Transitional Objects — Creating Continuity with the Camp Experience

Anne Henningfeld, MA, CTRS, and Dayana Kupisk, MS
July 2016
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Are you taking this?” a friend asked, thrusting an old stuffed dog my way.

“Of course!” I replied. Turning my life upside down by selling my house, getting married, and going on the road in an RV as a full-time camp consultant was going to require the comfort of my oldest companion: Wrinkles. Wrinkles has been my constant camp companion for 30 years. Wrinkles was there to comfort me in the early camp summers riddled with devastating homesickness, console me after the awkward adolescent camp dances, and keep me grounded in my first camp job leading 13-year-olds on a bike trip across lower Michigan. As a child, I used Wrinkles, a soft, cuddly object, to soothe and comfort myself. As an adult, Wrinkles represents the place where I am my authentic, best self, no matter where the RV is parked.

In my previous life as a camp director, I often advised parents to send their children to camp with transitional objects — comforting representations (and reminders) of important pieces of their lives back home. A childhood transitional object can relieve anxiety in a camper who is struggling to reconcile the home experience with that of the camp experience, especially at bedtime (Winnicott, 1953). Working in camps, I was no stranger to dealing with cases of homesickness. These experiences opened my eyes to those children who were not homesick, who were not so lucky to miss those they’d left behind in the “real world.” These were the same children who began to act out towards the end of a session — starting fights or running away — or the children who would quietly ask why camp wasn’t “always.” These children needed transitional objects too, ones that could help them through the long winter of “camp-sickness.” They needed camp transitional objects.

What Are Transitional Objects?

Transitional objects have most commonly been studied in relation to a young child’s first real attachment to a “not-me” item (Galligan, 1994). As infants learn to become more autonomous from their mothers, these transitional objects serve as a continuation between the dependent world of their early months to the new, more individual world they are creating. A childhood transitional object such as a blanket, or a stuffed animal like Wrinkles, is a bridge between the closeness of family and the separation that occurs when entering the external world.

While research on transitional objects remains minimal, the significance of these objects is considered to last over time and into adulthood (Galligan, 1994). They are sometimes even presented as transitional phenomena, which are not tangible objects, but rather, experiences that serve to meet the same need for comfort, safety, and feelings of home. For example, as adults, we may play songs from our youth that remind us of a summer day on the lake with friends or cook a meal akin to one made by our grandmothers. As we grow older, however, transitional objects serve different purposes. As Galligan notes, for complex-thinking adults, a tangible, comforting possession can serve both to connect us to a safe past and to safely move us forward toward new experiences. In a similar light, a camp transitional object may serve as a bridge between the closeness campers experience at camp and the separation they encounter after camp. Such a transition may be particularly salient for those youth who are not returning to environments that feel safe or stress-free.

Jason is a classic example of a child who may benefit from a camp transitional object. Jason is living with hemophilia and attends an annual hemophilia camp where each year he has had the opportunity to meet others who face the same challenges as he, develop meaningful friendships with other boys, push himself physically in a safe environment, and develop strong leadership skills. At camp, Jason is outgoing, well-liked, and popular despite spending a great deal of time in the camp health center with hemophilia-related health issues each summer.

At home, however, Jason struggles with school due to absenteeism, an effect of his hemophilia. As a child, his frequent hospitalizations made it difficult to make friends. As a result, his social group is small and mostly consists of family members. Jason is described as quiet and unmotivated by his teachers. When asked about career plans, Jason says he doesn’t care what he does, as long as he gets to go to camp every summer. Instead of utilizing the skills he has developed at camp in the larger world, Jason sees camp as the only place he can be an outgoing, well-liked leader. Jason has no bridge between his camp self and the self he presents to the rest of the world back home.

Camp Transitional Objects

Camp transitional objects are ones that create a bridge between the children’s camp experience and their home life. This can take many forms: an item from a camp traditions ceremony, a lanyard made in arts and crafts, or a handmade gift from a cabin mate. A camp transitional object may even emerge as a transitional phenomenon in the form of a perceptual experience such as a song or a campfire. Camp transitional objects are a necessary part of assisting campers, especially those with difficult lives outside of camp, to maintain their best camp selves in the real world.

Winnicott (1953) viewed creating transitional objects as an important step toward initiating a relationship between a child and the world. This process, referred to as the separation-individuation process, allows an individual to move away from his or her comforting environment while continuing to retain a part of him or herself. In Jason’s case, having a tool that allows him to harness his “camp self” (an outgoing, motivated role-model) back at home would serve not only to create continuity with his camp experience, but possibly to encourage more of these strengths-based qualities outside of the camp environment.

How to Co-Create Meaningful Camp Transitional Objects

It is important to note that for an item to become a transitional object it must come from the camper’s environment, be chosen by the camper, and be identified as meaningful. Just as we surround babies with blankets and plush toys with no guess as to which one may become the transitional object, we must surround our campers with opportunities to choose their own camp transitional object. There must be a co-creation; that is, the camp must provide the object and the opportunity, and the camper must imbue the object with meaning. This does not mean we should throw as many camp trinkets as we can at campers and see if anything sticks. It means we should be intentional about how we approach the creation and processing related to camp transitional objects. This requires setting up age-appropriate, authentic experiences and training staff to help children identify the objects they are instilling with meaning.

It is necessary, then, to create an awareness within camps that acknowledges transitional objects and the purpose they serve while also equipping staff with skills necessary to help create them. Two vital parts go into creating an environment in which campers can connect with a camp transitional object. The first is program design and administration, and the second is staff intentionality. Members of the camp leadership team have a valuable role to play in both pieces, starting with designing staff training that instills the importance of camp transitional objects.

Program Design and Administration

Well-equipped staff make strong co-creators of camp transitional objects.

Staff Training
For staff to be able to identify meaningful camp transitional objects with campers they must first buy into camp as a formative experience. Spending time during staff training to allow staff to have meaningful camp experiences themselves can help facilitate this process. Team-building exercises, responding to journal questions around a campfire, and creating camp memories will allow staff to have the same type of formative experience we hope our campers will undergo. Trainers should then provide staff with opportunities to co-create their own transitional objects. Programs such as the Ragger Program, utilized by some YMCA camps (see the Ragger Program sidebar), can be done prior to camp or during staff training, as can many other rituals that are traditionally planned for campers. Throughout these experiences, directors and senior staff can model intentional conversations about the significance of transitional objects by highlighting that staff themselves are not too old to create meaningful objects that promote continuity between their many adult commitments (camp, school, work, etc.).

Camp Traditions
Camp traditions are very effective for creating transitional objects. Rethinking current traditions with a focus on transitional objects may yield some interesting results. One camp I work with draws a small eagle footprint on the hand of each child while they sleep on the final night of camp. This eagle mark corresponds to a camp song about strength and bravery. Imagine if the campers felt empowered to draw their own eagle footprint on their luggage tags, on their camp T-shirt, or, perhaps later, in a school notebook when they need to tap into the strength and bravery they felt at camp. There are many ways this camp could take that eagle mark just one step further and co-create a transitional object with their campers.

Program Areas
Program staff often don’t recognize the opportunity for co-creating transitional objects despite having a great deal of potential to do so as they teach the “hard” skills camp has to offer. Some of the most powerful camp moments come when a camper discovers he or she is good at archery, perseveres through a challenging wall climb, or swims across the lake. Transitional objects co-created within program areas offer concrete memories for the “campsick” camper at home. Each program area needs to have an intentionally designed object that can serve as a camp transitional object for those who most identify with that particular activity. For instance, at archery, a child could be given the portion of the target that shows his or her first bull’s-eye. At the waterfront, campers could collect a small sample of beach sand to keep or be given the buddy tag signifying their passing into deep-water swimming. Ultimately, it is up to these staff to ensure the objects that come out of their program area are not simply memorabilia or knick-knacks, but have the opportunity to be something more. Collaborating with program staff to develop these objects before the start of camp can be one way to help staff invest in the idea of transitional objects.

Staff Intentionality

As effective as camp ceremonies can be at co-creating transitional objects, they will yield even better results when paired with intentional conversation from the cabin counselor about the strengths each camper has gained while at camp. Staff must be trained to identify the positive changes they see in their campers and how to talk about these changes. I came away from camp one summer with a small leather circle on a brown necklace of plastic lanyard. Handwritten in marker on one side was the year and on the other a letter indicating the group I was part of. Returning campers brought their lanyards year after year and collected these leather circles. When I returned home I couldn’t stop looking at my lanyard. Unlike my neighbors or my sister, I had been a member of that group in that year. That piece of leather reminded me I was capable of starting a fire, and I knew how to build a shelter. I was strong enough to lift logs and smart enough to identify poison ivy. That little brown piece of leather proved all year long that there was a place I belonged. Much of the meaning bestowed upon that piece of leather has come upon reflection, but camp staff can plant the seeds of those reflections immediately, from the minute they place the necklace around the camper’s neck. A simple, “Welcome to the camp family,” or “You are a good cabin mate” can stay with a child for a long time. Brainstorming ideas with staff to come up with phrases that are authentic to a particular camp and to each child can be an important training exercise (refer to the Intentional Phrasing for Co-Creating Camp Transitional Objects sidebar).

Beyond Camp

For campers, transitional objects can symbolize the stress of growth, of separation, and of relationships with the world in a safe place. This is a tall order for something like a whistle given to a camper at the completion of a junior lifeguard course. However, when examined under the lens of transitional objects, that whistle can represent physical strength, a changing adolescent body now capable of diving to the bottom of the pool, or the responsibility of a camper to apply strength and growth to a life outside of camp. Camp staff are in a unique position to facilitate the development of such objects and to encourage intentional dialogue about the deeper meaning behind camp experiences and objects. To do so, camp staff must engage in intentional training in creating these objects. Such training will result in campers who are equipped with easily accessible and personally meaningful tools that will ease their transitions after camp. Moreover, campers who have co-created transitional objects will be better equipped to bring their new strengths and their best camp selves into their daily lives at home and at school long after camp has ended.

Ragger Program
The Ragger Program was started in 1914 by Thomas Caldwell of the Oakland, California, YMCA. This program uses different color handkerchiefs, known as rags, as outward symbols of inner, personal challenges taken on by the candidates. Candidates work one-on-one with a counselor who has also participated in the Ragger Program as they prepare to accept their rag. The Ragger ceremony is intentionally designed to be highly emotionally charged and inspirational for participants (Christian Leadership Conferences, 2015). This type of ceremony, paired with one-on-one counsel, provides a robust opportunity for campers to view their rag as a camp transitional object.

 

Intentional Phrasing for Co-Creating Camp Transitional Objects
Questions to help campers imbue objects with meaning:
  • How do you feel about yourself when you look at/touch/smell your object?
  • What will you remember about camp when you look at your object?
  • What does your object represent about you?
  • What character traits did you develop at camp? How will your object help you remember those traits at home?
Affirmations to use during camp or cabin ceremonies:
  • You belong.
  • You are part of the camp family.
  • You are a good friend/camper/leader/person.
  • I will miss having you in my cabin.
  • You are smart/kind/empathetic/strong.
  • You are special.

Photo courtesy of Camp Imua, Kahului, Hawaii

References
Christian Leadership Conferences. (2015). Rags and leathers. Retrieved from christianleadershipconf.org/rags
Galligan, A.C. (1994). Transitional objects: A review of the literature. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 7(4), 5–14; quiz 15–16.
Winnicott, D.W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena — a study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, Part 2, 89–97.


Anne Henningfeld, MA, CTRS, is the managing partner of Beyond Recreation, a consulting firm dedicated to creating meaningful connections through recreation. She has directed several camps, including Camp Bold Eagle, the oldest camp for children with bleeding disorders in the country. She currently presents staff trainings and other programming at camps across the country with her partner Michael Jay Garner.

Dayana Kupisk, MS, is a doctoral student in the department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies the role of practical wisdom in high-quality youth programming. She has experience developing and presenting programming for at-risk and medically specialized youth populations.