Letting Campers Make Their Mark: Writing to Enhance the Camp Experience

by Melody Pickle, Ph.D.

Ten children walk along the rocky path, backpacks in tow. A little dusty and a little sweaty with mostly smiles, they hike on this muggy Texas day. "Freeze. Everybody sit right where you are, pull out your notebooks, and write for one minute about what you see," says Beth, the supervisor of Natural Science Education Programs at McKinney Roughs Nature Science Center in Bastrop, Texas. This is just one typical scene at a McKinney Roughs summer day camp. During their summer camp and school year programs, facilitators use writing in many different ways. They believe that it helps get the children involved in learning while they are exploring nature and having fun. Keeping nature notebooks and doing short intermittent writing is just one way they encourage learning. Though this particular camp has learning objectives, any kind of camp can benefit from creative writing activities and techniques.

Camps increase their number of campers and see repeat visitors when they create positive lasting impressions for each camper. They want to keep campers coming back. One way to do that is to make sure the experience they offer is fun, experiential, and memorable for their campers. Although a positive camp experience cannot be guaranteed for every camper, utilizing language and writing in camp can enhance the camp experience. Using different types of writing activities enhances reflection, learning, and memory of either specific or overall camp experiences.

Written words capture the thought and interpretation of the moment. This captured moment molds the camp experience by putting language to the experience. Using writing enhances the camp experience by connecting language to the encounter, offering students participation and lasting impressions because they interpret the experience through language.

Language and writing are important (if not essential) ways that we process and make sense of our world (Vygotsky 1986). Therefore, connecting experience with language is a powerful tool for understanding. Through language we name things; we categorize; we understand. Adding language activities and tasks to the diverse experiences and activities at camp further enhances the potential for lasting difference to the camper.

Enhancing the Camp Experience With Writing

How to use writing to enhance the camp experience:

  • Broaden the definition of writing in the camp setting for staff and administrators.
  • Make it a natural part of the camp setting.
  • Make it tangible.
  • Make it available but optional.

Incorporating writing into the overall camp experience is not as difficult as it may at first seem. First, think of writing as any time a word is written down anywhere and for any length of time. Camp writing has no rules, but is a guided form of expression. It need not be lengthy or even written on paper.

In my recent survey of 221 outdoor experiential educators from all areas of outdoor experiential education, participants indicated that they thought writing was a useful tool for learning in the outdoors. However, writing was often narrowly defined as a long written piece such as a journal entry. Few people automatically thought of brief activities that involved writing as writing.

How to Make Writing Fun at Camp

The question then is how do you make that experience fun or inviting for campers? Broadening the definition of what is considered writing is one way to begin to understand how writing can fit into a camp setting.

Free-Form Writing
To incorporate text activities and writing into camp, you must make writing a natural part of a camp activity. This can be as simple as having campers — during dinner or at the campfire — come up with a newspaper headline that summarizes or describes their day. They can write it on a note card or piece of paper, and hang it on a wall, pass it around, etc. Short free-forms of written expression (combined with drawings or stickers) easily fit into camp timelines and expectations.

Create a Memory Wall
The creation of a memory wall is another way to incorporate writing and expression into camp seamlessly. Hang large pieces of butcher paper on an easily accessible wall — perhaps in the dining hall. Provide markers, crayons, or paints. Then allow campers to write and draw during free time. This can be optional or encouraged as a group activity. One way to encourage participation is to ask two campers from each dinner table each evening to go to the memory wall and to make their daily phrase or statement describing that day's experience for that table. There are many possible variations of this activity.

Writing can make the camp and outdoor experience memorable because it is so tangible. When campers have a written memory — written by them while in the midst of the experience, they have something to take home — something that will help them remember and keep the memory fresh. The length and form of the writing do not matter as long as the campers can take it home. A very popular and significant piece of tangible writing is the letter to self writing activity. In this activity, campers write letters to themselves. The letter may record something they have learned, how they have changed, or it may set future goals or simply record an experience they wish to remember. This letter is then later mailed to the camper anywhere from one month to one year after the camp experience has concluded.

Tangible writing might also take the form of group notebooks or journals. These journals can be kept by cabins, activity groups, or some other group formation. Each day one or two people are responsible for recording the day's activities and can contribute their own creative entry. The journal can also be passed around at the end of each day for each person to contribute a thought for the day, if they wish. Set up some rules and parameters — that includes being sensitive to others, being appropriate, and only recording positive messages to other campers. Sometimes, copies of these notebooks are made so each group member gets to take a copy home.

You can encourage participation in writing activities that foster memories by providing places for campers to leave their mark. Designate one wall or other area that is public and visible on which campers can share favorite memories, offer encouragement to others, or tell stories. Have notebooks, scrapbooks, or other books and pages in specific places where campers might want to leave their thoughts. Places might include the top of a steep hike, the end of a tough challenge course or ropes course experience, and a quiet reflective place where campers wander. The idea is that campers can record their thoughts and leave them there for others to read over time. PVC pipe works great for sheltering notebooks from the weather.

Writing activities are beneficial in almost any camp setting. They enhance reflection, learning, and creativity. Writing encourages campers to share their experiences and to remember them. Campers love to make their mark, so let them do it in a beneficial, thoughtful, and fun way — and keep them coming back to your camp season after season.

Activity Ideas to Encourage Writing at Camp

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Melody Pickle, Ph.D., has done extensive research on the role of writing in the outdoors. She is a freelance writer, speaker, and a mom. She can be contacted at melodypickle@sbcglobal.net.

Originally published in the 2008 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.