Learnng Life Skills at Camp

Building Character with Kayaking Fundamentals

Anyone who raises or works with kids can agree on at least one thing:  we ultimately want to help them find a way to lead happy, meaningful and productive lives. There’s so much pressure on kids today, and the focus gets a little skewed at times. The brightest kid in the world isn’t going to be happy if he or she doesn’t know how to do things like make decisions, coexist with others, and bounce back from a challenging experience. This is what self-esteem is all about.

I recently read an interesting article in the NY Times that so beautifully illustrates the importance of experiences like summer camp. The article,  “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” is actually a lot more about understanding and measuring the qualities of good character than what the title suggests, although resiliency is certainly a piece of this puzzle.

The article examines a joint effort to develop a school program that teaches and measures character.  Interestingly, the two educators came from schools serving students at opposite ends of the spectrum, but their concerns are similar. They are striving to help students learn what it means to be a successful human. Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale, one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools; worked along with David Levin, co-founder and superintendent of the KIPP network of charter schools in New York City, whose students are almost all black or Latino and from low-income families.

Intrigued by the book “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, written by professors Martin Seligman of University of Pennsylvania and Christopher Peterson, from the University of Michigan, Randolph and Levin set out to develop a way to foster and measure good character broken down into both performance and moral strengths. In simplest terms, how to “work hard” and “be nice!”

To make this feasible in their schools, Randolph and Levin narrowed down the original 24 measurable qualities to just seven:

1) Zest (enthusiasm)

2) Grit  (stick-to-it-ness)

3) Self-control

4) Social Intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics

and adapt quickly to different social situations)

5) Gratitude

6) Optimism

7) Curiosity

Clearly, camp is the perfect place to learn what it means to be a successful human being! In a controlled environment, we are constantly imparting ideas that help teach perseverance and empathy. These topics are addressed beginning on the first night when we review the rules of camp and do role-playing to illustrate appropriate versus inappropriate behavior. The campers add so much to the discussions that accompany with these activities.  We know they’re thinking about how to treat each other, and that they’ve possibly been on the receiving end of not being treated right. Kids and teens really get this stuff, and want to talk about it; and camp is a safe place to do it. It happens naturally for some while hanging out with their new friends, and it happens intentionally during times such as closing circles in the dorms at Maine Arts Camp. When you live with people, you have to address how to treat one another, or it won’t work–especially when everyone comes from such different backgrounds and life experiences.

I really liked how one of the teachers in the article refers to character during a disciplinary discussion with a student. Asking, “what does that say about your character?” is a great way to frame this type of conversation. It’s a way to eliminate the excuses and get the child or teen to focus on doing what’s “right.” Most kids really want to do what’s right! We try to acknowledge when campers or staff do something good or right whenever we can at camp. One of the fun ways we do this is with our “Catch A Camper Being Good” ceremony done at meals.

If you look at the list of character strengths Randolph and Levin are measuring, they’re all a huge part of every camp day! The day starts with “zest” as the counselors enthusiastically wake the campers, and continues with entertaining announcements and camp songs in the dining hall, right through to the excitement happening in each activity throughout the day. Grit starts with the simple act of going to camp for the first time and getting through it if it’s a little tough. What an accomplishment for a child who’s hardly been away from home! We also encourage kids to try new activities and not worry whether or not they’re good at it. They can’t help but learn something new. Self-control is an interesting one–we spend a lot of time teaching and reinforcing this with some of the younger campers, especially. It’s a crucial skill for living with other people, and perhaps this becomes more obvious to these children when they’re at camp. One of the biggest strengths that we help develop at camp is Social Intelligence. While all camps work on this, a major benefit of being at a small camp like Maine Arts Camp is that counselors can work individually with kids on this–almost like a coach–when needed.

You can read a lot about the character growth parents have witnessed on our testimonial page, and here’s how one of our parents describes her daughter’s growth at camp: “Our daughter loved her experience at MAC and we’re already planning for next year! A much more secure girl came home from camp, loving who she is and celebrating her differences. Thank you for fostering that in her!”

We all need to experience some bumps and bruises along the way to develop character strengths. Why not do it at a place where there’s always a counselor to pick you up, a nurse to apply a bandage, and a whole community ready to hold your hand, feed you s’mores, and sing songs with you around a fire!

See our 2012 Rates & Dates, and call us to discuss how we can help your child build character! (561) 865-4330


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