The Camp Community and the World Community

by Tom Schweinhart

In our fast-paced world of technology, camps expose young people to a different kind of environment - a community-based atmosphere in which campers learn about living, working, and playing together. In addition, campers typically learn a healthy respect for nature. The life skills that many youth experience at camp help to form thinking patterns that impact the type of adults they will become. Living in a camp community helps prepare youth to be positive contributors to their communities.

High/Scope Institute for IDEAS, named for its five principal goals of increasing students' initiative, appreciation for diversity, education and career expectations, motivation for achievement, and appreciation for community service, is a month-long, residential, educational-enrichment program in operation since 1963. Our staff facilitate active-learning workshops in the arts and sciences - academic subjects but in a hands-on, cooperative, camp environment. The research-validated approach focuses on supporting the developmental needs of adolescents - cognitive and social - in order for learning to occur effectively. This approach grows from the cognitive theories of Piaget (1972) and the social development ideas of Erikson (1963, 1968.)

Over my years as director of the Institute, I've been amazed at the impact living in this small international community for a month and participating in community events has on young people. Of course, it can be challenging at first to live in such close proximity with others. But it doesn't take long for campers to slide into the daily routine of community living. Living in a camp community is more natural and more familiar in our genetic memory than a typical young American's world of video games, TVs, and the Internet. In addition, a considerable body of research shows that people learn better cooperatively (Slavin, 1990; DeVries, 1978; Glasser, 1986; Hartley, 1976; Johnson & Johnson, 1989).

Building Community

At the Institute for IDEAS, we intentionally emphasize the importance of community through the structure of the program and through conversations with campers about their roles and responsibilities at the program. We try to help young people make connections between the community at the Institute and their lives at home. Adolescence is a particularly important time to focus on community. As young people establish their individual identities and achieve increasing independence from their families, they begin to reach out to peer groups as a major source of friendship, support, and influence.

At the Institute, we ban "pop" culture - no radios, TV, video games, CDs, MP3s, etc. We even discourage conversations about events in popular culture. We do this for intercultural reasons - a Colombian student may not have heard of the latest rap song and may feel left out of conversations, for example - but also to create an environment free from the packaged, consumer world, and one that is rooted in a shared experience.

Every Friday night, the full community participates in Council, one of the most intentional and obvious expressions of community at the Institute. Council is a reflective activity with roots in Quaker and Native American traditions, a time for all to come together for some common quietude, some seriousness, and for the sharing of deeper feelings. The campers are given a topic (often selected by a smaller group of campers), such as community, and we walk as a group out to a fire circle. Sitting around the fire, campers can choose to talk "to the fire" about an idea or concern related to the topic. The focus for the speaker is the fire, but the real audience is the rest of the Institute community. This space often creates for the campers a sense of psychological safety that allows them to share meaningful issues in their lives. This ritual deepens the community atmosphere of the program. After a successful Council, campers feel closer to each other on a personal level, but often on a community level as well. The community feels stronger and deeper.

Work crew
In room groups (four to seven campers of the same gender plus one staff member), campers participate in half-hour daily chores we call Work Crew. These chores range from washing the dishes after breakfast, to cleaning bathrooms and living space, to collecting trash bags and recycling items from all the buildings. We discuss work crews with campers - how they are important to sustaining the community, how if we didn't do them things would become messy and unsafe, how everyone doing their little part ensures that the community runs smoothly.

Meal times and evening programs
We build community through meal times. Like many camps, we eat family style in a large dining room, and we also sing together after every lunch and dinner meal. Institute songs become a common denominator in a shared culture. At the end of the session, everyone knows the songs and they become a foundational element of the community we've created.

We build community during evening programs. Every night from 8 to 9:15 p.m., the full community of campers and staff join together for a large-group activity. Sometimes these are academically-based, focusing on science, history, math, etc., and sometimes they offer a different kind of learning, like personality differences, cultural diversity, or even folk dancing. Coming together as a group to have a shared experience, especially at the end of the day, reinforces the notion of community. The evening programs further a camper's experience of membership, being part of a constructive, enjoyable, and supportive peer group. Staff participate alongside campers, providing positive interactions and acting as positive role models.

Folk dancing
Folk dancing occurs at the Institute as evening programs and as five consecutive morning activities. Everyone participates in learning beginning and intermediate dances from a rich variety of cultural traditions. We learn dances that originated in Israel, Hungary, England, etc. Soon everyone is doing the same step to the music, more or less. Like singing, folk dance allows everyone to experience group success and to have a shared experience - different than the experience campers have in their home lives. In this age of electronic pop music and music videos, you wouldn't think that a group of teenagers would even consider holding hands in a circle, learning simple movements to international folk music. And certainly many participants are apprehensive at first. But session after session, folk dancing ends up being one of the most popular and loved activities at the program. The young people are able to experience dancing success without the pressures associated with a typical high school dance.

Service Learning and Work Projects

We promote service learning as an element of community. Campers participate in many activities to consider the importance of community service, and everyone participates in a day of community service. Adolescence, a time marked by the formation of values and the onset of a more critical understanding of the world, is a particularly appropriate time for young people to experience the satisfaction and responsibility of helping others through service learning.

Work projects are a part of this service learning. Campers participate in small group projects to better our camp facility. Over the years, campers have built bridges, repaired picnic tables, maintained trails, and created art projects to decorate the facility. Through these work projects, campers contribute to a community bigger than the group of sixty-five campers and counselors, they contribute to the camp community of all the years of campers and staff.

Bringing It Home

The idea underlying all of the ways we focus on community is that when people function in the High/Scope community, it serves as a microcosm of the possibilities within their home communities. After the Institute ends, campers go back to their neighborhoods in different towns and even different nations around the world. It is our hope that what they learn about community over the month will help them interact with others and be leaders in their community at home. One recent participant said, "I plan to take the stuff I learned here back to my community so I can try and help them out the same way High/Scope helped me."

Of course, as many camp directors and counselors know, the community at home is very different from the camp atmosphere. We believe that being in a supportive atmosphere for a few weeks can help build self-confidence and provide the tools to function back in their home environments. As our research indicates - and most camp professionals know - it works. As one student said, "I gained more courage, self-confidence, and made friends for life."

Many camp programs utilize community activities like the High/Scope program. For example, many have youth help out with daily chores such as cleaning their bunks or. The critical component is intentionally helping the young people through discussion and reflection to make connections to the concepts of community. Camps often create a positive culture in which campers feel a sense of belonging. The next step is to help campers make connections between the camp "feeling" and their lives at home.

Campers often tell me they share things with their roommates at the Institute that they haven't told their best friends at home. Through Council, campers sometimes share things with sixty-five people that they haven't told their closest friends. This speaks to the power of living in a close community.

Why is community so important at camp? Most campers and staff who have experienced the High/Scope program would agree that one of the most important and moving things about that experience is the sense of belonging to a wonderful collection of people that develops. One could argue that this sense of belonging is what keeps most camps running for years and years.

It wouldn't be hard to convince a group of camp professionals (like the readers of this magazine) that camps teach young people valuable skills in communication and cooperation and that these skills will help campers later in their adult lives. Most camp professionals believe that campers learn a great deal about social skills. But it's likely that camps do a lot more. They provide an authentic context through the community living experience that helps young people practice citizenship as the world becomes more global. Being intentional and reflective about these ideas, within the camp setting, are critical "teaching moments" that camps should not miss.

DeVries, D. L. & Slavin, R. E. (1978). Teams-Games-Tournament (TGT): Review of ten classroom experiments. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 12, 28-38.
Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.
Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth, and crisis. New York: Norton.
Glasser, W. (1986). Control theory in the classroom. New York: Harper and Row.
Hartley, W. (1976). Prevention outcomes of small group education with school children: An epidemiologic follow-up of the Kansas City School Behavior Project. Kansas City: University of Kansas Medical Center.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1989). Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
Piaget, J. (1972). Intellectual evolution from adolescence to adulthood. Human Development, 15, 1-12.
Slavin, R. E. (1990). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Tom Schweinhart directs the High/Scope Institute for IDEAS in Michigan. He was a program staff member from 1995-98 and has been the director since 1998. Tom received his bachelor's degree from Alma College and attended and worked at various camps in his youth.

Originally published in the 2002 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.