Not Soccer Camp: The Outlandish Secret Goals of Rowe Center’s Young People’s Camp

by Pippi Kessler

When I tell people I direct the Rowe Center Young People’s Camp (YPC), a summer camp for 8-to-11-year-olds, people often ask, “What kind of camp is it? Is there a lake? Do the kids play soccer? Is it an arts camp?”

I usually handle those questions by being vague. “There’s a lake down the road!” I say. “Sometimes, the kids play soccer and sometimes they make art projects!”

“Yes,” they say, “but what kind of camp is it?”

I’m not trying to be evasive. I know how they feel. I’ve wondered about the same question. What kind of camp is YPC? What are we trying to do? The basic facts are simple: It’s a weeklong overnight camp in the woods. But defining the deeper purpose of what we do — and explaining it to others — isn’t so easy.

It’s not easy because what we’re trying to do is pretty outlandish. My secret list of YPC goals doesn’t mention any camp activities. The word “archery” does not appear. The first goal on the list is that we want YPC to change the world.

Every year at pre-camp, before the kids arrive, I pass out the secret list to the staff.

“This is what we’re going to be doing,” I say.

“What about making collages?” they say.

“That, too.”

It’s important to have goals. Having clear goals helps people work together in unison, to stay on track, and to make decisions based on central values, rather than momentary circumstances.

But what is most important is to have a few goals that are really outrageous. When they’re good, goals create “creative tension.” Creative tension is the sensation we have when our goals call our attention to the difference between how things are and how they could be. Our goals don’t have to be fully achievable to be valuable, as long as our sense of creative tension pushes us to aim higher, and as long as we are compassionate with ourselves about the gap that may exist between what we dream and what might happen.

When I sat down to write the goals for YPC, I thought about my values and dreams, but I also thought about the particular characteristics of our setting. A one-week camp is time-limited, so certain goals aren’t appropriate (like “kids will leave camp fluent in Spanish”). Camp isn’t school so we don’t need to teach them algebra or to operate at a sustainable pace.

When I emerged from my goal-setting session, I had a list of my secret wish-list of goals for YPC. Now, the secret is out. We’re not an archery camp. You can read our goals below, in bold, with my comments underneath.

The goals of YPC are to:

Work to create a more compassionate, just, peaceful, and joyful world by nurturing young people.

Dream big, right? This is the “we want the camp to change the world” goal. This was the very first goal. After I wrote this goal, I realized I had to get more specific about how I wanted YPC to change the world. That led to goal #2:

Affirm the worth and dignity of every human being. We want each camper to feel loved and valued both simply for being human beings and for being particular human beings, each with unique gifts and personalities. We aim to do this by:

  • Promoting the concept of inherent human value,
  • Treating campers with respect and love,
  • Showing them that we care about them through our words and behaviors,
  • Valuing them as human beings in our planning process and staff meetings,
  • Searching for the ways that each camper is uniquely valuable and creating activities that give every personality a chance to shine.

“Inherent value” is the concept that every person is valuable simply for being a human being.

While kids are at YPC, we want to help them feel that they, and all people, are valuable from the moment they are born and that they can never reduce their human value, even if they mess up at a clarinet recital or get a D in gym class. The flip-side of having inherent value is that they can’t increase their value, either, even if they make a lot of money or get a nice haircut. When kids walk up the hill to camp, the first minute we see them, we value them. Done.

Simultaneously, we want them to understand what I call “contextual value.

Even though we have our human value in common, we’re all different. At YPC, we want to help kids start to see their idiosyncrasies and particularities, and to tune in to their natural preferences and skills. The other part of gaining self-knowledge is becoming aware of things that are difficult for us. Hand-eye coordination is really challenging for me, so I’d have lower contextual value on a World Cup team than David Beckham (probably). Knowing that fact doesn’t lower my inherent value, but it helps me make decisions about how to shape my life. Understanding our particularity helps each of us build an adult life where we can contribute to our communities and become more and more like ourselves.

Create an amazing experience for young people that shows them the joy, fun, humor, love, and possibility that lies within them and within the world.

YPC has almost no equipment. We have no archery, no pottery wheel, no boats. We go swimming once. There are no video games. Our goal is to show the kids that being alive is amazing, and that it’s possible to have peak experiences in any setting. Camp is not magic. It’s just a place. The kids themselves generate what they value about the experience. We want them to attribute it to themselves and not to the site or the staff.

Offer campers the opportunity to make independent choices in a space that’s as free as possible.

Learning to make choices is a key developmental task and it can be challenging — even for adults. One of our main programming goals is to provide safe contexts for kids to repeatedly make choices and process the results of their choices. To do this, we encourage them to become aware of their preferences and needs, make safe mistakes, observe the consequences of their choices, and use what they experience to guide their future behaviors. The way we accomplish this is that the majority of the day is composed of one-hour blocks of activity with four choices. Some of the options are active, some restful, some silly. The purpose of the activity is not the activity: it is the process of making a choice, the transformative impact of learning what it feels like to tune in to internal physical and emotional needs, to act autonomously, and to reflect.

Encourage them to express themselves as deeply as they can while balancing their behavior with the needs of their community. Encourage them to think ethically and communally while valuing their own experiences, perceptions, and needs.

At Rowe, we talk about the concept of the “edge” between self-expression and living in a close community where we have an impact on one another. We want them to maximize both priorities and learn to balance them.

Facilitate developmental growth by honoring each developmental stage with skill and compassion.

The secret truth about YPC is that it’s a “developmental moments” camp. It only slightly matters which particular activities the kids do. What matters more is that each child is working through his or her own developmental path. Our goal is to see them where they are and — if they are ready for it — make it safe for them to try the next stage. This means being knowledgeable and skilled about children and childhood. It also means being curious about the particularities of an individual’s developmental path, rather than frustrated by them.

Serve as a counter-narrative to experiences of identity-based oppression.

In a one-week camp, we can’t end systemic oppression. What we can do is push back on oppression as hard as we can in the time that we have as a community. Many of the kids who arrive at camp are beginning to learn that they are expected to perform their gender in only one way, or to design their lives around achieving class status, or to make race-based assumptions about their internal character or that of others. While they are with us, we want them to see that another reality is possible. One strategy we use to do this is to have the staff act against gender type as much as possible. An example of this is that female staff intentionally take assertive leadership positions and run sports activities and male staff model nurturing behavior. This is not to create new stereotypes; it’s an effort to provide counterexamples, to give them at least one persistent visual of behavior that undermines gender rules. The staff also undergoes training about how to actively address instances of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Rather than pretending to be color-blind or gender-blind, we need to take overt counter-action and be honest with one another as adults about how power operates and our role in making change.

Through the experience of working with children and one another, we aim to help staff members grow to be capable, skilled, ethical adults who use their power for good throughout their lives.

The other secret of YPC is that although it is a camp for kids, it’s also leadership training for the teen and young adult staff. As I tell them during pre-camp, working with kids is the closest you can come to taking part in a psychological experiment about how you respond when you are in a position of power over another person. That information is something that every person needs to know about themselves. Knowing how to have and use power effectively and ethically makes us better at every element of our lives: better bosses and employees, better partners, better parents, better community members, and better adults. The theories behind building functional adult-child relationships can be applied to community, organizational, and interpersonal-level dynamics. In other words: getting better at working with kids holds the key to a host of other societal challenges. While it was initially an accidental benefit that staff members learned and grew from their experiences, it’s now become an explicit goal of the camp.

But what kind of camp is it?

Is YPC a sports camp? An arts camp? A hiking camp? Not really. YPC is a camp where our first goal is to try to change the world. Our second goal is to get more and more specific about what needs to be done, in real life, in real time, to make change both for broad systems and for the individuals who live in those systems. It means doing real work to learn about systemic oppression, about human development, about the needs of children, and about how to help the teenage staff recognize their power and use it to transform the spaces they inhabit at every stage in their lives.

YPC is a developmental stages camp. It’s a camp where kids learn to commit to their human value, to become more and more like themselves, and to feel a flash of understanding that there can be more than one acceptable life for them, more than one acceptable version of their story.

Or if you ask me in the grocery store, it’s an overnight camp where the kids do art sometimes. The secret is out.

Educational consultant and speaker PIPPI KESSLER has trained hundreds of educators and parents across the country to use their power for good. As the Education Director at ImmerseNYC and as an ongoing consultant and former Program Director at Ma’yan, she designs feminist leadership programs for teens, conducts professional training seminars, and creates innovative curricula and workshops. At Rowe, she is the Director of Young People’s Camp (YPC) and has led two conferences for parents and educators: “The Ethics of Working with Youth” and “Rules That Make Sense: How to Set Boundaries That Empower Kids.” She is currently completing her masters degree in Social-Organizational Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

For more information about Pippi’s work or to book a workshop, visit PippiKessler.org or follow her on Twitter — @PippiKessler.

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