The images evoked by the thought of camping may include starlit skies, fire flies, chirping birds, camp fire smoke, roasted marshmallows, midnight swimming and black flies; a myriad of experience for our senses. For me it also means recharging, experiencing nature and sleeping in the fresh air.
For the past eight summers I have camped with the youth with whom I work; most of whom reside in residential treatment. I believe that this time is essential to their growth as children and their time in treatment. It is important because for these few days each summer treatment routines (bedtimes, chore times etc.) are scrapped in favour of camping routines. All of the youth help out around the campsite. There are different responsibilities and we all pitch in to ensure that these are done. There have been more than a few occasions when I am struck by the impact that doing with in this locale has on relationship development.
The youngsters who are not usually allowed extended time in the community are spending time alone walking the trails around the secluded campsite. Those who are monitored when they are at the store are given their money and stand alone in line at the canteen. This environment – so different from their day to day life affords them opportunity that we could not set up if we wanted to – and it is real, just so dramatically different from home.
Nights spent by the campfire watching the flames dance and listening to the wood sing evokes conversation about times spent with family, about fears of the dark, about silence. Forgetting to pack the glasses provides Will with the opportunity to use a jack knife to cut aluminium cans into tumblers. A skill not recognized for its importance in town. Jane, scared to walk alone to the outhouse opens herself up to support in a way that we have been nurturing for months, and suddenly, she is initiating – not resisting. Anna, who struggles with personal hygiene, is legitimate in smelling a bit woodsy here, and the nag which is a part of her day, “did you shower? Don’t forget to put on your deodorant." is absent for a few days.
And then there are the bugs. Who would think that bugs could provide opportunity for teaching, and learning? Teaching that it is important to remember to zipper your tent; learning that taking care of yourself by putting on bug spray is wise in the wilderness.
This time also gives children, who usually see us for a, “shift” a chance to experience us 24 hours a day. This also impacts beyond articulation on relationship development. That Youth Care Worker, who is usually perky and cheery first thing in the morning, is really a bear until her first cup of coffee. Those who are rarely around for bedtime tuck-in are discovered to be wonderful story tellers. Things shift. Children play, Youth Care Workers read, and everyone swims; such a change from the daily routines, treatment planning and shut office doors. Brushing your teeth side by side two children who yesterday you watched swim in a lake for their first time ever is a powerful experience; a privilege really.
Then there are the memories built from this shared experience. The picture albums are made upon return and referred to time and time again. The memory of experience of self and other, that risk we took together – that risk you took alone. Knowing we were there together lets us revisit silently or out loud those experiences that we need to draw on when we return in order that we can tackle something new – or old; with the same gusto we displayed in the woods.
“When we were camping I remember that you swam all the way out to the buoy,” may be heard from a Youth Care Worker. “When we were camping I remember you scratched my back until I fell asleep,” may be heard from a child. “When we were camping we had so much fun,” will be heard by both.