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The Open Chair: How Camps & Teen Programs Create an Inclusive Culture

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.

Giving Back: How Camps & Teen Programs Teach Kids About Service & Philanthropy

Camps and travel programs alike teach kids the importance of giving back and expose them to multiculturalism and diversity; they take learning far beyond the classroom. Having a can-do attitude will teach children that they can really make a difference. Here and Now recently published a podcast interviewing Ron Lieber, discussing how and why teaching kids about philanthropy will highlight their natural generosity. Lieber suggests starting to converse with children about giving back as early as 3-5 years old, as this is the age kids become curious about the needs of others.

Summer camps teach many remarkable lessons, whether it be independence, cooperation, or how to overcome challenges. One of the lessons camp taught me, which has resonated through the years, is to always give back. As a camper I was given the opportunity to volunteer at a camp nearby that was a summer home to kids with life-threatening illnesses. Connecting with other people who are experiencing harsh situations in life can not only be extremely eye opening but very rewarding as well. Because I was able to make genuine connections to people and the cause itself, I was able to visualize the impact I was making at such a young age. Putting a smile on the children’s faces was absolutely priceless.

Being able to go to camp is a privilege in itself so naturally, there is a sense of genuine gratitude. Many camps embed ways of giving back into their program. One very common example is big/little sister/brother. Older campers take newer campers under their wings and help them adjust to camp while ensuring he/she has a good time. Other camps have kids donate his/her sneakers and shoes at the end of the summer to various causes serving kids in need. In addition, numerous camps incorporate service days or philanthropic events such as swim-a-thons and trips to local camps. Some camps have even developed international service trips for their oldest campers and CITs.

Like camp, teen travel programs also expose adolescents to philanthropy. Service programs, especially those that allow kids to travel and give back to a greater cause, can provide meaning to an adolescent’s summer. Not only does the trip provide a sense of social and civic responsibility, but it also exposes teens to different types of service – helping them find a cause that may resonate with them. Teens can participate in programs with a variety of service components, including constructing shelter and food sources, teaching, wildlife & environmental activism, and more. Participating in service programs allows teens to find projects that he/she can feel passionate about This ultimately creates a situation where the teens can become lifelong supporters of the causes they have been exposed to; even building on this new found passion once they return home. In addition to the physical aspect of performing service, there is an undeniable emotional facet as well. Service programs enable students to connect with the population they’re serving; they are able to build new, special, relationships they would not have otherwise, and be exposed to an aspect of humanity that they may have been sheltered from in the past.

Participating in philanthropic events can help children & teens develop life tools such as problem solving, leadership, and communication. Volunteering also promotes self-esteem and personal growth. Camp and service programs are a great way to jump-start a love for service, and to teach kids & teens the value of giving back.

The Growth Mindset: Developing Skills for Developing Kids

Why do we emphasize skill building at camp? I have worked in different disciplines at different camps in different parts of the country – I have attended specialized sports camps & general camps, teen programs & theatre trips. In every case the camp or program placed a great deal of importance on teaching specific skills to the participating children and teens. As any counselor or trip leader will tell you, this is not done expressly for the campers’ enjoyment. Most kids or teens would be much happier to play a game of knockout than to learn how to make a left-handed layup, and similarly most would prefer to paint a subject of their choice rather than working on specific landscape techniques. And as most of these programs are not training the next generation of superstar athletes, Picassos, or a-list actors, why do they bother to emphasize instruction over simple enjoyment?

The answer is simple: because it’s good for the kids.

The Atlantic recently published an interview with Carol Dweck, in which she discusses the differences between two core beliefs: growth mindset and fixed mindset. These two mindsets affect how people handle challenges and obstacles – fixed mindset is “the belief that one’s abilities were carved in stone and predetermined at birth”, and growth mindset is “the belief that one’s skills & qualities can be cultivated through effort and perseverance”. Unsurprisingly, children who exhibit greater degrees of growth mindset are more receptive to challenges, and are more able to psychologically persevere and eventually overcome daunting obstacles.

The emphasis that camps & teen programs place on instruction and skill-building allows children and adolescents to learn to perform skills that might have seemed unattainable. More importantly, it teaches children and adolescents that they can learn to perform daunting tasks, and develop new skills and abilities. This promotes a growth mindset in children, which will only benefit them as they grow and mature. If a child perceives him or herself as un-athletic, but learns how to catch a fly ball, not only will their confidence be bolstered, but their perception of their own abilities may start to shift as well. Similarly, learning all of the steps to a challenging dance routine, improving breaststroke technique during swim, or developing fluent Spanish language skills on an immersion program, are all ways that children or teens can develop a growth mindset during the summer.

Of course, paramount to this development is the presence of quality instructors who will be able to help these children & teens develop skills and increase their confidence levels. If a camp or program does not have a quality baseball or softball instructor, the un-athletic child might never learn to catch a fly ball. Similarly, if the teen on a Spanish program receives inadequate instruction, they may not drastically improve their Spanish.

At this point, negativity might promote a fixed mindset, and excessive praise might promote what Dweck calls a “false-growth mindset” where the child doesn’t actually develop a growth mindset because they don’t actually witness the growth through experience. The difference between false-growth mindset & growth mindset is the difference between an instructor who says “keep trying”, and one who says “make sure you use both hands”. The second instructor promotes growth mindset, because they maximize the possibility that the child will learn to catch the ball, which in turn provides evidence to the child that this ability (and others) can be developed.

The primary goal of most camps & teen programs is the development of the child or teen. This is why instruction is of such paramount importance to the camps & programs that are tasked with this responsibility. Each camp or program may have a different philosophy or focus – a sports camp is not an arts camp, and an adventure trip in Alaska will be very dissimilar to an art history course in Italy. However, no matter the camp or program, they will hopefully be able to teach specific skills to their campers or participants, and help them develop a growth mindset that will serve them well as they continue to develop and mature.

Outside the Comfort Zone: How Camps & Teen Programs Push Kids to Develop

To be blatantly honest, I do not take many risks. I, like many people, struggle with the idea of change. Maybe it is due to a loss of control, maybe it is due to the uncertainty. Whatever it may be, I stick to my routine. However when I am able to push myself beyond my limits, I am able to grow socially, emotionally, and intellectually. To this day, going abroad was one of the biggest risks I took, and I believe choosing to go was easily one of the best decisions I have ever made because it pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

In an article written in The Atlantic titled Traveling Teaches Students in a Way that Schools Can’t, Amanda Machado highlights how a trip to Ecuador changed her perspective on traveling: “That month in Ecuador did more for my character, education, and sense of identity than any other experience in my early life.” Going abroad had the same effect on me as it did for Machado. Traveling for a semester pushed me out of my comfort zone. With my newfound independence, I assimilated to the new culture and urged myself to try new things. While abroad, I was completely in charge of my own well-being. I learned how to manage a budget, be respectful of other cultures, have proper manners, and how to communicate with the locals.

I believe leaving your comfort zone to experience and learning new things ultimately makes you a more well-rounded person. There is no doubt that people are at ease when they are at home, or in other familiar situations. But as the saying goes – nothing ventured, nothing gained. My unfamiliarity in a new setting became comfort, and I found myself not wanting to leave. This same learning curve applies to many children and teens who experience and benefit from camps & teen programs across the country and the world.

In the camp world, campers are pushed to try new things and broaden their horizons, and for good reason. Individuals grow and learn the most when they are beyond their comfort zone, especially in such a supportive environment. One of my biggest comforts while traveling abroad was that not only was I with three close friends, but I had friends all over Europe. So, when I traveled on the weekends I got to see them. Fortunately, I, like many children, had that same comfort at camp. As the saying goes: camp friends are the best friends. The support I felt from camp friends and staff members throughout my time both as a camper & counselor allowed me to become more comfortable taking risks, which enabled me to grow as a person, and this is true for thousands of children who experience the benefits of camp each summer.

For those who have outgrown camp, teen programs provide an opportunity for middle & high-school aged students, in a similarly supervised and supportive environment, to step beyond their comfort zone and grow during the crucial period of adolescence. Whether this means traveling abroad, working on domestic or international community service projects, or taking challenging summer classes that expand a students’ academic horizons, these programs expose teenage students to new aspects of the world, and new aspects of themselves. During these programs they may discover experiences or activities that will develop into passions, or develop a new perspective on the world around them. These programs are invaluable for fostering teen development, and putting teens in a position to step beyond their comfort zone and grow in a supportive environment.

Trying new things, even for those of us who cherish routine, can be very rewarding and can in turn lead to an extremely positive and beneficial experience. Camps and teen programs encourage self-development and independence by placing kids and teens in supportive environments where they are forced to step outside their comfort zones. While overcoming fear and trying new things, campers are learning to deal with emotions that they have maybe never felt before, and as a result they are growing as individuals.

My experiences abroad helped me develop these skills further – however these skills built upon the foundation that was laid during my experiences at camp and on teen programs, which taught me skills beyond the classroom such as communication, manners, patience, and most importantly how to live in the moment and take risks.

Both travelling and camp teach skills that are not accessible in a classroom setting such as communication, manners, patience, and most importantly how to live in the mome

Election Lessons and Camp: Coming Together, Moving Forward

We are currently on the heels of one of the most divisive and charged election seasons in the history of our country, and certainly the most charged in our young lifetimes. While some are exalted, others are in dismay. Those who feel hurt need time to heal, and those who feel validated are ready to press forward – however one message that has been conveyed by President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and President-Elect Trump in the wake of last night’s election news is vital to the success of our country, and vital to the success of our children: we must learn to work past our differences, and past our pain or sense of vindication, in order to move forward together.

When we send our children to camp, we hope that they will come home happy and more independent. However, we are not so naïve to think that they will not experience disappointments, contention or frustration during their summers away – in fact, part of the reason we send our children to camp is to allow them to face these challenges and work through them in a structured and supportive environment. Every summer, various children struggle with this reality: they feel their counselors are not listening or their bunkmates are not empathizing. And yet, with the help of camp directors and staff, they learn to listen. They may not learn to agree, but they learn to move past their differences. And because they overcome these experiences, they emerge stronger than before.

Similarly, the teens we ask to coexist on their summer programs will ultimately disagree with their fellow travelers. In fact, they may find that they simply do not like some of their program’s other attendees. But they cannot disengage, they cannot act divisively – otherwise that all-important element of any teen program, the fabled “group dynamic”, will simply fall apart. And so they learn to live with one another, and they learn to coexist; with the help of leaders.

Of course I am not comparing the disagreements of teens or campers to the feelings of discord that permeate our nation today. The implications of an election are more visceral, more real and impactful, and farther reaching than any disagreement between campers or any dislike between teens. However, in both cases, the path to a solution is just as clear and just as challenging: we must put aside our differences, unify, and move forward. That is what builds strong campers and strong teens, and that is what will make us a truly strong nation.

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