Camp Teaches Life Lessons

by Peter L. Gucker
"What am I doing here,” he groaned. “I’ll never catch up.” Sixth in line in the group of seven hikers, Sam looked far up the trail as Jennifer disappeared around another huge boulder. The distance between them seemed to grow no matter how fast he tried to make his stumbling feet traverse the slippery roots and rocks. Just as he felt like collapsing in despair, he heard his counselor, Doug, say, “Sam’s turn to lead!”
“Er, like . . . that’s OK . . . . Jennifer can lead,” mumbled Sam.
“Your turn, Sam. Take us to the top,” Doug instructed.
Sam moved reluctantly to the front of the group and took a first tentative step — then another. He peered up the trail. There was nobody in front of him. Oddly, he suddenly didn’t feel so tired. “Keep a steady pace,” he muttered to himself. “Just keep going.”
Twenty minutes later there was no place higher to climb. Sam was standing on top of the world, mountain ridges tumbling away in all directions as far as he could see. Elation and relief overwhelmed him.
“Nice job, Sam!” called Doug.

Self-assurance, self-esteem, self-confidence — these are said to be among the values that can be inculcated in the camp experience. There are many others.

From a Camp Director’s Viewpoint

At camp, children learn values and skills that are unlikely to be included in the curriculum of most schools as they are currently constituted. Following is one director’s vision of a camp experience devoted to the broader education of children.

Family-like atmosphere encourages contribution
Creating a manageable, family-like atmosphere at camp is best undertaken by forming cabin groups of four to six campers led by one counselor. Humor is fundamental — not the sarcastic snickering that ridicules, but the cheerful kind that derives from enthusiasm for daily activities, enjoys occasional goofiness, and generates good-natured laughter.

Campers feel at home with one-on-one greetings by the directors on the first day of camp and continuing with frequent encounters as the season progresses. Cabin counselors encourage campers to voice their feelings and concerns, and campers are free to contribute their own ideas about upcoming events, trips, service projects, and solutions for conflicts within the group. At regular staff meetings directors and counselors discuss the adjustment of campers and share ideas about how to help individuals improve their camp experience.

We’re in this together
A sense of belonging, the feeling that this is “my camp,” occurs over time as campers become comfortable not only in their rustic cabins and outdoor showers, but also as they explore their wider surroundings. This feeling grows, too, from involvement in the work of maintaining camp — pitching in when cookout fires should be built, sailboats require bailing, and cabins need cleaning. That every child, regardless of age, takes a turn once a week waiting on tables during camp mealtimes is one of the unspoken clues that all are in this together, that each is a needed member of the community. Creative programming, e.g., homemade skits at concerts, animated singing at council fires, and comical announcements at meals, enhances interaction between campers and staff.

Work groups lead the way
Community spirit is fostered through work groups, comprising the oldest and most experienced campers, who guide younger, newer campers through first days at the camp and while undertaking community projects. Work group members set a tone at the very beginning of the season by leading the first council fire, by serving as big sisters/brothers to the youngest campers, and by inventing and leading various special events. Members can take turns doing chores, setting up the lodge for indoor activities, and assisting counselors on trips. A tradition of community projects can be established; participants can volunteer to clean up devastated wetlands, clear nature trails, and harvest lake weeds. In recent summers, girls and boys at Camp Whippoorwill and Camp Lincoln joined together to build two massive log lean-tos, a cabin, and a tennis gazebo at Whippoorwill, and a senior lodge and a woodworking and art shop at Lincoln — the result was not only newfound skill and pride of accomplishment, but also a legacy of their contribution to the camps.

Most important, campers and staff work together to accomplish the many tasks of daily camp living: collecting firewood for the lodge, planning next week’s menu for the canoe trip, or designing a booth at the county fair. In this cooperative environment, counselors won’t be standing on the sidelines, hollering, “Do this or do that,” but rather, “Who’s going to lend me a hand? Can I help? Let’s do this together.”

Cooperative environments and freedom of choice
Structure and supervision that encourage the acquisition of skills, and foster independence, a love for the outdoors, and a sense of responsibility enable campers to experience the fun of accomplishing goals. Time should be set aside for instruction, not simply playing, but learning to do better — for example, perfecting the j-stroke, rolling a kayak, swinging a bat, or identifying pines, hemlocks, and poison ivy.

The key to having a cooperative camp environment is offering a schedule that determines when each activity will take place, together with a system that allows campers to sign up for activities of their choice. Once having made an activity selection, campers are responsible for attending the session. Campers’ independence evolves with time as they build competence. The afternoon program can emphasize this opportunity. Afternoon activities can be selected at lunch, for that day only. Campers are free to choose what they wish, contingent on availability of space and level of skill. For instance, a camper learning to sail may be mastering the art of steering in the morning activity session but will soon earn the right to skipper the boat during the afternoon sessions.

Healthy competition
Through camp activities and skilled guidance, campers develop an understanding of what healthy competition means. They learn that the satisfaction of beating out the other guy, once accomplished, can be short-lived. You win. Now what? What campers discover is that the act of playing the game and meeting the challenge is the true accomplishment.

Outdoor adventure
The camp experience itself promotes an infectious enthusiasm for the wilderness and learning outdoor skills. These skills develop a stronger, more confident child. Camp offers access to a type of experience that has almost disappeared from urban and suburban lives. Campers might be cooking supper over an open fire at a lakeshore lean-to or sleeping overnight in a tent they’ve put up by themselves. They may venture farther from camp on one-to-five-day backpacking, canoeing, or horseback riding trips, learning resourcefulness and teamwork as they pitch camp. Above all, these trips fulfill the appetite for adventure that resides, if sometimes subdued, in every growing child.

Understanding differences
Campers not only learn to appreciate adventure, they learn to adapt to the diversity of temperament and personality of their fellow campers. Whether or not living in a small cabin group of peers leads to the appreciation of differences, it certainly exposes campers to differences. Does such close living automatically generate sensitivity to the needs of others? Probably not. Some children quickly perceive the unfairness of picking on each other. But many seem oblivious, until a wise counselor finds a way to step in and help both the bullied and the bullies to understand how their thoughtless behavior can be altered.

Some campers form a close friendship or two with their cabin mates — friendships that can survive for years afterward. For most, camp friendships are intense during the season, mark time during the winter months, are restored in following summers, and then subside as camp becomes part of the past. But for all who do make friends at camp, we know that the twenty-four-hour-a-day nature of these relationships is unique in their growing-up years and must have an impact on the way they connect with people in their later lives.

Improving education
From learning self-assurance, community respect, and healthy competition to understanding diversity, the camp experience offers teachable moments outside of the school year, offering children the opportunity for expanded education in a community-based environment. As the new Administration and Congress take on the question of how to improve education, it’s time for camp directors to examine and give voice to the unique contribution that their camps have made and continue to make in the development of children beyond the walls of the classroom.

Peter L. Gucker is the consulting director of the North Country Camps (Lincoln and Whippoorwill), operated by the Gucker family since 1920 in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State.


Originally published in the 2001 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.