For All-Things Fixable; Cabin meetings and cabin bonding

Hello from a blissful and lovely day at Camp Birch Trail! We’ve been enjoying some perfect summer days here, sunny and warm with fantastic breezes. Now that we’ve had a week or so to get settled, the whole camp is enjoying the full swing of camp living. Activities are underway and looking great, and I spent a long time checking out some of the creations in the arts and crafts shop earlier today. I’m all-thumbs when it comes to tie-dying and pottery, so I was pretty impressed to see how skillful the campers were as they made gifts for their friends and family both at camp and back at home.

Now that we’ve gotten through all those initial transitions that take place throughout the first week of camp (getting acclimated to a new location, schedule, menu, and living arrangements can be particularly tricky for children–some of whom are away from home for the very first time), we can enjoy all the good stuff that follows. Because even for those campers who have been coming to BT for many years, things at camp are not always as comfortable or familiar as they are at home. Learning to adjust to new foods, new activities, new company, and new group-living environments teaches kids how to take bigger, more stressful obstacles in stride later in life. Though sharing a living space with the habits and personalities of several other people may not seem like such a life-changing experience in itself, it has the potential to translate to much larger challenges in the campers’ adult lives.

We know that through camp-specific obstacles like homesickness or leadership opportunities, kids inevitably develop a new sense of resilience. When they move past a rough patch and begin really enjoying their time here, they realize that perseverance really does pay off. Of course, transitioning through any kind of hurdle only takes place with the help of peers and counselors, and a whole lot of support. Because of their extensive training, BT counselors know what to look for and how to help when one of their campers is missing home or feeling under the weather. It is the counselors’ job to help smooth out the road and make things as fun and safe as possible, and the network of support for both campers and staff is strong and vast enough to handle pretty much anything.

With that settling-in at camp comes some change in the cabin dynamic. As always happens in new groups and new friendships, conflicts do occasionally arise. Some of you might have received letters by this time that detail some of these minor conflicts as they’ve come up. The experience of a group living environment will be new to many kids, and still challenging to those who have already experienced cabin life. Even for kids who have siblings at home, sharing a cabin with peers can be challenging for most campers, no matter what their home life might be.

Just like with everything else here at BT, we try to take these moments of conflict or tension as an opportunity to teach the campers valuable lessons about relationships and life. We have a great system of support and guidance to help the campers work through any issues that come up. For weekly maintenance, we like to encourage something called “Duct Tape Time,” which is a special time that takes place at 5 pm every Wednesday during Cabin Day. The cabin groups can come together during this designated hour to discuss how things are going and address any problems, cabin rules that need to be adjusted, or any other issue that may have arisen in the previous week. In essence, this hour is a time for the cabins to fix anything that needs attention, tweaking, or adjustment—hence the duct tape theme (because we all know that duct tape fixes everything ☺).

Duct Tape Time gives the kids an opportunity to talk about their feelings, and address any lingering issues in the cabin; as well as checking in and seeing how well their cabin rules were working. During this meeting, each camper has a turn to speak her mind so that there is only one person talking at a time. In these sessions, cabin counselors are always there to help with the frame work, and to guide their campers as they practice putting feelings into words in a friendly way. We also hold cabin meetings outside of Duct Tape Time whenever they are needed, led by Barbara or myself to help resolve more serious or more timely conflicts.

One way that we keep these meetings productive, calm, and focused, is by using “I” versus “you” statements. By implanting a formula of “When you _____ I feel _____, because_______” statements, campers learn to address specific behaviors or situations rather than attack someone personally. We teach the camp community that “you” messages tend to escalate conflicts or make things worse. For example, saying something like “You always forget to ask my permission,” or “you never invite me to come along” might make a child feel attacked or called-out.
“I” messages are a way of diffusing a confrontation. With an “I” message, the speaker identifies the problem needing to be solved instead of attacking the other person. In turn, this makes the listener feel more willing to try to solve the problem as a team instead of feeling the need to get defensive. For instance, a few of the issues that frequently come up in cabin meetings can be easily transformed from argumentative statements to productive ones:
“You never clean up the cabin–you are lazy” becomes “When you don’t clean up the cabin, I feel concerned because we all agreed that it was an important way of showing respect to each other,” or “You never pass me the ball in soccer” can be turned into “I feel bad and left out when you don’t pass me the ball because I like playing with you.”

Part of growing up means learning to gain control over feelings and impulses, even though it can be difficult for many children to manage strong emotions. We teach our campers that conflicts and mistakes are going to happen; our role is to help the kids solve those problems quickly and in healthy ways. These are important life skills that our campers have the benefit of learning here at camp, where it is a safe place for kids to develop conflict resolution skills. We teach our campers that it’s okay to make mistakes along the way, but that what’s important is trying in earnest to learn from those mistakes.

We also talk about choices, meaning that if a camper does something wrong, it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with her, but instead that there is something wrong with her choice. It’s incredibly important for children to learn the difference between a person and their choices, and to always remember that they are in charge of each and every choice they make.

It feels really great to provide our campers with the frame work they need to solve a conflict, and then to see them practice those tools and techniques throughout the summer. If we do our job right, by the end of the summer, campers will be able to resolve conflicts on their own. What we want is for the kids to come home from camp knowing more than when they left. Year after year, I see returning campers proving just how well camp makes this happen; as the campers get older and more experienced, they need our guidance less and less. Some of our older campers have even expressed and interest in helping to lead cabin meetings and Duct Tape Time for the younger kids. How wonderful to see this healthy cycle of communication and healing continue, and to see my camp kids do what they do best—get back to the business of having a great time!

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