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Family Camping: Building a Community at Warp Speed — The Special Case of Family Camping
Children are part of families, and families are diverse — in their structure, in the way they function, and in the ways they relate to one another. There can be strength in such diversity, but there can also be associated challenges. Diversity may come in the form of differences in culture, primary language spoken, socioeconomic resources, levels of ability, religious background, life experiences, and even in comfort levels when participating in camp activities.
When trying to bring families together in the camp setting, it is important to celebrate their diversity, while also focusing on ways in which they may be united. Taking this opportunity to build community within the camp setting can help serve as a model for strengthening and uniting diverse people in the community at large, and family camps offer a unique opportunity to do this. You as a camp professional can help facilitate the process, thereby building stronger communities both within and outside of the camp setting.
Consider the Challenges
Before beginning your community-building project, however, it is important to consider what challenges you may face in the building process. By doing this, you can plan ahead to prevent problems whenever possible, or to at least have a "rain plan" in place when prevention is impossible.
Sensitivity to Diversity
It is important that you not become mired in trying to place everyone into a certain mold as your ideal of a "camp person." Even those who may not be able to communicate as fully because of language or disability issues — those who prefer to watch from the sidelines rather than actively participate — those who come to camp via public transportation rather than by their own car — or those who get around in a wheelchair rather than by walking — ultimately it doesn't matter what differences people bring with them to camp; everyone has something unique to contribute and something special to gain by becoming part of the community. The challenge is to help facilitate building that community regardless of who comes through the front gates of your camps and asks to join the festivities.
Children with chronic illnesses form another subgroup of the population in which "fear of the unknown" sometimes applies. Attending camp may be more common among some of the peers of these children, but there can still be a great deal of apprehension involved for both the children and their families. For families with a child who has a serious medical condition that requires frequent monitoring and care, it is often very difficult to trust that monitoring and care to someone else. Still, offering these children opportunities for independence and to experience "normal kid" activities can be so vital to their growth and development.
Family camp programs help to address the apprehensions felt by all of these groups by allowing the whole family to come to camp together — to more or less "take it for a test drive," and to become more comfortable with what the programs (and medical support staff) have to offer their children. Of course, in this type of program the whole family gets to come out and have a great time too, so it becomes a win-win situation for everyone! Again, our challenge is to start building a community that everyone feels a part of, and feels drawn to, long before they arrive at camp for the first time.
Building the Community
Now that we've thought about some ways to prevent problems from occurring and about rain plans to use when they do occur, we're ready to start building. Of course, in order to build anything you have to start with a few basics. At the minimum, these will include some building materials and some basic tools. If "community" is the final product you're trying to build, then some of the tools and materials you'll need will include themes and opportunities for interaction. Let's consider both of these more fully.
Here are a few ideas that you can use to get those creative juices flowing. Keep in mind that this list is meant simply to inspire your own creative thought, and in no way is it to be considered exhaustive. Also keep in mind that these theme ideas can be used both in weekend and week-long camp settings with a little bit of modification. We'll revisit some of these themes a little later as illustrations for specific points, but this list will at least help give you a springboard to start your own creative brainstorming for laying the foundation with a theme.
It is generally a good idea to start planning your theme(s) early, because if you truly want to use the theme as a way to create community at your camp, getting the word out to people early goes a long way. Getting the word out early helps give all those who will be involved — families, camp staff, volunteers, etc. — an opportunity to gather costumes and props that they can bring with them to camp.
Families can even be assigned a theme-related task to complete as a family before coming to camp. An example of such a task might be to create a "Family Crest" that ties in with the chosen theme. A "Family Crest Kit" could be sent to each family well in advance (if timing allows), and each family member could be asked to create a portion of the crest and to bring the finished product with them to camp. For the "A Year in the Life" theme example, each family member creates a portion of the crest to tell about his or her favorite holiday or time of year. Once families arrive at camp, they pair with one or more other families and share their crests with one another — with each family member given the opportunity to tell his or her own story about what each created.
A task like this allows a family to feel invested in the camp experience even before they arrive at camp, and it gives them something unique to share with those they will meet. It is also often much easier for people to talk about and describe something they have created, rather than just talking about themselves without a "prop" to serve as a facilitation tool.
In order to use themes to their fullest potential, make an effort to weave them throughout your camp sessions. Using an activity like the one described above can help ignite the theme long before that opening campfire is ever lit, but then you have to find ways to keep that thematic fire burning throughout your camp sessions.
Opportunities for Interaction
Considering the "Western Weekend" theme, you can sing a song in which you pause throughout and give commands like, "Give a high five to your partner's next to you . . . ." Don't be afraid of writing new songs to fit your themes or rewriting lyrics to old songs to better fit your theme. These are strategies that work!
Building Community One Brick at a Time
A final set of recommendations as you set out to build your communities is to strive to use all of these tools and materials already discussed at the most appropriate times and in the most appropriate ways. As families are first gathering and becoming acquainted with the camp setting, they may not feel completely comfortable with being open and sharing with one another. Offering activities that allow them to interact — but that do not put anyone "on the spot" — can help ease this early transition. It is also easier for people to interact early on through more structured activities that are more active and less verbal. Even though people may feel a bit uncomfortable doing silly things at first, if everyone is doing it, it takes the pressure off. It teaches people that it is okay for them to be silly and laugh at themselves in this setting. It is also okay to push people outside their comfort zones, because that provides opportunities for growth.
As the camp program continues — as the community becomes more solidly built and people become more comfortable with one another — it is beneficial to allow more opportunities for unstructured time or activities and interactions that are more verbally based. At this point the foundation has been laid, the framework is complete, and people can be offered the opportunity to use the tools they brought in their own tool kits to do the finishing work. This is the point at which networks can be built that begin within — yet extend beyond — the gates of camp and provide a foundation on which an even stronger global community can be built.
Brandon G. Briery, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine's Mailman Center for Child Development in Miami, Florida. Dr. Briery has been associated with camps in various roles for nearly twenty years. He has conducted empirical research on the benefits of camps for children with chronic illnesses and continues to pursue that line of research. He also enjoys consulting with camp programs on programmatic, training, and psychosocial issues. He can be reached at 305-243-2245 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Originally published in the 2004 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.