Little Leaders and Big Learning

Last week, I talked a bit about how our activities programming works here at BT, and about how we design our projects so that they allow campers to grow and progress as their interests increase. In this regard, I am especially proud of our camping skills programs–for a multitude of reasons. My own memories of camp as a kid involve a lot of round-the-camp-fire or on-the-trails experiences, so perhaps I am a little biased, but I’m not alone in thinking that time spent outdoors is darn good medicine for kids.

Research shows that experience in the outdoors has the potential to impart a wide variety of benefits on children’s physical development, emotional and mental health and well-being, and social development. Mental health and wellbeing benefits from play in natural settings appear to be long-term, realized in the form of emotional stability in young adulthood.

The ability to gain knowledge and skills and apply them to new situations is an important step toward self-directed living. In the beautiful and natural surroundings of the Northwoods all around us, learning responsible and enjoyable camping skills is an excellent arena in which kids can learn and practice these skills. If a camper enjoys taking our basic canoeing and camping skills class, where campers learn how to safely paddle a canoe, set up a tent, and light a fire, she can then take those skills up a level in various outdoor education programs. We offer a Sterner’s class for intermediate canoeing, Voyageurs for advanced canoeing, and an Explorers program, which is a BT version of the ultimate outdoor class.

In the Voyageurs program, Voyageurs-in-training must work as a team, utilizing the skills they learn in practical applications rather than simply in theory. Campers learn 27 skills in the Voyageurs class including canoe over canoe rescues (how to rescue a swamped canoe and empty that canoe full of water while still far out on a lake), how to portage (carry) a canoe for ½ mile on your own, etc. Though many of the activities in Voyageurs seem like pure fun, there is always a lot more at work beneath the surface. Effective canoeing takes communication: the sterner, paddling in the rear of the canoe, must communicate paddle strokes and the person in the bow must communicate water conditions an potential hazards. Of course, this becomes especially important in rough waters. I probably don’t need to spell out the metaphor this sets up for real life, but you get the idea. The methods of healthy, effective communication that the Voyageurs class teaches usually make their way into the cabin environment, and eventually home life. As kids build upon and expand their knowledge and skills, they develop a commitment to life-long learning. In the camp environment, it is imperative to give campers the opportunity to learn new skills, practice those skills, and process the information for both immediate and future use.

The Explorers program picks up where Voyageurs leaves off, further advancing a camper’s expertise in the outdoors. Among the many challenges in Explorers, campers learn how to camp in such a way that they “leave no trace,” essentially meaning that at Birch Trail, we always try to leave a camp site, river bank, or field of grass in better and cleaner condition than when we found it. Explorers candidates take their foundation of camping knowledge and begin to practice taking leadership roles in outdoor settings. In the class they learn about making shelters with what you find in the woods, wilderness first aid, outdoor cooking, as well as wilderness trip leading skills such as orienteering and map-reading.

The final test in the Explorers program is a-24 hour solo trip, where the girls camp out on specially designated spots away from the main area of camp. Because the camp property lines extend far past the areas we use on a regular basis, there is a lot of land that still feels untouched and far away. The solo trip campsites are designed in a wheel-shape, spread out in a circle around a center site, where our staff are stationed throughout the 24-hour solo trip. This layout provides us with a direct route to each camper, while still allowing each site to be stationed far apart enough so that the girls can’t see each other. For this solo experience, campers have to pack their own food, hang a bear bag, and make their own shelter. Campers can choose to bring either a poncho or a garbage bag, flashlight or bug spray. While on their solo campers journal about their solo trip and how it has affected them, processing their experiences in the moment. Though each camper is equipped with a very loud whistle and in reality is only feet away from supervision or assistance, those 24 hours alone in the woods can seem very long and solitary. For those Explorers who successfully complete their solo and subsequently the whole program, their newly-instilled confidence is undeniable.

We find that through programs like Explorers, teens working in leadership roles at camp benefit not only from acquiring knowledge of leadership skills but from actually implementing those skills. This is why leadership opportunities for older campers–like helping teach a project or being a team captain during color wars–can be such rewarding experiences. Specialized instruction tailored to specific age groups makes camp easier to manage and heightens the interest of the campers involved. Teens serving in leadership roles can learn much through co-teaching classes and working with young campers who are learning new skills.

All in all, it’s pretty spectacular to see shy, nervous campers turn into well-seasoned leaders over the years. And the best part is that most of these campers really do pass on their knowledge to younger campers, who are always paying attention to what their role models at camp are doing and saying. This way, eventually, the whole thing comes full circle; big leaders teach the little ones, who grow up to be big leaders themselves one day. And our job is simply to give gentle instruction and encouragement along the way, and nurture what is special about each camper’s personality and interests. The rest of the work just takes care of itself.

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