There's a summer camp where kids do whatever they want, with whomever they want, all day long, as long as they aren't physically endangering anyone or putting anyone down. There are no bed times. Kids can bring cell phones (though they use them only sparingly). They can invent their own programs or just sit around talking with one another all day. It's called the Stomping Ground, and it's where I work.
Now, we didn't come up with these ideas on our own, and we didn't adopt them all at first. I began thinking about giving kids more freedom and choice when I first read Instead of Education by John Holt. I picked the book up when I first became a father. I had to close it when he began to argue that kids might be capable of learning everything they need without adults forcing them. As a certified teacher, this idea was counter to everything I had been taught. I did like the general idea, though, and soon we began to experiment with more choice and freedom as it pertains to camp.
As I dug deeper, I learned about Sudbury Schools (2015), where young people go their whole childhoods without any enforced curriculum and still wind up leading fantastically fulfilled lives. Later, I encountered the work of Richard Ryan and his "Self-determination Theory" (2015), and it seemed to scientifically support the general direction we were headed philosophically. That is, we can serve children best by supporting their intrinsic motivations instead of trying to shape their motivations and interests to what we as adults think is best. So, over time, we became a camp that asks only that kids be kind to one another and safe.
To a lot of people, what we're doing doesn't sound like camp. Heck, if I explained how we're doing camp to a clone of myself from 15 years ago, I would have scoffed and offered up many of the same objections some people share with us now.
"How does your camp prepare people for the real world," I might have asked. "Why would anyone try anything new? And what's the point of camp if the campers aren't trying new things, or learning to deal with people they don't want to deal with? Why bother creating a place that's going to make the rest of the world seem like a letdown by comparison?"
Well, maybe those wouldn't have been precisely my words, but they're all criticisms we've heard as we've experimented with this model over the last four years. And, as someone who grew up in (and fell in love with) a very structured small group camp environment, I've had my own share of doubts along the way.
I had a total paradigm shift in my understanding of the "real world." More on that in a second. I've talked to thousands of parents in my tenure as a camp director, and at its core, everything parents want for their children seems to be leading toward that first day their children wake up and there's no one there to tell them what to do.
The way society is currently structured, the model for child development seems to be to get kids in the habit of doing what adults believe to be virtuous behaviors, so by the time they are adults those habits are second nature." And while it all comes from a place of wanting positive outcomes for children, I believe the negative side effects are very serious.
It's back to that "preparing for the real world" thing again. It seems to me that a person's experience of the "real world" is intimately shaped by what they expect it to be.
Most people spend the first 18 to 21 years of their lives being forced to interact with this person or that person, being forced to do a number of things they would rather not do, and being told that life is unfair. So, when they become adults, they have no understanding that the "real world" (that is, the world they are finally allowed to choose for themselves) is actually full of options. At some point, everyone will likely interact with someone who they find to be unpleasant. It will probably happen a number of times. These people will range from annoying to potentially abusive, and it will be uncomfortable.
If people are conditioned to think that they must deal with these people, they'll likely endure their abuse without even understanding that they have a choice. They might try to make a relationship work with someone who frequently yells at them or devalues them. They might stay at a job with an abusive employer. They might accept abuse or sub-par performance from co-workers as inevitable, rather than changeable.
This is a pretty bleak real world, so at Stomping Ground we are trying to prepare children for something else entirely. As Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, once said, "Kids get better at making decisions by making decisions, not by following directions" (2006).
I frankly don't think it's a very controversial statement, but taking it to its logical conclusion is just downright scary for most adults.
Adults have three common fears when it comes to letting kids follow their own inner voice:
- They will only do what's comfortable and not challenge themselves to be bigger and better.
- They will make mistakes that will have negative effects that will last a lifetime.
- They won't learn life's tough lessons and will become spoiled.
Let me share why we think letting kids do what they want actually does a better job of addressing these fears than pre-programming their lives and schedules for them — and how camp can truly empower children, give them confidence, and prepare them to make better decisions long term.
Will Kids Challenge Themselves if We Don't Come Up with Challenges for Them?
Let's start with the "doing things that are comfortable" thing. First of all, I'd like to ask for a little empathy. Trying new things is hard for me, and I'm a pretty-well-off grown-up in my 30s. What if I were to place myself in the shoes of 13-year-old James on that first day of camp? Man. Just showing up at camp and watching my mother drive away was about the hardest thing I had ever done. Did I look stupid? Would I make friends? Would the girls like me?
Camp was the most challenging "new thing" I had ever tried. And the fact is I resented artificial attempts to challenge me in other ways. I didn't want to take swimming lessons; none of my identity was wrapped up in learning the elementary backstroke.
I think adults observe this in their own lives as well. When I'm hunting down an answer to a challenging aspect of my work, I'll stay up way later than I should. I'll seek mentors and hunger for answers. I'll think about ways to solve whatever problem I'm facing while I eat, sleep, and walk my dog. And, when I ultimately find that answer, I'll immediately start looking for a new one. Conquering challenges that we choose is fun!
But challenges I don't care about imposed by others? Ugh! I find filing my taxes challenging, but I get no satisfaction or improved confidence upon completing them. I was a terrible Spanish student because I just didn't care about it. Having to deal with challenges in Spanish class actually made me resent the whole idea of being challenged, and made me want to turn my brain off and veg out.
Like many things, challenges are most meaningful when they are intrinsically motivated and undertaken with consent. Being at camp is already challenging. We don't need mandatory human knots to make it more so.
While we do offer programming choices, we also invite campers to design and run their own programs with our guidance. The only caveat is that they must find five other campers to do their activity with them (so we can maintain our ratios), and we'll also offer some "consulting" if the situation warrants it.
I'll never forget the first time a counselor hung up some sheets of paper with the header: "Camper Activity Ideas." The first signup was a young boy who wanted to take a boat to the other side of the lake — to find velociraptors. I was afraid he'd be mocked and that his idea would never spring to life; instead, he found nearly 20 other campers to accompany him.
Not everyone thought there'd be dinosaurs over there, as you can imagine. A 13-year-old boy came to me and said, "James, there aren't any velociraptors over there. But what if some of us older kids went over? What if we pretended to be the natives on the other side of the lake and we covered ourselves in mud and shook spears?"
So they did. They surprised and delighted the explorers, and it was one of our most memorable camp experiences ever. All we had to do was hang up a sheet and create a safe space to dream, and the kids did the rest.
But What if Kids Make Mistakes?
This is a catch-all question that sums up a huge group of questions we face in running a free-form summer camp. Since we have no bed times, for instance, some parents or other camp directors will ask, "But don't kids just stay up all night? Aren't they useless the next day?"
Well, yes, some do. And then they're really tired. In the safe environment that camp can be, they learn from it.
My guess is you have probably stayed up way too late at some point in your life. If you're a camp person, you've probably even done it at camp. And, if you're a camp person, chances are good that the nights you stayed up way too late are some of your fondest memories.
As an adult, you also likely have the option to stay up as late as you want every single night. You don't do it, though. Why not? Well, at some point, you learned that staying up really late every single night is generally a bad idea.
Why not learn this lesson at camp? Staying up really late and being sleepy during arts and crafts the next day is a darned low consequence to learn an important lesson. I'd much rather my campers experiment with staying up too late when they're 12 so they can have it out of their system by the time they're 25.
Likewise, a camper who chooses to do only certain kinds of activities may regret it someday. And that's okay too! Again, we sharpen our minds and get better at making decisions by making decisions, for better or worse.
If a camper makes a decision he or she later thinks was a bad one, the camper will understand he or she had power over it, and that the power to make a better decision in the future is also his or hers. If, however, a camper is forced to do things he or she doesn't enjoy, that child may simply make the choice not to return to the place where he or she had to do those things. Or the camper might feel helpless and come to expect the adults around him or her to dictate every decision.
At the Stomping Ground, we see ourselves as mentors, being present for kids while they are going through their decision-making process. But to the degree that we can avoid it, we won't make their decisions for them. We simply help them reflect and think things through.
Won't They Become Spoiled?
I understand the fear. If you don't make kids do some things they object to doing, won't they be crushed when faced with life's harsh realities?
That hasn't been our experience at all. You see, when kids are led to believe they are responsible for their own experience in the world, they actually take a lot more ownership over it.
I can recall an instance last summer in particular when a counselor approached me on just the second day of a session. Two boys in his cabin were at each other's throats and tensions were mounting. He was worried they'd get into a fist fight before the day was over.
So we sat down with them and explained that if they were having trouble co-existing peacefully, we could switch their cabins.
But neither wanted to switch. They were each forming powerful and positive relationships with other boys in the cabin, and neither one wanted to start from scratch.
"Well," I said, "if neither of you wants to leave the cabin, we won't make you. But what can we do about this?"
Right before my eyes, two 12-year-old boys mediated their own conflict — explaining the specific behaviors that were bothering them, trying to figure out a way to avoid irritating the other, and also how to avoid reacting harshly when the other behaved in ways that were bothersome.
They did the whole "learn how to be around people you don't like" thing on their terms, because it felt like a valuable thing to do. And it wasn't perfect — they still had disagreements and generally annoyed one another, but their biggest conflicts were behind them. Nurturing is one of the best aspects of running summer camp.
As camp professionals, we are perhaps in the industry that spends the most time per capita asking, "How can we help this child thrive?" We don't worry about standardized tests. We don't worry about behavioral issues in the past or how athletic kids are. We just want them to be happy.
And we're amazing at it. But I still think we can be better.
By distilling camp and child development down to its core elements, I think we can get down to the bottom of what the camp experience really is. I don't think it's archery, canoeing, or even being in nature.
It's learning to be happy in the skin we're in. Learning to form empathy for and authentic connection with others. Learning that, at the end of the day, happiness is possible. And, even more, that we deserve it and can find it.
Kids want all of that. And if we can establish ourselves as partners in the journey to happiness rather than the sculptors who will make them into people who should be happy, we can help them reach this goal faster.
Photos courtesy of Camp DeWolf, Wading River, New York; Camp Manito-wish YMCA, Boulder Junction, Wisconsin; and Camp Tanadoona, Excelsior, Minnesota.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Holt, J. (1983). How children learn. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.
Holt, J. (2004). Instead of education: Ways to help people do things better. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications.
Kohn, A. (2006) Unconditional parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. New York, NY: Atria Books.
Ryan, R.M. (2015). Self-determination theory. Retrieved from www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/
Sudbury Valley School. (2015). The Sudbury model. Retrieved from www.sudval.com/01_ abou_01.html
James Davis is one of the founders of Camp Stomping Ground (www.campstompingground.com) as well as a co-founder of Go Camp Pro (www.gocamp .pro), a community of camp directors. He's worked in camp as a counselor, program director, executive director, and consultant for the last 16 years. Camp Stomping Ground, located in New Jersey, is a purely self-directed camp that serves kids ages six–17 in a mixed-age and free (as possible) environment.