When I meet someone who finds out what we do (we run a really great summer camp for teens!), they usually come back with something like, “And what do you the rest of the year?” While it is tempting to tell them that we just sit on the beach and travel to exotic locations for 8 months of the year, the truth is a little mundane.
In fact, one of the things we spend a lot of time on is talking to potential camp parents – in person, on Skype, on the phone. This is our opportunity to learn about our campers from those who know them best, and for parents to become familiar with us.
During the course of these conversations, one of the most frequently asked questions always seems to be, “How do campers choose activities?” This is a natural question - there are many different ways for summer camps to place campers in activities. Some schedule entire bunks to rotate to different activity areas for one hour blocks, and some camps have parents select activities prior to camp arrival. Alternatively, some camps allow campers to wander from area to area as their interests take them. At MTC, we aim to strike the right balance between freedom of choice and accountability. Campers elect their activities on a weekly basis, are required to attend and participate, and have a limited window of opportunity to switch out of an activity, if they choose.
The question we don’t often get asked, is why do we do it this way? Certainly there are simpler ways to keep everyone busy than having 200+ individuals make 5+ individual choices, and do it again the next week. The answer as to why reflects our overall philosophy of making MTC age-appropriate for teenagers in every aspect of camp life. At MTC we recognize that adolescence is a unique period of development, and the way we schedule activities is one of the many ways we honor this philosophy. We believe that our campers are capable of making the choices that will make them happiest. This is the direct consequence of our requirement that campers fully participate in the activities they choose. Just think about it – if campers are pro-actively planning the way they spend their day, they are much more likely to make the most of each of those learning opportunities.
Taking the concept of an individual’s choice even further, we know that teenagers are developing a true sense of independence and identity. Allowing campers to make their own decisions is our way of respecting and nurturing these new skills. Like most skills, independence requires practice. By removing bad choices, giving campers basic guidelines, and freedom within those guidelines, they get a chance to exercise independence. Sometimes campers make a poor decision – that’s why they get the chance to switch out. There is value in this too, and we encourage campers to try new and different activities that they might simply fail at, be uncomfortable with, or find reason to dislike. Or they might discover a new interest or unearth a hidden skill. You never know unless you try!
In addition, each choice we make about how we spend our time and who we spend it with is closely tied to our identities. A BIG part of the Maine Teen Camp experience is being away from parents, and for most of our campers, being away from anyone who knows you in the “real” world. Being at camp is a chance to truly be yourself, without parents or friends telling your story. So long as campers are active, social, and learning something new or challenging, we are happy for them to be themselves. To have parents select activities before camp starts, or to lump all campers together for programming purposes would be a lost opportunity, and a failure on our part. There are plenty of opportunities for community experiences during the summer, and again we strive to balance the growth of the individual, with the sense of belonging to a unique community.
So we leave parents with this: When your camper gets ready to leave for camp this summer, we would ask you pass along a simple piece of advice. Tell your camper to arrive at camp with an open mind, ready for new experiences. They are ready for it (whether they believe it or not), and with guidance and a safe environment, they will do the rest.
Matt & Monique