The Metaphors That Camp Lives By

February 12, 2015
Hiking in the fog

by Mark Shivers 

In my time training summer staff, one of the most important and powerful practices has been working towards identity formation through metaphor development. Metaphor is much more than a literary trope that we learned to identify in middle school English class (for a quick introduction to metaphor, check out this excellent Ted Talk). In the groundbreaking work, Metaphors We Live ByLakoff and Johnson argue that metaphors actually govern our conceptual systems which play a major role in determining our practices. 

A classic example is the metaphor of "Argument as War." We see this play out in news debates, talk radio and even arguments about sports teams. If argument is treated like war, the goal is to shoot down the enemy's proposal, demolish their argument and attack every weak point. When this occurs, one party wins the argument. What if, however, the metaphor was changed? What if the metaphor changed to "argument as dance?" All of sudden each party would view the other as someone they need to create something new and beautiful, something they could not have created alone. What a huge difference! 

What are the metaphors that structure the conceptual systems at our summer camps? Which ones work to support our values/goals and which ones implicitly work to undermine or derail our mission? A classic example is "Color War as Battle." If our color wars are treated as a battle, campers can become the winners and the defeated (and quickly begin to see themselves that way). Each side has generals and captains. Even while we keep our cheers and chants "positive" and say it's just about having fun, the overarching goal is still to win through careful strategy and precise execution. 

This type of conceptual system seeps into everything in camp life. Staff ask why the orange team always gets all the bigger kids and why the blue team does the same skit week after week but still wins the skit show. At the end of the summer, they tally how many times their team won the spirit flag and whisper about favoritism (even if it seems in good fun). It's a powerful system because it's what staff and campers operate in on a day to day basis. I vividly remember being a camper and failing to score during a Wednesday night activity. When I returned to the cabin, it was clear that the kids on my team viewed the Color War as serious battle and that I was a failed and disgraced soldier. When your 9 years old, these things stick with you.

So if "Color War as Battle" is not the healthiest metaphor for your particular mission at camp, what might be an alternative? Changing the name would be a good start so that it's no longer a Color War. What if we focused more on the idea of colors? Teambuilding games help colors grow stronger and only when your team color has filled in can your team work with other colors to create blending that could not have existed alone? Staff work together so that skits built on each other instead of competing so that campers realized the beauty of diversity. Cheers could work towards harmonies and point scales reimagined.  

Some may argue this does not prepare students to operate within the realities of the real world. After all, the world has necessary games and systems that campers will have to return to participate in so why not help them learn how to play these games gracefully and with love? That's certainly one way of approach. On the other hand, however, camps can also work to create alternative worlds that have different and more just systems and practices. These worlds can be a flawed but ever growing picture of how the world can be if metaphors of love, hope and justice were prevalent.

Metaphors not only structure our world at large, they have particular and powerful influence on our summer camp atmospheres and operations. The metaphors we develop and begin to live into during staff training will work to define the everyday realities, language and experiences of both staff and campers.

Mark Shivers has served as director in faith-based, YMCA and Higher Education summer programs including both resident and day camps. Mark holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Homiletics and Liturgics.

Photo courtesy of Cheley Colorado Camps, Estes Park, Colorado.