Asked the question “what are the educational merits of camp,” a counselor of Camp Overlook might stare at you perplexedly or stumble over themselves for a full minute before being able to craft any sort of intelligible response. Coming not from a lack of comprehension but rather an inability to paraphrase, this person, given a full day, would vigorously cascade upon you an avalanche of personal stories and theories as a form of answer. Given twenty minutes they might be able to offer you a recitation about all the incredible learning and development that occurs at the place… on the first day. Having had the tremendous opportunity to learn and grow at camp in my own time and now, gratefully, as the Program Director of 4H Camp Overlook, I am finding it difficult to reduce what needs to be said to a manageably brief narrative. However, I’ll give it, as they say, the old camp try.
As adults (particularly for those who did not attend, themselves) it can be easy for us to look at the experience of summer camp as a “kid vacation” of sorts. And you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. With a seemingly bottomless well of sweat-pumping activities and limited shower time, many campers take their parent’s absence as a welcomed excuse to spend an entire week in blissful stink. With a carefully executed, kid-friendly menu of delicacies such as pancakes, sloppy joes, and chicken tenders, mealtime has never been more exciting than when sitting elbow to elbow on a picnic table. And with acres of space to run, a lake to swim in, bunk beds, and nightly “squad challenges,” time with friends is measured in days and hours rather than minutes. Summer camp truly is, Las Vegas for children. For parents that are simply sending their children off to enjoy a week in the woods, there is little fear that their camper will not return with a positive experience. For those seeking a more enriching venture however, there may be greater trepidation.
One of the oft-repeated mantras at Camp Overlook is that “every child, whether week one or week six, is as important as the next.” Similarly, “it is easy to love the kid who draws you pictures everyday but just as important to love the one that doesn’t.” During their training, each counselor is given the explicit mandate to provide the best possible experience in the most positive environment possible for every camper that comes through our gates. We strive to fulfill this challenge with all that we have with the understanding that, for any given child, the six days they spend under our care might be the best six days of their summer, their year, or, at the risk of sounding dramatic and self-important, their life. The simple acts of appreciating children for who they are as well as providing them a positive model to aspire to are responsibilities we take gravely serious and, in this way, it can be said that we put experience before education. But not without sound, well-considered reason.
At the core of Camp Overlook is the belief that experience breeds knowledge. Whether they are playing a game for the first time, meeting their cabin mates, or jumping from the zip line, we believe each moment at camp is an opportunity for campers to grow and learn. From the moment our campers sign in to the time we say goodbye at the camp fire, counselors take on the dual task of opening as many doors as possible for every child and urging them to walk through. By exposing them to brand new challenges, offering support and guidance all the way through, and appreciating their achievement no matter how great or small, it is our hope that each camper comes to understand the limitlessness of their potential as well as the strengths they already possess.
The education that takes place at Camp Overlook is as multi-faceted and diverse as the kids that attend the camp itself. Through classes such as archery, sailing, bench making, and wild edibles, campers gain practical knowledge and skills they can employ recreationally and even professionally. Simultaneously, as a child performs in acting or demonstrates a stroke in swimming lessons, they are also participating in a social-emotional learning that can only be acquired through participation. As children interact with their fellow campers and their counselors in class, at mealtimes, or during play, they are attaining a better idea of self. The experiences of leading, following, and cooperating are just ideas or vocabulary words until they can be practiced. By offering a wealth of opportunities for our campers to succeed, fail, and just try new things, we hope to allow every child the opportunity to test and surpass their limits.
Often, when asked why I love camp, I answer “Because it makes us all the best possible version of ourselves.” This may be confusing to someone on the outside. No matter who you are, how many years you’ve attended, or what abilities you bring with you, I’ve found that there’s a place for everyone at Camp Overlook because there seems to be, largely, an abandonment of pretense. Whether you are there for six days, six weeks, or six years, there never seems to be enough time at camp, so you try to do and be as much as you can with the time that is given. With all others apparently seeking to do the same, what remains is an environment of acceptance and goodwill the likes of which is hard to replicate and even harder to find elsewhere. As such, camp often welcomes you in as one person and sends you home as someone entirely new because you’ve learned such a great deal about what you’re capable of.
To say that Camp Overlook is a place to learn is like saying that Yankee Stadium is a place to play ball. The two can’t be separated because one does not exist without the other. As we move forward, camp will certainly evolve as necessary to meet the developing needs and wants of incoming families. What changes may come, though, will not alter the continued effort of all that have to come to love camp to, as the sign says, “make the best better.” As long as the red gates are open, there will be kids and adults alike inside, seeking to linger as long as they can in a place where one is considered great simply for being themselves. What we learn as we grow up and inevitably leave is that, though some may not accept you for singing out loud or dancing like a fool, there are far worse things to be considered in this world than a kid at heart.