Notes From the Margin

by Anthony H. Howard, M.S., and Thecla Helmbrecht Howard, Ed.D.

As unique educational institutions, camps across America are as diverse as the children who attend them, and we have much to be thankful for that. As the natural world so vividly teaches us, diversity is what is required for creativity, and it is fundamentally through our abilities to create, that we are capable of evolving. The most creative places in the natural world are found in the margins that exist between the larger biological systems. For instance, wetlands that exist between the ocean and the land are fertile crucibles whose extraordinary biodiversity leads to natural evolutions that are crucial to the viability and ongoing evolution of the larger systems. Camps can be thought of in the same way — like wetlands on the margins of our massive mainstream educational systems. Seen in this way, camps have a mandate delivered by the truths of the natural world to not only honor and maintain our own diversity, but to use the creativity that such diversity fosters to support the ongoing evolution of all of education.

Becoming a Powerful Force . . . .

How can we best foster our own evolution in the camp industry and become a more powerful force in the evolution of all of education?

  • First, we must recognize, value, and fiercely defend the diversity within the camp industry. It is our strength.
  • Second, we must totally embrace the truth that camps are a unique educational institution whose focus on youth development is not only unique but, at this time in the evolution of our culture, desperately needed.
  • Third, we must recognize and accept the challenge that each camp must decide specifically what it fundamentally believes about youth or human development. Once we have individually decided or clarified what we believe about youth development, then each camp must struggle with the task of translating those beliefs into pragmatic actions within their particular camp setting. To be credible, this process must reflect a total commitment toward youth development — and be openly fueled with considerations that range in scope from the current outcomes research supported by the American Camp Association (ACA) to the depths of truths found within the wisdom literature of the world.

Step 1: Embracing the Truth That Camps Are a Unique Educational Institution

"You don't need me to tell you what education is. Everybody really knows that education goes on all the time everywhere all through our lives, and that it is the process of waking up to life." — M. C. Richards

As professional educators who have become camp directors, we have been drawn to and struggled throughout our careers with the questions and concerns we consider central to education. What should be the aims or purposes of education? Who should be educated and how? Should education differ according to natural interests and abilities? Since we firmly agree with ACA's view that camps are a unique educational institution, we also consider these questions central to the camp profession as well.

If the general intent of the camp experience is educational, then we also must struggle with the questions that are of central concern to genuine educators. These questions concerning education have, of course, been asked for centuries — and the answers have varied according to the differing cultures and contexts in which they were asked. Fortunately, through visionary leadership within our profession, we as camp professionals are systematically furthering the process of collectively and individually answering these questions for our industry. What is desperately needed in America is for these questions to be answered, not once and for all, but as well and conscientiously as it can be done for the benefit of our children, our youth, and for the future of our earth.

Step 2: Understanding Why a Focus on Youth Development Is Desperately Needed

"What the intellect has to say concerning any matter, should only be said when all the other faculties of the soul have spoken." — Rudolf Steiner

Camp professionals have traditionally considered the camp experience as primarily involving youth development. As ACA and others have now begun to document with formal research, anecdotal evidence has long suggested that children who attend camp "most often" develop or demonstrate growth in such capacities as "positive identity, social skills, physical and thinking skills, and positive values and spirituality (American Camp Association 2005)."

What is not clearly represented from this kind of abstract categorization of what happens at camp is how wanting in the development of these capacities is our youth and our culture in general. In mainstream education where our children and youth spend most of their time, we have focused most of our efforts toward the development of skills related to the mastery of specific subject matter, but we have done very little toward fostering our other human capacities. This is the essential reason why camps have traditionally been — and must remain — of primary importance in the field of youth development.

The disturbing trend in American education today is toward an even greater under-emphasis on educational efforts aimed at fundamental learning — not academic fundamentals such as reading, writing, and arithmetic — but life fundamentals such as the development of compassion, the promotion of a sense of community, and the evolvement of a loving will. We have been successful at developing our capacities for thinking that support academic achievement, but we have failed miserably in learning to relate to each other and the world with the concerns of a decent principled heart.

It is not hard to find examples of the lack of decent principled hearts in America today. Look at the number of businesses that appear to be only concerned with their "bottom line." Businesses conducted in this predatory fashion operate without a decent principled heart. Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, and many reality-type television and radio shows sell heartless conversation. Author George Leonard describes vividly what is common in America today when he writes: "The glorification of ego-driven violence, torture, taunting, bullying, destruction, and physical and mental abuse of every conceivable stripe continues to escalate in our entertainment media. By the time our children come of age, they've witnessed many thousands of episodes of these types of behaviors. Those who produce it argue that children can tell the difference between what happens on the screen and what happens in real life. They're right; there is a difference. What happens on the screen is far more vivid, more immediate, more compelling, and more appealing than the same sort of behaviors would be in real life (Leonard 1999)."

When we say that we have defined youth development as the desired outcome of the camp experience, we have placed the intent of education where it is desperately needed, toward the holistic enrichment of children and youth.

Step 3: Accepting the Challenge That Each Camp Must Decide What It Fundamentally Believes

"Adolescents sense a secret, unique greatness in themselves that seeks expression. They gesture toward the heart when trying to express any of this, a significant clue to the whole affair." — Joseph Chilton Pearce, Evolution's

If we can collectively agree that the aims or purposes of the camp experience are to foster youth development, then let us boldly announce and struggle openly with the implications of such a commitment. Let us define and organize each activity of our camps in ways that acknowledge and support this intention — let everything we do be defined by our desire to help youth develop to their fullest capacities.

If we can collectively agree that the purpose of the camp experience is to foster youth development, then let us boldly announce and struggle openly with the implications of such a commitment. Let us define and organize each activity of our camps in ways that acknowledge and support this intention — let everything we do be defined by our desire to help youth develop to their fullest capacities. In order to accomplish this, we must be willing to examine all our notions about what a camp is with fresh eyes. Though we have been by all measures amply successful in our past, let us copy the example of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi who reportedly started each season the same way. Despite his team's unprecedented successes, Coach Lombardi started each season by holding up an inflated leather oval and saying, "This is a football."

With fresh eyes let us redefine youth development and our approach to education with depth and breadth. Let our goals be as large as a return to the wholeness we all had naturally as children — as a return to the wellness or wholeness that occurs when there is balance between our intellects, our imaginations, and our emotions. With fresh eyes let us recognize anew that the capacities that are so missing or out of balance in our children, youth, and culture are exactly the capacities (with the right intentions) that the pristine settings and meaningful challenges of our camps are most capable of kindling.

Step 4: Facing the Real Challenge of Challenge Education

"You don't dance to get to the other side of the floor." — Alan Watts

Translating Abstract Youth Development Goals to Pragmatic Practices
When we started our therapeutic horse riding and camp program, Kamp Kessa, five years ago, we began with youth development as our goal. With the help of a lifetime of educational experiences, we developed specific ideas about what we believed about youth development — and wanted the services we were intent on providing to be consistent with those beliefs. In order to always be reminded and cognizant of our larger beliefs about youth development, we began by condensing our beliefs into what we have come to call touchstones.

Touchstones
Simply put touchstones are symbols, images, or repeated phrases that serve to remind and connect us to our deepest intentions. The repeated use of touchstones is an important and effective way to teach and stay focused on larger intentions. The first touchstone we created and put on our camp T-shirts used the symbol of a triangle with the tip pointing down and the larger opening pointing up. The part of the triangle pointing down pointed to every specific task we intended to do in the daily routines of our camp. This covered everything from going trail riding to cleaning up after a meal. The top of our triangle — which opened wide — was there to remind us of the need to connect everything we were doing to the larger context of what we believed about youth or human development.

When we teach using this triangle symbol, we often place the words cosmos, earth, cosmology, creation, world, nature, or universe (used almost interchangeably according to the circumstance) on top of the triangle. With this word at the top of our triangle we are always attempting to connect every specific task we were doing to its larger "cosmological" context and to teach that there are, in M. C. Richard's words "deeper meanings than those of private sensation."

This touchstone symbol is the result of our considered belief that human or youth development only occurs when we expand our capacities beyond the concerns of our individual egos — what expands my world is probably healthy; what shrinks it is probably not (another touchstone). True youth or human development happens when humans investigate and see the world through a broader lens that goes beyond their own human experiences. Since this is the way we envision youth development, this is how we approach everything at our camp from the intent of specific tasks to the design of our camp T-shirts.

Translating Beliefs into Actions

"Carpenters fashion wood; fletchers fashion arrows; the wise fashion themselves." — Buddha

Although we could provide many other examples of how we translate our position on human development into camp practices, the point here is made. In order to effectively and credibly participate in youth development, we, as an industry and as individual directors of camps, must explicitly decide what we believe about youth development — and make everything at our camps and in our industry, as consistent as possible with those principles. As camp directors, we have decided that the prime questions concerning education aimed at youth development are as deep as those posed by M. C. Richards over sixty years ago. "Where is the moral source? How are the laws to be learned in the human will? How may intellect and sanctity marry? Where does one look for the teaching; and once found, how does one use it (Richards 1989)?"

After defining our beliefs about youth development in such contexts, we must then attempt the most important and challenging job of a camp director — to translate those answers into tangible practices within our camp environment. This, in essence, is what we are all being called to do — to demonstrate the teaching that fosters the development of our youth. How to do this comes down to us from every great wisdom tradition: We are asleep. Becoming more conscious in our beliefs about the larger issues of living and translating those beliefs into actions requires that we continually find ways to wake ourselves up.

References
American Camp Association. (2005). Directions: Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience, p. 2.
Leonard, G. (1999). The Way of Aikido, Life Lessons from an American Sensei. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, Inc., p. 151.
Richards, M. C. (1989). Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, pp. 4, 30.

Anthony H. Howard, M.S., and Thecla Helmbrecht Howard, Ed.D., are cofounders of Sheltered Risks Incorporated (SRI) in Shelby County, Kentucky. SRI is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing therapeutic foster care to youth with special needs and wilderness and equine-facilitated human development experiences to individuals of all ages. Anthony and Thecla spend their time at Kamp Kessa (www.kampkessa.org) surrounded by children, youth, dogs, horses, and guitars.

Originally published in the 2005 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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