The Blog of the West Wind

The Blog of the West Wind

Defining Our Terms

Tuesday, January 29, 2008/by Chuck Mills/Go Back

We've been attending a number of camp fairs again this winter and I've been struck once again by the breadth, though not the depth, of summer opportunities out there for our kids. There are sports camps, e-magination camps (whatever that is), computer camps, performing arts camps, day camps, overnight camps, sports camps, travel programs that take kids to Peru and Africa, teen camps....

Camps, camps, camps. Seeing the word in action has also got me thinking about my desire to see a language police out there, combing the streets, the internet, and the school cafeterias for mis-uses and abuses of the language. Maybe I'm just being over-sensitive, but I think it's time we camps - the REAL camps - take back the word! Is spending a week on a college campus, living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food, playing soccer and/or basketball and/or lacrosse every day all day "camp"? Is sitting in darkened rooms working on computers, or shooting videos during the day and going home at night... is that "camp"? I think not. What makes a camp a camp?

For parents looking for meaningful experiences for their kids, it has to be confusing. The waters are clouded and cluttered. Experience talking with parents at these fairs indicates to me that such language abuse (!) re-enforces our culture's penchant for focusing on "keeping them busy" through the summer months. I had a mom stop by at a recent fair who stated very clearly, and without so much as a how-do-you-do? that what she needed was care for her seven-year-old, after August 15. "July and August are covered; I just need something after the 15th of August."

What are we doing?!

As I think I've spouted elsewhere, let's begin the conversation with, who is your kid and what do you want for him or her in a summer experience? The length of the session is a detail after the type of experience promised by a particular program. But I bet, if anybody is reading this, I'm talking to the proverbial choir...

I do know this: camp means something to us at Kabeyun, and I know it means a great deal to many worthwhile programs out there. A new Kabeyun parent recently sent me this quote:

In the early 20th century, Charles William Eliot, then-President of Harvard University, called summer camp, "...America's most important contribution to the field of education." In the same treatise, he wrote, "I have a conviction that a few weeks spent in a well-organized summer camp may be of more value educationally than a whole year of formal school work." Eliot observed the many benefits of camping - heightened self-esteem, increased self-confidence, skill development, opportunity for socialization and enhanced physical fitness, to name a few - that continue to attract families to resident camping today.

More valuable than a "whole year of formal school work". He's not talking about a week of computer work; he's not talking about two weeks of lacrosse, or soccer. The plethora of fragmentation programs available now were simply not in existence back then. He's talking about eight weeks in the woods, away from parents and in the care of skilled craftsmen and woodsmen and adventurers; he's talking about a solid period of time, an extended period of time within which a young person can be himself; find himself; and learn skills that are not available to him during the rest of his year. Canoeing, hiking, working through conflicts without the watchful, protective eye of his parent; working on a project of his own design, learning new skills, accepting new challenfges and taking personal risks under the watchful eye of OTHER caring adults; making friends and living with others who could never be their friends...

He's talking about Kabeyun! I want to shout these ideas from the mountaintops in an effort to educate families. But wouldn't it appear merely self-serving to do so? Where are the voices in our society standing up for the value of these experiences? They are out-shouted by the sheer number of "summer opportunities" looking to keep them entertained; looking to extend the school year; looking to provide a service they perceive as needed - fancy child care, child care with a focus, be it video production or soccer or tennis. If we can keep them busy, we can last until the family vacation (a good thing) or until school begins again.

Kabeyun, and other camps with a similar mission, seeks to strengthen and support the growth of each child, working in a thoughtful partnership with parents and families to do the best for each child. For certain, any summer opportunity out there can say the same thing, and they do indeed, but what does it really mean? What does it really look like beyond the words? What do we really want for our kids? What kind of experience will serve them best?