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73 FEBRUARY 2005
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Summer camps, camp counselors and informal education

Much of the early experience in our field was gained in work in summer camps. Fritz Redl thought that the camp was the ideal format for work with difficult kids, because it allowed the adults and youth to pass through each others' space with some degree of legitimacy. These are extracts from an article by Mark K. Smith.

Summer camps are part of the lives of many middle class young people in the United States. In Britain camps have been associated with Scouting and Guiding, but now there are proposals to offer all 16 year olds the chance to take part. Here we explore the history and nature of organized camping.

Camping out is an experience that every girl and every boy should have. There are certain sides of our nature that will be underdeveloped if we have not the campfire for our teacher. The experience that softens the heart and kindles friendship and the imagination is no less educative than the knowledge that instructs the head. Camping intensifies friendship, and friendship furnishes the motive and the reward of most of our efforts. It doubles our strength for achievement. It gives us most of the joys of life. It is the riches of the spirit and quite as worthy of effort as wealth or learning. Henry S. Curtis (1914: 125-6)

There are more than 12,000 summer camps in the USA catering for some seven million children and young people (aged six to sixteen) each year. Stays can be anything from two to eight weeks. Often set in areas of outstanding natural beauty, they offer a wide range of activities. Campers normally sleep in cabins, and there is usually a range of other permanent buildings including medical and activity centres, a dining hall and a place where the whole camp can meet. Some summer camps cater for adults. Family/resort camps offer programmes of day and evening activities to both children and adults, and special needs camps where the ages of participants can vary greatly.

While various claims are made for organized camping and the activities that have come to be associated with it, the friendships and relationships it helps to cultivate remain, perhaps, the central feature. As Curtis recognized, association is a powerful educative form and is good in itself. But how did the early pioneers come to this understanding, what theory underpins it, and what other claims did they make for camping?

Organized camping. So far we have not defined what we mean by “organized camping”. Mitchell and Meier (1983: 3) define it thus:

[An organized camp is] comprised of a community of persons living together as an organized, democratic group in an outdoor setting. The related educational and recreational activities are supervised by trained staff so as to meet the personal needs and interests of the participants. The camp program consists of the total of all the experiences or events in the camp, whether structured or not. In as much as possible, however, the activities of the camp program should focus on the natural environment and should take advantage of experiences that are inherent to living out-of-doors. Thus, the natural surroundings should contribute significantly to the mental, physical, social and spiritual growth of the camper.

From this, Mitchell and Meier go on to identify four components or principles that apply to the basic philosophy of organized camping:

Organized camping focuses on the natural environment in an outdoor setting. Hence the concern with woodcraft, nature appreciation, ecology and the beauty of the natural environment. The programme consists of the total of all experiences that take place throughout the length of the camp. The unstructured and informal aspects of camp life are as significant as the organized activities. “Living fully in a camp community leads participants into a complete range of relationships, experiences and activities that are part of social and educational growth” (ibid.: 4).

The organized camp revolves around group living experiences in an organized community. Camps are organized around working and living in small groups. Co-operation and teamwork are necessary to meet the requirements of daily life. “Through this group process campers develop skills in co-operating, sharing, decision-making, and assuming leadership and citizenship responsibilities” (op. cit.) (see leadership as a shared process). The idea of 'encampment for citizenship' (Black 1962) has been a significant strand of practice. As Black put it, 'It is one thing to teach about democracy and citizenship. It is another to learn it by living it' (1962: 96).

The organized camp relies on trained and well-qualified staff. The responsibilities involved, and the experiences to be dealt with, entail personnel who are “mature, respect and care for others and [are] interested in working with them”. They need a range of interests and skills, and be capable of “providing guidance and support to campers so that their personal needs and problems receive the very best attention” (op cit.)

Types of camp
Mitchell and Meier (1983) suggest that camps can be classified into five basic types:

Resident or established camps
These are camps in which campers live for a period of time (from a few days to eight or more weeks). Classically they are located in countryside – often by a lake or river. There will be a number of permanent buildings set in their own grounds with food halls, activity rooms and leisure areas. Campers and staff may live in cabins or small residences, or in tepees or tents on wooden platforms. The basic unit is usually around 12-24 campers with their counsellors or leaders. Established camps will usually have a wide range of facilities for outdoor activities including orienteering courses, climbing, ropeways, water sports and so on. There are also likely to be facilities for environmental education.

Trip or travel camps
This type of camping takes the form of travelling (by foot, canoe, covered wagon, bicycle – whatever) and in making camp at a new location each night. Often these locations are made ready in some way for the campers – and may have a range of toilet and washing facilities. One variation, wilderness, pioneer or survival camping, involves a return to more basic forms. Such trips may last a few days “or several months.

Day camps
These camps involve participants commuting from home to the site each day – and are primarily aimed at the younger age ranges. Children are typically picked up by bus after breakfast and returned in the late afternoon. They participate in a range of camping activities, for example, preparing food on a fire, and in the sort of programme opportunities that are open to campers in established camps. Sometimes, they may involve the occasional “sleep-out”. Such camping can often be found in or near metropolitan areas and has been pioneered by not-for-profit organizations such as the Scouts, Camp Fire Girls and YMCAs. However, there has been a significant increase in private provision in recent years. Day camps may be seen as a response to the perceived need for cheaper forms of recreational and developmental provision during school holidays.

Special camps
Some camps focus on a special interest such as drama or science study. Others may focus on the needs of special groups such as diabetics or older citizens.

School camps
These may well use established or regular campsites but are usually organized by the school (often with help from the local camp staff and instructors). They usually entail educational programmes linked to the school curriculum. Often termed “school trips” they may last just a few days or several weeks. One extended variation of this has been the camp school. One example, of this was the experiment conducted by the McMillan sisters in Deptford, London beginning in 1911. It was unusual in that it was situated in an overcrowded urban area and was combined with a clinic and nursery. The “outdoor” setting was seen as a definite improvement on the housing conditions that many of the participants usually experienced, and it offered a variety of opportunities for education (see Margaret McMillan's 1917 moving account). Another example is the Forest School experiment (1929-1938) near Fordingbridge in Hampshire. Heavily influenced by the thinking of Ernest Westlake and notions of woodcraft, this school had no formal classes or standard discipline. It was “a kind of amalgam between a camp, a school and a Scout jamboree” (see van der Eyken and Turner 1969: 141).

There are a number of variations on these basic types – but this does provide us with a useful framework for analysis.

The camp counselor Camp counselors have been a feature of organized camping in North America since the 1920s. General counselors are primarily responsible for the overall activity programme and supervisory care of a specific small group of children or young people (around eight to ten in number). They usually live in the same cabins as the campers and eat their meals with them. Responsible for the general welfare of the campers, they will generally have some capacity to facilitate learning in some special subject area and to develop outdoor skill. They help to develop daily, weekly and seasonal programmes. They are often responsible for the condition of the camp grounds and the supplies and materials used in the camp programmes. The counselor is a classic mix of roles – as Wack commented some seventy five years ago:

A counselor is a personal adviser, mentor, guide, prompter, whose function is to direct, guide, counsel, control, advise and instruct individually, either as a member of a governing body or otherwise. (1925: 1927)

The role allows for considerable opportunities for informal education and for the development of specific abilities and skills. Living with a group of people, sharing their experiences of new activities, and of each other, provides a rich diet of material for informal education. Groups have to learn to co-operate to get through the day. Thrown together, there are inevitable tensions. Some counselors will simply want to smooth these over. Others will look to encourage reflection and some thought about how participants might change themselves and their situations. Camps can both lend some distance to the issues faced by participants, and allow them space to think about them in new ways.

Camp Counselor scope of duties and responsibilities: The range of duties that is expected of a camp counselor is wide. This is illustrated by the following specification for conservation education camp counselor.

The camp counselor

  • Supervises the campers on a 24-hour basis; are responsible for the well-being and health of the campers.

  • Instructs the campers in the core environmental science curricula.

  • Is responsible for the planning of recreational activities.

  • When the supervisor is not present, a conservation camp counselor will be appointed to assume the authority of director in the administration of the camp.

  • Helps organize education and work projects.

  • Draws up daily, weekly and seasonal educational plans.

  • Instructs the campers in the proper handling of tools, guns and recreational equipment.

  • Organizes and supervises field trips.

  • Responsible for vehicle safety.

  • Develops and implements special programs.

  • Participates in regular planning and evaluation meetings.

  • Supervises camper leisure time activities.

  • Registers and orients campers to the camp facility and program.

  • Assists in public relations and, often, serves as camp liaison between the program and parents/sponsors.

  • Maintains a high degree of safety on camp premises and work sites. assists supervisor in inventory of supplies, materials and equipment.

  • Assists supervisor in development of maintenance and construction projects to be carried out by the Operations Division.

Some specialist counselors are also employed to facilitate the development of particular skills, for example, around canoeing, drama, or environmental action. They also have some general duties to perform. In addition, special needs counselors are recruited for those camps catering for those with learning difficulties or different physical needs. Such counselors have to offer care and assistance of a very personal nature – for example washing and taking to the toilet – and able to work with very different abilities and behaviours. Unlike other camps, many of special needs camps also include adult campers who require the same attention and service.

Employment is seasonal and wages are often low – especially for those who do not have specialist qualifications or lack experience. In addition, to having appropriate personal qualities, counselors are normally expected to have some relevant activity skills and to have a first aid qualification. Many camps have training programmes to prepare selected, older campers for future positions as counselors. They also mount “on-the-job” programmes for the many students that work as counselors each year (many of whom come from the UK and elsewhere via programmes such as Camp America). A number of higher education institutions also run more comprehensive courses.

Reproduced from the encyclopaedia of informal education

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