Back to Where You Once Belonged: Risk and Choice at a Creative Arts Camp

by Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

It was 4:00 p.m. on the last day of my teenage son's first summer at a creative and performing arts camp and he was totally involved in saying good-bye to all of his friends. The final day was a chance for parents to see their children's artistic creations, but we three had accomplished that task by lunch. Now, it was clear that there was no role for either his mother or me in his emotional departure. We needed to leave him alone with his buddies to enact their farewells, the last scene of summer camp. However, since we had planned to stick around for the final musical that night, we had to find some way to entertain ourselves until 7:00 p.m. My wife, who had visited and toured the grounds once before at midseason, went to the car to read her book. I went for a walk, trying to absorb the climate and culture of this unusual place, a camp unlike any camp I ever attended. I wanted to try to understand what an arts camp does.

I strolled by the clown workshop and the radio station, across to the airy Batik studio, past the jewelry-making shed and down to the leather-working and ceramic studios. Eventually, I found myself drawn to the glass-blowing area. What fascinated me, what drew me close was, of course, the fire. Each of the three ovens heat to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and their doors stand open so that their contents are accessible to the glass blowers. The hot oven mouths allow you to look directly into the white waves of heat with their shimmering orange edges. The sight is mesmerizing; so captivating, in fact, that for a long while you don't think to ask yourself the obvious question: They let kids use these things?

I was surprised to find two girls still there at work finishing off their beautiful glass creations. From their ages — I guessed seventeen — I imagined that they were counselors-in-training or junior counselors. They were hard at it, moving in a practiced ballet, one girl holding the pole in the mouth of the oven, twirling it steadily, then suddenly lifting it out, swinging it around and placing it on a set of rails where she rolled the steel pole slowly with one hand while she molded the glass with a tool she held in her other hand. Meanwhile, her companion, who had been patiently waiting, crouched down and blew into the open end of the pole, forcing air up and into the center of the slowly growing glass creation that her friend was skillfully shaping.

Though I was standing only ten feet away from these young women, they were so absorbed in their glass-making that they either did not notice me or they didn't care. Chatting back and forth about how little time they had left remaining, one of them said with a voice filled with contempt, "Parents' Day! It's so stupid. What a waste of time." I took no offense. I understood why she said it. Summer was over, camp was ending. Where in the world was a high school girl going to have the chance to do glass-blowing during the school year. At her school? Not a chance. In her community? I don't think so. For many campers like this pair, a creative arts camp is the only place they can go to pursue their passions, take risks, and have the time to actually learn the craft required to make art. Though it sounds obvious to say it, arts camp may be the only place in their lives where they are really trusted as artists.

I don't consider myself an expert on camp life, but when I think about the camps I went to as a boy and the ones my two children have attended or at which I have worked as a consultant, I have probably known eighteen different types of camps: all-around camps, day camps, ocean-side YMCA camps, canoe-trip camps, boys' camps, girls-only horseback riding camps, and specialty tennis and soccer camps. However, it wasn't until my son, Will, began to get interested in the arts that I ever thought seriously about what goes into a creative arts camp. He has attended two of them, one a day camp, the other a sleep-over camp where he is now a counselor-in-training.

Though I may be generalizing beyond my data, my experience is that arts camps really are different. Different in the way they use time, in the amount of autonomy given to campers, and in the relationship between campers and counselors, and naturally, in the nature of the children they attract. Arts camps are trying to bring out the creativity in children, and that is a delicate matter.

Before I explore some of these differences, I should note that sleep-away arts camps contain many of the brilliant elements that make all camps special places: an outdoor setting; dedicated directors and enthusiastic counselors; children away from their parents (hooray!); challenging and fun activities; beloved traditions; bare-bones communal living; smelly bathrooms; and lots of singing.

However, when you visit the campus of an arts camp, as I did on a return trip by myself for a full day in June of 2008, the differences are the first thing that hit you. There is the striking absence of sports (they are occasional and optional), and there is the intense focus of the campers. Throughout the day you see children in groups of two or three perched on rocks, sitting at picnic tables or walking together. Some are with counselors, others are in peer groups, and many are alone. They hold books or instruments or paper, they are talking intensely, or declaiming the lines of a play; they're writing, or playing the saxophone. In the computer lab they are all hunched over laptops. A group of standing boys lean together and try to hear one another as they master the harmonies of an a cappella number Everyone is trying to express themselves, everyone is trying to reach inside to create something: a piece of writing, a dance, the set for a play, a stand-up comedy routine, or an animated computer character.

Psychologists have long tried to identify and predict who is creative and under what circumstances that creativity will emerge. Despite more than a century of research it remains ineffable, a mystery. Who is creative? How do you create the conditions for creativity to emerge? Some great artists emerge from art schools; others seem to appear from nowhere. What is clear is that you cannot force art to happen; you have to create an environment and hope that it emerges. That's the challenge for a creative arts camp. How do they meet that challenge, and can they do it for every child?

Those were the questions that prompted my return trip, and the answers emerged in observation and conversations with campers, counselors, and camp leaders. Mickey and Laura Morris, the directors of Buck's Rock Creative and Performing Arts Camps told me that they run, essentially, an artists' colony for children . . . with rules. The hallmarks of all arts camps are, they believe, self-expression and self-reflection. That means that children's interests drive the agenda. Where some camps have a central program with "electives" on the side, everything at an arts camp is elective. There is no point in forcing musicians to try jewelry-making. It won't work. So, the mix of kids and their interests determines what is popular and what is offered. "No two summers are the same," Mickey said. "Square dancing and ham radio have all gone by the wayside." Now there is a computer graphics lab where leather-working used to be located; leather work has moved to a smaller location. The expensive old printing presses stand unused, sound design is now a growing part of the theater program, and there is a new culinary workshop. The forms of artistic expression are constantly changing.

Laura says that if you allow children to work in small groups and you give them open-ended time to be together, "Something unexpected happens." When it comes to adolescents, that is exactly the thought that typically unnerves parents. Adults don't want the unexpected to happen, because they fear it will be "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." So they — we — tend to keep students in defined classes and periods, like school. An arts camp has to trust children to engage in spontaneous cross-disciplinary activities that will result in a creative product. It may be, Mickey says, that some children want art — "You see how committed they are" — while others could use more structure, but the camp may not know that in advance. He sums it up, "It is hard to separate the art from the freedom of choice." Parents have to trust the camp that bases its program on trusting children and their choices.

In my group interview with campers at Buck's Rock (Full disclosure: I took my son's friends out for lunch), they were very proud of how nonconformist and how noncompetitive they were. Almost all of them had gone to other camps before coming to an arts camp and had gotten bored, become unhappy, or felt out of place. Marlene, whose hair is dyed several different colors, said, "I went to a sports camp. It sucked." Then she attended another camp, "It was run like a castle. Everything had to be perfect." A band/orchestra camp also didn't work for her. Her present experience is "Awesome, awesome!" And why? "The best thing about arts camps is that we're really accepted here."

Daniel also recounts going to a sports camp at nine which he describes as "overly competitive." "My mom made me do a ton of sports . . . I didn't want to be in sports. The only sport I ever enjoyed was baseball, but that was when I was little." Now, even though he is a counselor-in-training at the camp radio station he wants to, " . . . learn guitar-making and I want to learn digital mastering at Studio 59." Back home, he says, "I love sculpture; I do short stories, essays, and poetry." The enthusiasm for what they love and their willingness to take artistic risks poured out of this group of young people. When I returned them to camp, I couldn't resist walking down to watch the glass blowing again. I fell into conversation with a junior counselor named Sam. He, too, had first gone to another kind of camp. "I went to a regular camp in the Adirondacks. I didn't like it, but I don't remember why. It was in the woods; they had a lake. I loved going out on trips." However, the regimentation bothered him. "I really like that there is no schedule here and no competition," he told me. "Counselors work with everyone at every level. You can go to any shop you want to any time you want." I asked what had drawn him to glass blowing. "Glass seemed like a cool thing to do. I'm a little bit pyro. I like playing with fire . . . I had relatives who gave me blown glass balls when I was six." I wasn't surprised by his answer. My son, Will, is drawn to wood-working because of the tools, saws, drills, and lathes. He likes being trusted to work with dangerous equipment; he also enjoys teaching younger children to use them safely.

Two fourteen-year-old girls, Shane and Maria, were sitting waiting for the 2:00 p.m. start of the afternoon work period. Maria told me that she would do glass-blowing all day if she could, but that the number of ovens naturally limited the number of students. She chose to simply watch others work with glass in the morning, taking her turn after lunch. Later in the afternoon she would take a singing lesson and would be part of a drama rehearsal from 8:00-10:00 in the evening. A lot of sitting early, a lot of activity late — all her choice. It was clear that she had found her camp.

As I was leaving, I passed a group of three: two girls with an Australian counselor. They all had guitars and were strumming away, learning a Beatles song.

"Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner/but he knew it wouldn't last."

They stopped and their counselor, Bethany, checked on them, "How are your fingers? Are they sore after so many days of playing?" The girls looked at their hands, shook their heads, and started again:

"Get back, get back/ Get back to where you once belonged."

That just might be an arts camp.

Get Back. (released 1969). Lyrics written by Paul McCartney, The Beatles, Let It Be, © 1970 Apple Corp., Album.

Michael Thompson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, camp consultant, and the coauthor of eight books, including Raising Cain and It's a Boy.

Originally published in the 2008 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.