Chill Out!

Bob Ditter
January 2017

Dear Bob,

I have heard you talk about creating a space for campers who may need a time-out at camp because of their behavior. Can you expand on this idea? How do we set up such a space, what might we equip it with, how do we present it to campers, how do we explain it to parents, and how do we get staff to use it appropriately rather than as a "dumping ground?"

Need Relief!

Dear Relief,

I am glad that you e-mailed me about something that I think is a potentially valuable and underutilized resource at both day and resident camps. Before I answer your questions about creating such a space, let me talk about what a "chill out" space is and what it is not.

I couldn't help but notice that you referred to the need some campers may have to lower their stress levels as a "time-out." To be clear with both parents and staff about what this resource is and how to use it, you must first understand that it is not a response or reaction to a specific behavior at camp — which is what a time-out traditionally is — but rather a proactive method for helping campers get the most out of camp by giving them a chance to catch their breath and center themselves. The idea of a relaxed space is to give campers a place where they can take a break from the demands and give-and-take of camp's rich social scene.

Wonderful as it is, camp can also be stressful for some kids who work extra hard to manage their impulses or navigate the social complexities of camp.

After all, camp presents children with new caretakers, new friends, and a totally new environment with a brand new schedule and set of routines, all at once. Most campers can adjust to these changes fairly well in a short period of time. For other campers, adjustment to this environment is much more challenging. A "chill out" space gives these campers a way to regain their equilibrium and recharge their batteries so they can put their best self forward when they are back with their group or in regular camp activities. Such a space is not a place of punishment, but an insurance policy — a way for campers to catch their breath and rejoin the program refreshed.

The idea for having such a space came to me from the days of America's Camp, the coed resident camp that several New England camp directors formed in response to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. The children who attended America's Camp had each lost a parent — and, in a few cases, both parents — either on the airplanes or in the twin towers. They were traumatized by the devastating loss and by the pubic nature of it. We found that by having what we called "Buddy Central," a place that housed coloring books, drawing materials, puppets, soft chairs, stuffed animals, and what we called the "volcano room" (see sidebar on page 18), the campers were better able to regulate the understandably strong emotions that arise when your parent is suddenly ripped away from you. We found that many of the children simply needed some time in a less stimulating and more soothing environment, and if they got that down time, they were much better able to take advantage of the wonderful things the camp program had to offer. In other words, offering this safe, calm, quiet environment allowed these children to recover their composure, regain their emotional footing, and then rejoin the regular camp program.

Although most children who attend summer camp do not come with as pronounced a history of grief and loss as the campers of America's Camp did, many children could benefit from the opportunity to take a little time away from the usual camp program. Children with moderate or severe attention deficit disorder (ADHD), who work very hard to control their impulses, can be exhausted at camp by mid-afternoon. There are campers who may have a parent who has a life-threatening illness or who may have just lost a parent and, as a result, are trying to manage and compartmentalize those emotions so they, too, can be socially appropriate and present at camp. There are also children whose social skills or social aptitude is such that they have to work harder to find their way through the social complexities of group and community life at camp. These are all examples of children who could benefit from a momentary break from camp.

One important thing to remember is that a "chill out" space is not a place of therapy. The adults who might staff such a place are not there to "open up" issues with children but to give them some respite from the stressors of camp that other children seem to take in stride. It is a resource that people in school would call an "accommodation," in that it enables children to make better use of the camp environment by taking a momentary break from the social or physical demands of camp, recharging their batteries, and then rejoining the action.

One example of such an area comes from my friend, Marge Driscoll, formerly with the American Camp Association, Southern California/Hawaii section who now serves, among other ways, as an ACA accreditation visitor. She shared with me a space she had seen at a wellknown day camp in the Los Angeles area. What Marge described is a free play place with piles of dirt, sand, rocks, sticks, and shrubbery where campers build and play in whatever ways their imaginations direct them. "It was my favorite place in their camp," Marge wrote me.

Another example comes from Camp Towanda, a coed resident camp in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, where Jared Reiter, a member of the camp's senior staff, has put together what he calls their Lego Room. It is a place where some kids elect to come simply to build whatever their imaginations come up with.

These are two examples of less stressful spaces that camps have actually integrated into their elective program.

What resources would a camp put in such a space? Quiet games such as playing cards, Connect Four, checkers, matchbox cars, poker chips, puppets, drawing materials, soft pillows or chairs, and stuffed animals. This is a space where children rest, use their imaginations, and recharge their social-emotional batteries. Rather than avoidance, a chill out space offers an opportunity for children to rejuvenate that permits a more complete engagement afterwards.

Supervision is a must for a space like this, which is, of course, a challenge for camps. One thing I have noticed is that such spaces tend to be in greater demand in the afternoon, possibly because by then some children have become fatigued socially while others who take psycho-stimulant medication may be experiencing a rebound effect in their behavior as their medication wears off. Whatever the case, one camp uses a "camp mom" to oversee its space, while others have a rotating schedule of staff.

In my experience, having a place where children can catch their breath and recharge their batteries has allowed many more children to take advantage of the tremendous benefits of camp — children who might not otherwise be able to enjoy the opportunities camp offers. If camps are truly interested in serving more and more children, they are going to have to consider making accommodations like having a place of respite for certain campers.

The Volcano Room

The volcano room at America's Camp was a place where children who were consumed by their grief would go, accompanied by a trained grief counselor, and use batacas (padded fighting sticks that can be used to hit things safely) to release their fury and rage at having had a parent suddenly ripped from them.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. In the Trenches is sponsored by Easy Street Insurance, Inc.