Things We Do Every Day,” controlled freedom, choice time, hands-on activities, bona pele´ (kids first), ago´ -ame´, and closing meetings that feature reflections and shout-outs. Let’s hear about them one at a time.
Litz: I make a point of visiting the home of every camper who wants to enroll in Boston Explorers. To be invited into someone’s home is a privilege. The trust that parents show by welcoming me into their private space is significant. It’s the beginning of a personal connection that only enhances the relationship we later develop with their child as a camper.
I listen carefully to parents’ aspirations for their children and validate their concerns about the well-being of their child. “It’s a big deal to leave your kid in the care of other adults,” I acknowledge. “It’s important for you as a parent to know when you’re going about your day you can be confident that your kids are in good hands, that counselors at Boston Explorers will do right by them.”
I take time to learn about the child’s interests and talk about how they can pursue that interest at camp. I also take a little time with parents privately to hear any concerns they have about their child. I often ask questions like, “What is one thing you want me to know about your child? When do you see your child most successful or happy? Tell me what you most admire and respect about your child.” These aren’t usually the kinds of questions our parents are used to hearing from the professionals who work with their children in other settings.
Parents know they can call or text me anytime. It’s important they know our relationship goes beyond this one meeting. My visit to their home is the start of that positive connection. Too often, when a teacher calls a parent at home, it’s about something their child is struggling with or a problem they’re having. Calls like these generally make for bad feelings. A positive home visit can change all that, especially later if during camp we do need to talk about a camper’s concerns.
Ditter: I have a phrase many camp professionals are familiar with: “money in the bank.” It refers to developing trust and credibility in relationships, which is what your home visits do. I know that many camps want to improve their alliance with parents and sometimes set clearer expectations with certain prospective campers. They could benefit from making home visits like the ones you describe. Many camps make home visits, but the practice has fallen off somewhat in recent years. One way to balance the significant amount of work involved in visiting every camper’s home is to visit at least the homes of each new camper. This helps jump start the relationship between you as a camp director and the parents and campers about to join your camp family.
Tell me about some of the other features of Boston Explorers.
Litz: Let me start with the way we bookend our day with a meeting that begins camp in the morning and one that brings camp to a close in the afternoon. In our morning meeting we reconvene by sitting together as a whole group, sometimes playing a short interactive game, reviewing the choices of activities and excursions for the day, and setting expectations. We always sing because, once kids sing together, they are more likely to be kind to one another.
This brings me to another key feature of our program, which is the Four Things We Do Every Day: We work with our hands; explore Boston; are kind to everyone; and have fun. It’s our simple way of connecting what we do with the campers on a daily basis to our mission, or what it is we claim we do! I will elaborate on each of these later, but the Four Things is a list every Boston Explorer can recite by heart! The children come to equate these things with what it means to be an Explorer.
As the camp session progresses, we gradually shift the focus from adults doing most of the talking to kids talking. The closing meeting — again facilitated by children — is simple in concept but profound in application. Two anchor components are reflections and shout-outs. With reflections, campers share what they liked best about the day, what stayed with them, or what was challenging or less interesting to them. Reflections are an opportunity for kids to say what is real for them, rather than giving responses they think the adults want to hear.
Shout-outs are Explorers showing gratitude. Campers say thanks for things other kids have shared with them or for someone teaching them something new or for making an adventure even more fun.
Ditter: What I notice about these meetings is that they have three qualities: they deepen the connections among the campers; they focus on mastery — the things that campers have done well during the day; and they give campers a sense of autonomy when they begin to facilitate the meetings after a while.
Litz: Yes, the meetings reinforce the Four Things We Do Every Day, which is the core of our program. We chose them deliberately to help us create a place where children could be collaborative, creative, and enthusiastic about their experience. I’ll expound on a couple of the Four Things.
Our motto is that wherever they come from, by the end of two weeks, our campers will feel that Boston is their city. We believe children develop a greater sense of pride, civic duty, engagement, and ownership of the community-at-large by exposing them to the natural and physical environs of our city. They have more of a chance to engage in civic life by building on their natural curiosity, sense of adventure, and other strengths. One of our campers said at the end of the summer, “Now I know why so many people come from other places to tour Boston. It’s a beautiful city!”
Work with Our Hands
At Boston Explorers, the starting point for all youngsters is activities and experiences that are based on their interests and strengths. They get to develop tangible, practical skills such as woodworking (building projects of their own design and using a variety of hand and small power tools), planning and preparing healthy lunches, and rowing in long boats on the Boston Harbor. The pride our children feel when they have built something or helped cook or rowed a long boat on the harbor is palpable. It is a critical component of our mission and daily program.
Another way we foster autonomy in our campers is through the practice of what we call “controlled freedom.” We believe that children will never know how to handle themselves in public if we’re always hovering over them and ordering them to line up. They enjoy being on their own to such a degree they regulate themselves in order to maintain that autonomy and sense of mastering something on their own.
Our message to our Explorers is this: “We are helping you learn how to be in the world. You have a certain amount of freedom and you must learn how to use it well when you are out in public.” We do this by helping children internalize protocols for moving about in public. For example, when we leave base camp and walk the six blocks to the subway, we allow the campers to walk in small groups at their own pace. Counselors practice what we call “the sandwich.” They spread out among the campers, some serving as the “top slice of bread” at the front of the group, some being “the filling” in the middle of the group, and others the “bottom slice of bread” at the rear of the group. Campers have a sense of being on their own, yet there is indeed quality adult supervision. When we come to a street crossing, all the campers know to wait for the entire group and to let adults take the lead.
Ditter: Again, it is another way you foster autonomy and choice in your campers.
Litz: Speaking of choice, another key feature of Boston Explorers is the amount of choice we offer campers every day. While many things about Boston Explorers resonate with our children, it is the idea of having choices they like most and comment on most frequently. This suggests to me that there are fewer and fewer arenas for children where they can pursue their own interests or make choices that aren’t scripted, over-supervised by adults, or warped by rewards. At our camp, campers play for the pure pleasure of it. But they take play very seriously, too, whether it is the woodworking project for the week, playing King of the Court, turning double Dutch, climbing a high hill on an island in Boston Harbor, or making an elaborate Lego project.
Ditter: It sounds like you have set up choice as a way of allowing children a sense of autonomy — that is, having some say in their life. It is also interesting that you mention rewards. Research shows that if we reward children for doing something, they feel controlled by the reward. For example, if we reward children for playing, they actually play less (Ryan, 2013). If we allow them to play of their own volition, they play with abandon, often in the most creative ways.
I think it is interesting to tie in here the observation made by some researchers that the dramatic rise in anxiety and depression in children over the last twenty years (Twenge, 2010) can be partially explained by the fact that children experience increasingly less control over greater aspects of their lives today (Gray, 2011). At Boston Explorers, you are giving them more control.
Litz: Exactly. I want to go back to what I said earlier about children having the chance to make choices that aren’t driven by adults. We have a phrase we teach counselors to use around camp called bona pele´. It comes from South Africa and translates as, “Kids first!” Counselors repeat it when, for example, we are about to have snack or lunch or give out tools or materials. It is a way to remind ourselves that our program is centered on the choices our kids want to make.
Ditter: I can think of a lot of camps that might want to adopt that phrase next summer!
Litz: Ago´-ame´ is another phrase we have at Boston Explorers. It is the method we use to get the attention of our campers as a group. Ago´ (pronounced ah-go´) means, “I have something important to tell you.” Ame´ (pronounced ah-may´) is the response that, literally translated, means, “I am ready to listen.” We borrowed the call and response words, ago´ and ame´, from the Twi language of West Africa. When an adult leader stands before the group and says, “Ago´,” all of the children stop and turn to face the adult speaker.
Ditter: I have seen this in action. It is quite impressive. The fact that the campers respond so quickly and uniformly to ago´ and ame´ is an indicator of the respect children feel in the Boston Explorers community. I have noticed that any member of the community may use ago´ if she or he needs to get the attention of the group, but only for serious, not frivolous, matters. Not only does this call and response demonstrate respect for other members of the community, it is almost a kind of reminder of how unique a place Boston Explorers is for your campers. Their response to ago´-ame´ shows that if you create an environment that supports autonomy, relationships, and mastery in children, you don’t have to control them. They respond willingly out of respect and gratitude.
Is there anything else you want us to know about Boston Explorers that could be of help for other camps or youth programs?
Litz: Last year, one of our largest and most ardent donors shared the following at one of our fundraising events: “Over the last two years we have come to know about this worthy organization, Boston Explorers. What has struck a chord with us is the way this camp captures the imagination of children the same way that a sleepaway, rural-based camp does for many. Boston Explorers reintroduces the city to kids as a new place. They get the feeling that the city is, in fact, this wide-open place full of special opportunity waiting to be experienced and in some way made their own. Through these special experiences and the relationships that come from them, the campers gain confidence and a sense of expanded horizons. So I love the idea of it, because we love this city, we love the people in this city, and this camp celebrates both.”
This statement is profound on many levels. Children today often have fewer hands-on, spontaneous experiences, such as those at Boston Explorers and many other camps. This is particularly true for the urban kids we serve, who are often enrolled in summer programs with the aim of addressing an academic skill in need of remediation. At Boston Explorers, kids are equal. No one has a deficit. All kids are curious and have an imagination and a sense of wonder. Boston Explorers is less a physical space and more an environment — almost a state of mind — where the autonomy of campers is supported; where children cultivate meaningful relationships with other children and interesting, caring adults. They have the opportunity to develop a range of skills and a sense of mastery. In a world of performance and adult-driven, virtual play, we see it as an oasis and a critical way of keeping every child’s hope alive.
*Each year, twenty to thirty individuals receive this grant from the MacArthur Fellows Programs based on their exceptional creativity and contribution in any given field.
Boston Explorers Quick Facts
Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise in psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4).
Ryan, Richard M. (2013). “Self-Determination,” in the Harvard Medical School Conference, “Coaching in Leadership and Healthcare 2013.” The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. Boston, Massachusetts, September 27-28, 2013.
Twenge, J., et al. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 145-154.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit www.BobDitter.com.
Alphonse Litz has been an elementary public school educator and administrator in Concord and Boston, Massachusetts, for over twenty years. As a teacher leader, he was among a select group that led the nationally renowned, staff-governed Mission Hill K–8 Pilot School.