Building a Culture of Choice with Kids
Creating a culture of choice can be hard. Most people, especially young people, aren’t used to getting to choose how to spend their time, whom to spend time with, and what it means to take responsibility for those choices. It takes time, energy, and skill to artfully navigate in a world in which you are in control of your own choices. At Stomping Ground, we are constantly developing new systems to help first-time campers transition into a new community. Our goal is to create a community of self-directed individuals that live together and treat each other with racial empathy, so that we can all be inspired to help the world be far more empathetic.
There is a lot that goes into this process. Here are some of the cornerstones:
Empathy and Connection
At our overnight summer camp, we work hard to create an environment where kindness, compassion, and openness thrive. This starts by each of our staff finding ways to build individual relationships with kids and helping facilitate those connections amongst campers. It also is reflected in our camp rituals.
At the beginning of each week, we bring up our giant dreamcatcher, which represents the camp community. We spray bleach, paint, glitter, etc on the dreamcatcher and explain that camp will have ups and downs. That if we support each other, like the knots in the dreamcatcher, this can be the best week of our lives.
At the end of each night at camp, to remind ourselves of this community, we form a camp-wide circle and say, “It’s Good to Be Together” three times. This acts as a simple and engaging reminder for all of us, that more than anything camp is about the people.
Finally, at the end of the week we cut up the dreamcatcher and give each person at camp a bracelet from the dreamcatcher string and encourage them to take a piece of camp with them into the rest of the world.
These rituals are simple and may not seem like much, but we have had countless campers reference back to the dreamcatcher as a way of explaining why camp is special. These ceremonies and personal relationships are the building blocks of our empathetic culture.
Simple Ways to Have Your Voice Heard
We believe that children are at their best when they can trust that their opinions, safety, and well-being are being taken seriously by the other people in the community. Kids are most comfortable knowing there is a system in place to resolve conflict. At Stomping Ground, we use our version of a restorative peace circle. We call it the Circle System.
We believe that children are at their best when they can trust that their opinions, safety, and well-being are being taken seriously by the other people in the community. Establishing that trust and giving campers control flips the paradigm on bullying and teasing. Instead of campers being afraid to be a tattle tail, they are empowered to stick up for themselves and to begin the process of healing harm, mitigating future harm, and building community. You can read more about the circle system here.
Engaged Adult Role Models That Are Helpers Not Judges
Part of the secret sauce that makes all summer camps special is the staff. Almost no place else on the planet are there these really cool 18-25 year olds who all want to make a positive impact on kids’ lives. At Stomping Ground, we are incredibly intentional about helping our staff partner with kids to help each camper get what they want out of camp. Camp staff are in a unique position. For most kids, our staff are just cool slightly older friends that are there when they need a hand, are looking for a fun game, or just can’t reach the ketchup.
Our staff come from all over the country to reimagine a more perfect world at camp. They are musicians, college kids, AmeriCorp volunteers, EMTs, entrepreneurs, and more. The one thing they have in common is a commitment to changing the adult-child paradigm from “power-over” to “partner-with.” Plus, they are so fun.
Exciting Consensual Offerings and Events
One of the ways to ease into a very free community is to have a number of structured offerings for kids. During a day at Stomping Ground, kids have a chance to explore our intentionally crafted and exciting activities. These activities are things like archery, dodgeball, felting, swimming, Christmas in July, boating, dance, shaving cream wars, color parties, and more. They can also choose to get up to their own stuff in Downtown Stomping Ground (DTSG). DTSG is the center of camp. We have hammocks, games, arts and craft supplies, legos, and more. These loose parts create the perfect environment for kids to design their own games, hangout, read, or just chill.
The key to our structure is that kids looking for stimuli and activities from staff can opt into counselor-lead activities, and kids looking to make up their own activities can do that as well. This culture of consent and structured offerings has proven to be a great bridge for kids not used to having this level of choice in their daily lives. We are able to create an autonomous environment that is comfortable and safe by combining the power of individual relationships and systems thinking. Our systems constantly evolve to better suit the needs of campers and our staff are motivated to find new and authentic ways build honest connections with every child.
I would love to talk more about how this plays out at camp. Give me a call or send me an email.