Imagine your campers gathered in a circle for the beginning of their first day at camp. You give a warm welcome; make some introductions; sing a few lively, favorite songs; and before activities begin, you pull a poem from your pocket to share with everyone. When the day is done, your pocket yields another poem in celebration of a child's birthday or a storm that whipped the trees or a special new friend or the frogs that punctuated the day with their croaking.
Why Poetry at Camp?
Campers receive a message in a moment, a flash of understanding, a validation of their experience, or a new perception when a planned or spontaneous poem is woven into their everyday experience. Poems provide a brief but memorable bookend for the camp day. At school, children are accustomed to ringing bells that mark the day's beginning and ending . . . why not the more engaging sounds of a poem, chosen and read (or even written) by a counselor or a camper? Share poems about camp things — bugs, night, dreams, quarrels, trees, crying, or questions. Daily or weekly good-byes at camp may be commemorated with more poems.
Poetry at Camp Goes Beyond the Classroom
Camp has long offered activities and experiences introduced in school, but camp gives more in-depth opportunities for campers to connect with their real lives . . . poetry at camp is a chance to "slip in the back door" with new expressions, ideas, outlooks, links to experience, and the magic of a well-turned phrase.
Schools struggle to teach the written language, wrestling with the impact of text messaging, which filters words to the simplest message. Even the traditional "love note or letter" that offers a teen a chance to express his feelings, may be text messaged. Poems provide campers with another's view of their common experience, spoken in words different from their own. Poems naturally expand campers' options for vocabulary and their expression of daily syntax.
Timing Is Everything
A well-timed poem shared by a camp leader can send a message to campers that sets a tone. Talk of friends, love, caring, sharing, nature's beauty, and other less tangible subjects may be more easily communicated in a poem rather than the speaker's less-practiced words. A well-placed poem may support the camp leader's request, or reprimand, or open or close a difficult conversation. Poems of appreciation may be given as a simple and heart-felt "thank you." Poetry at camp takes minutes to prepare, minutes to share, and costs nothing. . . a simple, valuable, and perhaps, unique addition to your program.
Daily Camp Experiences With Poetry
Staff can begin to collect poems from the children's section in any library. It is crammed with books of poems — humorous and serious, about food, family, animals, nature, morals, and more — in so many subjects you will be taxed to choose just a few. Copy them, and stuff them in your pocket. After a few readings, campers begin to ask for more!
Give copies to campers and encourage them to read them aloud. Make extra copies available to start camper collections. Plaster poems on bathroom doors and bulletin boards, add them to newsletters, and use them as a basis for camp skits and plays. A budding musician might provide background music for a fellow camper as she recites her poem. Place books of poems in the nurse's station, places where campers wait, and in staff rooms — give them time to read and start their own collections. When you find creative times and places to present poems, you may be surprised at your own keenness for finding and sharing them.
Find a Poem for Every Camp Situation . . . .
From the public domain, here are a few poems to pull out of your pocket during those teachable moments at camp:
Poetry at Play
Camp playgrounds teem with rhymes and rhythms, often passed from one generation to another. One example is Miss Polly Had a Dolly. Young campers often jump rope longer and better while shouting breathlessly . . . .
Miss Polly Had a Dolly
Miss Polly had a dolly who was sick, sick, sick.
So she phoned for the doctor to be quick, quick, quick.
The doctor came with his bag and his hat,
And he knocked on the door with a rat-a-tat-tat.
He looked at the dolly and he shook his head.
And he said, "Miss Molly, put her straight to bed."
He wrote on the paper for a pill, pill, pill,
"I'll be back in the morning with my bill, bill, bill."
Who goes first? Who get's the chocolate one? Who's IT? Camper arguments and decisions may be settled by toning nonsense rhymes while pointing to one child per word. "Out goes you!" decides the winner or the loser.
Ecka, decka, donie, creak,
Ecka, decka, do.
Ease, cheese, butter, bread
Out goes you!
A simple poem about the universal experience of stargazing will ring familiar to most, young and old. At camp, campers from the urban areas may be able to see stars, previously hidden by ambient light or pollution. Stimulate their imaginations by inviting them to lie on their backs and title the star groups using their own creative names. Any fear of darkness may dissipate when campers become immersed, together, in the beauty of a starry night.
Starlight, star bright,
First star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.
Teach Environmental Awareness
Written more than a century ago, Christine Rossetti's poem gives voice to today's Leave No Trace ethic:
Hurt No Living Thing
Hurt no living thing;
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap,
Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.
- Christine Rossetti
Poems can stand alone, inspire a good discussion, or be the basis for activity and further exploration. For example, wrap cookies in copies of Vachel Lindsay's poem, The Moon is the North Wind's Cookie. Invite campers to write their own poems about the moon, or cookies, while dipping them in milk.
The Moon Is the North Wind's Cookie
The moon is the North Wind's cookie.
He bites it day by day,
Until there's but a rim of scraps
That crumble all away.
The South Wind is a baker.
He kneads clouds in his den.
And bakes a crisp new moon that – greedy
North Wind –eats – again.
Consider creating a "Poetry Trail" where campers read or memorize a poem at stations across camp, using props and costumes as desired. Other campers follow a map or hike the trail and stop to hear poems performed by their friends. For example, next to the water, a camper might share E.E. Cummings' poem about four girls at the shore:
Maggie and Milly and Molly and May
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles, and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and
may came home with a smooth round stone
so small as a world and large as alone.
for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea."
- E.E. Cummings
This "comfort" poem sets the tone for rest or sleep:
All around me quiet.
All around me peaceful.
All around me lasting,
All around me home
- Ute Indian
Poems can help put things in perspective when campers are faced with relationship challenges. This ditty rings with a lighthearted outlook.
It's hard to lose your lover (or your friend)
When your heart is full of hope.
But it's worse to lose your towel
When your eyes are full of soap.
Weather at camp is always a consideration when it affects outdoor activities. This tongue twister communicates to campers the invaluable attitude of perseverance. It's a good one to memorize and recite (to expected groans from campers who have heard it before!). Yet, campers get the message and often join you on the last three lines.
Whether the Weather
Whether the weather be fine
Or whether the weather be not
Whether the weather be cold
Or whether the weather be hot –
We'll weather the weather
Whatever the weather
Whether we like it or not!
Find a Place for Poetry
Metaphorically, poetry at camp is like dessert — it's not essential to the meal, but it adds delicious pleasure, and most poetry consumers feel full and satisfied. Unlike dessert, not all poetry is sweet, yet, few desserts are thought provoking. Both poems and desserts may be inspiring, and campers may look forward to more! Oh, and you can't gain weight with poetry! So read poems, recite poems, post poems, write poems, and find a place for them on your camp program plate. Consider making a commitment to fill your pockets with poems and share them with campers. Use the magic of a poem as a springboard, a place from which to plunge into the depths of the moment, for yourself — and for your campers.
Faith Evans, M.Ed., is the owner of PlayFully, Inc.. Evans is a national camp staff trainer and team builder, author, and speaker. Her professional history in the world of camp spans forty years and has been nationally recognized by the American Camp Association for outstanding staff training.
Originally published in the 2008 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.