By Scott Arizala
Once upon a time there was a camp counselor that took his junior counselor and their eight kids on a journey. What started as a walk in the woods ended as a profound experience in the development of each person as a member of something bigger: we became a team, a group, a family and community. The art of adventures, expeditions and storytelling comes from two distinct places; 1) the creativity and thoughtfulness of the camp counselor or leader and 2) the desire for community. As a camp counselor I took my cabin group on a trip into the wilderness that included all three elements, we ventured to ÛÏAnimal Island.Û During our journey together we developed as a team, discovered buried treasure, became members of a secret order and learned some life lessons (click here to read the full story). The powerful effects of this journey not only will last a life time for the participants but still have a profound effect on those generations of campers that came after.
Ten years after this experience, I found myself standing in the Dining Hall at my old camp. I was invited by the current directors to help facilitate some of the staff training. As I was reading my notes, a young counselor approached me and asked if I had a minute for him. He told me that the island experience was the most memorable thing he had ever done at camp and it was one of the reasons he was still coming back now. Not only had it instilled in him a sense of stewardship for the earth and the environment, but it had made him feel like a part of something bigger. He just wanted to thank me and to reassure me that because of moments like that I was still affecting campers’ lives today.
Adventures, expeditions and storytelling are an important and hopefully welcome part of the summer camp experience. They are a novel and exciting way to build community, develop life skills like teamwork and responsibility, and they can be used as an important rite of passage.
Adventures are really just pretending. They have the same make-believe quality of a story but they are more interactive and involve a physical aspect like role playing, movement or location. They involve each participant in an intimate way and in a way that would change the adventure if the group was different. For each age group adventures are different.
*For younger campers*, things like buried treasure, saving the world, heroes, and villains still work. They are young enough to engage in the make-believe without it threatening their sense of who they are. They can learn and develop themselves just as easily from a made-up story as they can from real life experience.
*For middle-aged campers*, adventures often need to be related directly to real life or real camp issues and phenomena. This can be mapping an ÛÏundiscoveredÛ part of camp or the area, seeking to explain why a physical feature of camp exists, building, planting, or somehow making camp better. This age group often needs something tangible, something they can look at or describe and feel good about.
*For the oldest campers*, adventures work best when they are connected to dawning developmental milestones, like their search for independence and identity, their development as leaders, and their insatiable drive to be social. Their adventures can be a reenactment of old camp lore, searching to find the meaning in camp stories, or moving from one stage at camp to the next. This age group needs to feel like they are a member, a part of the community, and that they are special in their sameness.
Expeditions are (for our purposes here) simply the act of going somewhere else. Whether it is to an on-camp overnight site or to an off-camp trail, the power of expeditions lies in the removal of the familiar and the change in surroundings. This taps into campers’ simultaneous needs for difference, change and consistency.
Expeditions for each age group pose different logistical and practical considerations. The older they are, the more they should be able to do for themselves. Just figuring out what to take can be an incredible teambuilding exercise. Expeditions enable groups and individuals to count on each other and build a meaningful community. For example, everything from developing different jobs (i.e. water pumping, fire building, cooking food, putting up tents, etc.) to the buddy system during hiking or trips into the woods for a bathroom break create innumerable opportunities for learning and growth. Expeditions are often used for rites of passage at summer camp. Many camps have special fire circles for different age groups, or have a graduated, progressive set of overnight sites and special trips depending on the age. These are all rites of passage, special privileges that have a certain meaning.
Storytelling entails the sharing of the oral history of the camp, the local area, or the legends and myths of the people involved with camp. Many summer camps have a tradition of ghost stories, but these are not necessarily the stories I am referring to. The art of storytelling is more about passing on knowledge, beliefs, and morals. Used in this way, storytelling falls more in line with the concept of Social Stories than it does with scaring campers around the fire with ÛÏThe Legend of the Hatchet Lady.Û Social Stories are stories that educators use to highlight specific issues, problems, skills, or concepts. They offer ways for kids to disassociate and learn from someone else’s experience. Social Stories have a lesson to be learned or a reason to be told. Campers can use these lessons to help them develop a sense of their own morals, values, and belief systems. It is a way to understand cause and effect, consequences, and possibilities.
Teaching the art of storytelling can also give campers an avenue for personal growth, character development, self-expression, developing listening skills and building self-confidence and self-esteem. There are several ways to encourage storytelling. The most effective way to teach and encourage storytelling is to create a culture of supportive listening. This is best achieved by role modeling good listening skills directly for campers and other staff: nod, smile, paraphrase, ask follow up questions, make eye contact, don’t interrupt, etc. Other techniques for encouraging storytelling are to create a special time of the day for storytelling or sharing, sitting around a camp fire (which lends itself naturally to sharing), telling group stories (where each individual takes the story from where the previous person left off) and journaling or creative writing.
Follow a few basic steps to develop an adventure, expedition or story to use at camp:
– Determine what you want your campers to experience. Are you trying to build a tighter community, develop particular life skills, develop a significant rite of passage, or something else?
– What would suit your needs the best? Think about the age group, the time frame, your ability to plan and prepare, the resources you have available, etc.
– What format would work best considering #1 & #2? Do you have time for and can you plan for an expedition? Should you work with a story? Can you build an adventure over the course of the session?
– Create a problem to be solved or mystery to be uncovered. What is the gist of the story, adventure or expedition? What obstacle or challenge needs to be overcome?
– Do the activity and process the events. Always follow up with some discussion. Give it some meaning by talking about what you have experienced and learned.
Adventures, expeditions and stories are great ways to give campers an unbelievable experience that can have meaning in their lives outside of camp. Unfortunately, summer camp may be the only place that kids can have lasting experiences like these. When that young counselor approached me I realized that with some time, energy and a little innovation I had created the magic that affected generations. Even now, there are eight little boys and two teenage counselors that are all grown up, but will still heed the call of the Wolf.
*Scott Arizala is a well-known camping professional who has presented workshops at the ACA Tri-state, Upstate New York, Southern States Camping Conferences. Scott has developed a core curriculum for summer camp staff training and is currently working on a book for educators, caregivers and others working in the world of children. Scott is an independent camp consultant, specializing in training, education, and speaking engagements. Contact Scott for more information.