by Lloyd Griffith
Let me introduce Pat, a thirteen-year-old returning for his second summer
at camp. Little distinguished his first year at camp, but this season
he has a definite attitude problem. It showed up immediately in the ragged
look of his clothes. As introductions were made on opening day and plans
began to form for the summer, Pat was distinctly indifferent to all the
hype given to the opportunities ahead. As the first week progressed,
his lackadaisical attitude became more obvious in half-hearted efforts
at completing morning cabin chores, passive interests in establishing
activity goals, and an emerging antagonism toward his cabin mates who
were excited to be at camp. When confronted by his counselor, Pat's response
was a version of "whatever," " you are clueless," or "I don't care."
His poor attitude persisted throughout two-and-a-half weeks of camp
despite interventions by cabin counselors, a unit leader, and the camp
director. As strategies were almost exhausted, the increasingly apparent
next step was removal from the community. Then one afternoon Pat found
himself as one of the crew in a sailing regatta. A captain needed an
extra crew member, and Pat happened to be hanging out on the pier at
just that moment. He was put on board - but certainly not by choice.
The wind was a crisp 15 knots, the competition was challenging, and the
outcome required the best of everyone on board.
During that regatta, something significant happened to Pat. He returned
to the pier a different boy. He had a new enthusiasm to learn to sail.
He told the dock master he wanted to move from crew to captain, to hold
the tiller in his hand. This new energy spilled over to his cabin with
a greater interest in completing chores and an eagerness to join his
cabin mates in activities.
The change was obvious. An underachieving, passive indifference had
been replaced by an ambitious, enthusiastic excitement. The significant
experience was a simple sailing regatta on an afternoon at camp. The
power and potential of that experience is a vital and necessary contribution
to the education of youth.
Defining Camp's Educational Role
Camp successfully merges the disciplines of recreation and education
in an outdoor setting. The means of camp, outdoor experiences, are recreational;
the ends of camp are educational. Historically, these educational objectives
have carried the camp experience beyond academic, athletic, or theological
issues to focus on attitudes. Your camp has the unique opportunity to
help youth acquire and strengthen attitudes and spiritual consciousness
upon which the school, team, and the church can build. Changing attitudes
that campers like Pat arrive with and fostering new ones comprise the
unique educational mission of camp.
A focus on attitudes
Given the current menagerie of negative and positive forces competing to influence
and capture youth's attitudes, your camp's educational mission is critical
to the development of today's youth.
Developmental psychology informs us that the primary task of childhood
is to develop a sense of self and an attachment to the family. In adolescence,
the task becomes transforming that sense of self by connecting it with
the world. For adolescents, emerging into society is filled with many
overwhelming tasks, which include clarifying the meaning of male or female,
belonging to a particular ethnic tradition, being a citizen of this national
community, or living on this tiny planet in an expanding universe. Such
complex tasks are not accomplished by just growing older. Children need
to be nurtured and guided by purposefulness that will form their attitudes
and help them develop into contributing members of our communities.
Camp Shapes the Soul
Successful passage into the rough waters of society hinges on the development
of an adolescent's soul. David Oldfield, in his article "The Journey
of the Adolescent Soul," identifies five significant phases in this passage
from childhood to adulthood. The journey begins with the soul awakening
to itself. The individual becomes aware of his/her power, choice, independence,
and direction. With this awakening, the individual moves next to seek
his/her own path, independent of family and peers. This journeying into
new territory brings the individual into the third phase of this passage,
trials and obstacles, which are essential elements in the soul's discovery
of its uniqueness and its place in the community.
Following these experiences of testing come a time for self-reflection
and integration where the lessons learned from these difficulties can
be incorporated into the individual's life direction. The fourth step
is followed by the last phase of the adolescent's journey: a ceremony
or formal acknowledgment of growth. Rituals and ceremonies provide significant
markers, anchoring these moments of growth. Helping youth along this
journey of discovery is at the center of camp's educational mission.
Recognizing the dangers
Unfortunately, in our culture there are few structured opportunities
to assist adolescents through this coming-of-age journey. A failure to
honor the inward passage of adolescence with vision quests or dream walks
often allows the volatile energy of youth to seek its own path. The Carnegie
Council on Adolescent Development warns that the nation is "neglecting
its 19 million young adolescents to such an extent that half of them
may be irrevocably damaging their chances for productive and healthy
futures." Increasing rates of suicide, homicide, smoking, alcohol use
and abuse, and teenage pregnancy all point to the absence of appropriate
programs for directing this youthful creative energy.
Camp is one of the few effective institutions uniquely positioned to shape
and guide the development of the adolescent soul. Adventure activities in
the mountains, deserts, lakes, or oceans provide natural attractions and
space for the energized explorations of youth. This journey begins with the
separation from home for a day, a week, or a season. With this independence
comes empowerment. The individual becomes aware of choices and the responsibility
for individual direction. With choices and power, the soul begins to emerge
as it seeks its own path in setting goals, planning its day, and choosing
its associates. Trials and obstacles appear in the adventure activities and
the group that is working through them.
In this struggle, the individual learns from experience what is real,
what is valuable, and what really matters. These insights become crystallized
through the guidance of sensitive, attuned counselors who lead discussions
at the end of an activity or at the end of the day, and through those
individual moments of quiet reflection that come when the lights go out
or before the sun rises.
The Value of Challenge
Two factors are critical in camp programming, the content of the values
that shape and inform the camper and the degree of challenge in the program.
Today, camps focus on the sense of adventure, which is so important to
the success of the program. Keeping youth invested in your camp program
long enough to significantly impact their development depends on the
sense of adventure you create at camp. The aura of adventure begins with
the perception of a journey or experience into the unknown. So often
in providing activities from season to season, it is easy for this sense
of adventure to get lost in the routine. It takes a good counselor, an
intentional program director, and a mission-driven camp director to use
the routine to identify new challenges and implement them into programs.
Given the dynamics of a new group of people in an outdoor setting, each
presents the opportunity of providing a journey into the unknown.
Creating new learning
The challenge experienced in adventure activities creates the opportunity for
new learning that is so essential to campers. You can see the process happening
in the changes that took place with the apathetic camper, Pat, until he was
drawn into a sailing regatta. In the process of the regatta and the challenge
with which he was confronted, his behavior changed.
In the heat of the regatta, Pat's old behavior patterns were interrupted.
They did not work; these patterns were really in the way. Without even
realizing it, Pat began to generate and install more positive patterns
to replace the old unproductive ones. In an effort to win and do his
part, Pat began to look for better solutions. He began to find answers
for himself instead of what had been defined as "cool" by his peers at
When he returned to the dock at the conclusion of the regatta, he felt
different. It would take some reflection on his part and some guidance
on the part of his cabin counselor to help him get a better handle on
what he had learned. What he knew at that moment was that something had
bloomed in him to make him aware of courage, choice, creativity, and
power. A balance was born between the demands and opportunities of the
outside world and the needs of his soul.
At the end of your camp session, appropriate ceremonies can mark the
significance of the camp events that helped campers return home with
more independence, more consideration for those who are different, and
more willingness to join together to create a better life for all. Your
camp program can provide an effective structure for nurturing the development
of the adolescent soul.
Lloyd Griffith is the director of YMCA Camp Sea Gull
in Arapahoe, North Carolina.
Originally published in the 1999 May/June
issue of Camping Magazine.