The question, “You do fully elective, teen-appropriate activity choices? How? Why?!?”, is among the most frequent questions we get asked by other camp directors, mostly because other camps schedule campers by bunk, or some other grouping. Some may allow a couple of electives per day, or give a limited selection to some campers, some of the time. But every camper choosing from every activity, every period? It isn’t really done in traditional summer camps. How do we do it? And more importantly, why do we do it?
We’ll start with the, “How?”, and reveal a bit of an MTC secret. The campers do all the hard work…Our understanding of teenagers tells us that given the choice, our campers select the activities that interest them, challenge them, that look like fun, that their friends are doing, that their parents would like them to do, that their parents would not like them to do (I’m looking at you, “Beginner’s Drumming”), or that just sound intriguing (I’m looking at you, “Yas Queen”). Not sure if you were keeping count, but that is a total of 7 variables, and those are just a few of the possible ideas that go through a camper’s head on sign-up day. Now let’s throw in things like skill level (sorry parents, but your beginner drummer is showing real promise, and has been bumped up to intermediate), activity clashes, and pre-requisites. We’ll call it an even dozen “variables” that influence camper activity choices.
Now let’s consider the numbers - approximately 200 campers, all signing up together. There’s over 35 activities offered, with at least 22 per period. We have a total of 5 elective activity periods per day, and finally, 3 activity weeks per session. Doing the math (keeping in mind I was a history/psych major who spends most of his days wandering around the woods and wondering why his chickens aren’t laying eggs this time of year), we are probably looking at several million schedule possibilities every week. So instead of us creating a super computer the size of a…well, it would probably be the size of a new iPhone these days, but let’s pretend it is the size of a fridge - we just let our campers decide. We have simple three-ring binders for each period, with class lists in each. Campers come through, review the options, and make a choice. They already know what they like, what makes them happy, what their friends also like…etc., etc.
Of course, our staff review all camper schedules, looking for “balance”, which we define as a schedule that has some challenge, is somewhat active, somewhat creative, and somewhat social. Beyond that, our attitude is, “It’s your summer, so it should be your schedule”.
Which leads me into the, “Why?”. I already mentioned that allowing campers to choose activities is going to make them happiest, but it goes beyond that easy answer. We know that developmentally, our campers are becoming increasingly independent. For some of our youngest campers (13, or entering 8th grade), this may be one of the first times in their lives that they have been given significant agency over how they spend their time. For our oldest campers, they have likely had a fair degree of autonomy for some years, and will soon be given a whole lot more when they head off to college. So elective activity choices are a good way of exercising these skills, in a safe setting where bad choices have been eliminated. Further, we know that campers who choose activities they want are more inclined to be fully engaged, willing to accept challenge, and apply themselves. Campers forced into activities they don’t choose (even if it’s something they might otherwise enjoy) are more prone to boredom, frustration, and lack of effort - nothing particularly insightful there, rather just common sense.
Finally, we have a belief, based in an understanding of developmental psychology, that our campers will choose a schedule that challenges them JUST THE RIGHT AMOUNT. Challenge, or learning something, is an essential part of the camp experience. When a challenge is met, this builds resilience, leads to increased self-esteem, and switches on parts of the brain concerned with novel experience, laying down deep and emotionally satisfying memories. But the level of challenge that is right for an individual is hard to pin down. If an activity is too easy, it will lead to boredom. If it’s too hard, it can lead to anxiety. And as they learn, the level changes too. Vygotsky informs us that a learner can move from what is known to what is not known when guided and encouraged by a knowledgeable instructor. By allowing our campers to select their own activities, and the skill level of that activity (beginners, intermediate, advanced), our staff can help ‘keep them in the zone’, so to speak. This is a deeply satisfying place to be, and is another of the many reasons why teenagers need to spend a summer at camp.
I should mention, briefly, that this wouldn’t really be possible with a younger camper population. Of course younger kids still need challenge, and will also benefit from being in this ‘zone of proximal development’ (Vygotsky). But, at a younger age, they aren’t capable of the multiple variable decision making, as compared to adolescents. By limiting our age range, we have freed ourselves up to empower our campers to make their own schedules.
So why do we have a fully elective, individual program? Why wouldn’t we? It honors our adolescent population in multiple ways, and it minimizes the administrative burden. While it isn’t the most efficient use of all our staff and camp resources all the time, it IS the most effective way of allowing our campers to make the most of their summer. And that feels like a really, really good choice.