The Art of Camp: How Arts Programs Fuel Self-Expression and Youth Development

by Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed.

The shiny coach bus rumbled to a stop just in front of a small, white bungalow bearing a faded green sign reading: Camp Office. Our chaperone, a freshly scrubbed college kid charged with maintaining some sense of order on the four-hour caravan ferrying fifty boys from the metropolitan New York-New Jersey area to the quaint confines of Brewster, Massachusetts, gave us our marching orders: check in, unload, and head off to tryouts.

Tryouts here meant, in succession, turns at bat and feet-first slides into second base; dribble drills and jumpshots from the top of the key; and dizzyingly fast rotations in goal attempting to block penalty kicks energetically launched from just a few yards away. And all this before the first bed was made, song was sung, or meal tray placed on the serving line. Such was life at a boys' camp more than a quarter-century ago — and light-years away.

Not that I particularly minded. While never a great athlete, I enjoyed the rough and tumble of competitive athletics and had the bumps, bruises, concussions, and hospital receipts to prove it. Plus, there really wasn't all that much more to do. Sure, I made my share of ceramic ashtrays and wood cutouts proudly displaying my name: S_T_E_P_H_E_N. I was even conned onto a sailboat or two. But, the overriding gestalt here was team, competition, winning.

Then came the merger.

It started innocently enough — "limited joint programming" with our sister camp just down the beach. The infrequent trips from Camp Monomoy to the less rugged, better-equipped facilities at Camp Wono were softened a bit by our sudden access to a more fully stocked camp store — one we actually walked into as opposed to just up to! None of this, however, awakened the machismo machines of Monomoy to the likelihood of, gasp, co-educational summer camp!

With that move just a few years later came the inevitable conflicts: which camp's site would we use? (The girls' won.) Whose motto would we adopt? (Chalk one up for the boys.) Which traditions would win out? (Christmas in July – are you kidding?) But, amidst all the hubbub crept a subtle wave that would transform both camps, creating a level playing field, if you'll excuse the analogy, that benefited both boys and girls and challenged each to reach beyond traditional, perhaps stereotypical, interests, thus allowing for a full sampling of skills and expression of interests.

The Blurring of Gender Boundaries

Like many camps, the Cape Cod Sea Camps (Camp Monomoy and Camp Wono) today cater to a broad range of aptitudes with gender boundaries barely visible. Of course, baseball attracts more boys — just as field hockey attracts more girls. But in sailing, swimming, tennis, drama, waterskiing, kayaking, and windsurfing, each sex enjoys ample spots on the roster. And in one area more than most, the genders (and an incredibly broad range of ages) mix in a creative whirlwind that produces some of the most ingenious, stunningly beautiful, and remarkably practical displays of young minds untethered from distant norms of what's for boys and what's for girls: the arts.

Here, art comes in many forms. Classics such as tie-dye, macramé, and, yes, wooden name signs are pursued with great vigor alongside advanced clay pottery classes, courses in digital photography, dance, cinema, creative writing, and theater.

During my rounds through camp, one of my favorite sites to behold is the very gender-boundary blur that allows for girls to be carving sailing ships from blocks of wood or boys spinning pots at the wheel. Should this be surprising in the 21st century? Not to anyone involved in education. Nevertheless, it represents an important alternative in a broader culture that still too often adheres to stricter definitions of what constitutes normative expression by boys and by girls.

And that's the point.

Attributes of the Arts

Self-expression, perhaps especially at summer camp where fewer social mores dictate a child's choices, is a cornerstone of healthy psycho-social development. When it is artificially limited, children of all ages fail to fully thrive. When it is accommodated or, better yet, encouraged, it allows for experiences that help to shape identity and interaction with the world. Artist and educator Debby Greenwood, who supervises our fine and media arts students, says, "Camp is a place and a time where kids can reinvent themselves," pointing to the satisfaction, and resultant uptick in self-esteem, many campers experience when aesthetic awareness of their own capabilities kicks in.

Fourteen-year-old Adam, an art, pottery, and woodworking student at camp, says, "Art helps me to express myself because I can paint or draw or carve the feelings and thoughts in my mind onto paper, canvas, or wood. Pictures in my mind that can't be said or explained can be talked about through my art. It makes me feel different and special."

Ten-year-old Anna also enjoys expression through art, explaining, "It makes me feel secure and alive and, of course, very creative."

Charlie, also ten, offers, "Art helps me use my emotions to power creativity," revealing that it allows him to be more "wacky."

And Brooke, eleven, explains, "I love to give, so I always make things for other people. It makes me feel good about myself. If I am in a not-so-great mood, expressing myself makes me feel better."

The Creative Side of Camping

In addition to advancing self-expression and self-esteem, there is research to suggest a broader benefit from the creative side of camping. Indeed, in an article last fall in The Boston Globe, professors Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, co-authors of the book Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, offered up their own data documenting a series of "studio habits of mind" taught to children through visual arts classes, including persistence, observing, envisioning, innovating through exploration, and reflective self-evaluation. Referring to problems such as global warming, terrorism, and pandemics, Winner and Hetland said, "For students living in a rapidly changing world, the arts teach vital modes of seeing, imagining, inventing, and thinking . . . . Those who have learned the lessons . . . are the ones likely to come up with novel answers needed most for the future."

Such "transferability" is often overlooked but significant from a broader educational perspective. Seventeen-year-old Danny, a dancer at school, enjoys art, photo, and cinema at camp, pointing out that the skills he learns aren't just "art" skills. "I learn to be a better listener by following the instruction," he says, "and I have become more independent by creating my own projects."

Anna and Ben, thirteen, both point to woodworking as a place where they learn math skills. And Brooke says that art has taught her perseverance. "I never give up on a project, and that has taught me to use willpower in other things, like sports. If I put my heart into it, I will succeed as long as I don't give up."

Adam has another angle: "Explaining things that are in your mind can bring people closer to you and even introduce you to new people. By doing a certain genre of art, people can connect with you."

The Art Alternative

Summer camp art programs also offer important activity alternatives for campers, providing opportunities to excel in less regimented ways. Debby Greenwood shares the story of her son Dan, who, she says, arrived at camp as a nonathletic nine-year-old only to discover art and acting, a career he is now pursuing at age twenty-two. Our other artists have weighed in as well.

Brooke: "Not everyone can do — or participate in — sports and other things camps commonly have, but almost everyone can do some form of art at any age."

Danny: "Certainly it is very important to have as wide a range of activities as possible. Soccer, tennis, and baseball appeal to a large number of kids in our athletically driven world, but there will always be the kids who sit on the sidelines. It's essential that there be means for those kids to find their voices."

Ben: "I think that art adds a lot of diversity to activities. Part of the reason I sign up for art is because I don't necessarily want to play sports all day."

Adam: "Art is important in a child's life. It's good to get your feelings out, and it is good to stretch your imagination."

Got Art?

For years, educators have bemoaned shrinking budgets for everything from athletics to the arts. More recently, the federal No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB) fueled fears that rigid academic standards for such things as math and reading would only exacerbate shortfalls in art, music, and sciences. While the NCLB includes the arts in its core academic subjects and contains a provision authorizing the Secretary of Education to direct funding to art education programs, some, such as the Arts and Culture Observatory, say that NCLB has failed to address a growing art gap because of a lack of funding and inadequate time in the school day. Others point out that the law does not require assessment of student progress in the arts as it does in other subjects such as reading and math.

In response to rising concerns over cuts to arts programs and public concerns that over-reliance on testing for English and math to rate a school's performance will mean less emphasis on art, music, and other subjects (78 percent of those surveyed in a 2006 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll), groups like Americans for the Arts are fighting back by advocating for increased federal funding, better access to core academic subjects, improving data collection and research related to the arts in school, and increasing vehicles through which others can voice their support for arts education.

Greenwood, too, cites the trend toward limited arts education, saying, "There's not enough room for the arts in even the best schools, given the competitive academic requirements. And that makes camp arts programs all the more important." Or, as Anna says, "Having arts programs at camp is great because happiness is definitely one of the most important things in life."

Having happy campers is pretty important, too.

Reference:
The Boston Globe. (2007, September 2) Winner, Ellen and Hetland, Lois. Art for Our Sake. www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/09/02/art_for_our_sake/ (4 Aug. 2008).

Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., author of the new book Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex — What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, chairman and CEO of SADD, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about Stephen's work, visit www.StephenGrayWallace. com.

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2008 All Rights Reserved

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

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