Tuesday, March 21st 2017
Going to camp or a summer program for the first time will ideally be an exciting prospect for any child or teen. Between the incredible sports & arts activities, the beautiful waterfronts, and the zany special events, camp truly is kid-paradise. Being on a college campus or traveling to a far-off destination to explore, equals independence and exploration for teens. And yet, for many first-timers this excitement is tempered with a certain apprehension, particularly if they won’t know anyone else attending. Social alienation is a real fear for many children and adolescents (not to mention many adults), and for many the idea of going away without knowing who you will be friends with can be downright daunting. At the same time, there is a great deal of value to going to camp or a summer program without existing friends – it allows kids to learn the valuable skill of making brand new friends from scratch, while also provides them a place to grow and explore in an environment that is entirely separate from their home life.
So how do camps and programs ensure that brand new campers and attendees, who don’t know a single other child/teen at camp, will be able to make friends and feel comfortable integrating themselves into a group? At my camp, we have an open chair policy.
The open chair policy is simple: if you are sitting in a group, always leave an open chair as a standing invitation to any who may want to join. The idea behind the policy is to encourage inclusion – the need for a “stranger” to ask to join a group, carry a chair over, and potentially force the group to adjust may be enough of a detraction that some ultimately choose not to include themselves. By always leaving an open chair, the pressures associated with asking to join a group, and the logistical challenges of joining are entirely eliminated. Once that person is comfortably integrated, someone else will bring another open chair to encourage any others who may want to join.
This type of action can truly change the day of someone who is craving social inclusion but doesn’t know exactly how to go about integrating themselves. Children and teens all over the country struggle with feeling socially isolated. By creating a system designed explicitly to break down barriers to inclusion, the open chair policy can make a world of difference to a new camper or (staff member) who is longing to be included.
And of course, this spirit of inclusion can extend well beyond camp. Students at Boca Raton Community High School took a similar initiative when they founded the “We Dine Together” club, which has the simple goal of ensuring that no students are eating alone. These ostensibly “popular” students dedicate their lunch hour to making sure that those eating alone have someone to talk to – creating friendships and breaking down social barriers to create a culture of inclusion.
On teen programs, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on inclusion and integration of a group – in fact, if you ask most teen program veterans what the best part of their trip was, they will often discuss the people before they talk about the activities or places they traveled. This is because teen programs are extremely sensitive to the importance of a successful group dynamic – almost every program will begin with icebreakers and other games designed to allow the students to meet in a low-stakes and friendly atmosphere. During downtime, programs will often schedule activities so students can interact in structured environments without feeling like they need to be “invited”. By creating and stressing a culture of acceptance and inclusion, programs set a tone that the participants will pick up and build upon. Soon, the teens are the ones stressing the ideals of inclusion.
Nobody wants to be left out, and social experiences can be intimidating if you don’t know who to turn to. Luckily, camps and teen programs place an incredible emphasis on inclusion, and as a result they are able to provide a great degree of social support for those who need it. These lessons, and the experience of being a part of such an inclusive and supportive environment, will stay with children and teens through the years and will help them grow into generous and accepting adults – the kind who always leave an open chair.