Being in the Moment at Summer Camp and Beyond
When people think back on the wonderful times in their lives, they often describe how time felt like it passed very quickly. They'll recall a wonderful conversation where one of the participants happened to look at a clock, and say, "Wow! It's 4 in the morning!" They'll finish up playing an exciting game and say, "I can't believe so much time passed!" I describe this feeling as "being in the moment," and seek it whenever possible. When truly in the moment, one stops worrying about things out of one's control - the past, the future – and is fully alive. With many of the people I talk to, however, this phenomenon seems to happen less frequently as they grow older. One man I asked said the following, "When I was a kid, my mom could never even find us at dinner time. We weren't trying to be late, but we'd just lose track of time when we were playing baseball, or riding our bicycles, or whatever. She'd be real[sic] mad when we got back, but we didn't know better. Kids today don't do that stuff enough anymore." I agreed, but then I asked if he still did those things. He answered, "Well no, I guess not. I got[sic] work, grandkids, I don't have time for all that anymore."
The question then becomes - why would we modify our lives to do less of these things that we are so passionate about that time loses meaning? At the Stomping Ground, we do not believe that people make this choice intentionally.
We believe that adult intervention can be one of the main things that erodes child's ability to be in the moment. Adults have so many plans for children, from how they should spend their time, to whom their friends should be, to what interests and hobbies are appropriate. It’s not like these adults have bad intentions – it’s usually quite the opposite. We quote this all the time – but as Alfie Kohn said, “Children get better at making decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.”
At the Stomping Ground, we stress that our counselors only intervene and take a child out of the moment if the child is putting himself in harm's way, causing emotional or physical harm to others, or inhibiting another camper's ability to have a good time. This means not worrying about "inside voices" unless someone is bothered by it or trying to sleep. Children often raise their voices because they are extremely excited about what they are talking about; why would I ever want to pull them out of that feeling of excitement just because their volume was 2 or 3 decibels above my ideal level?
It also means that we are happy to take a child out of the moment if he is initiating force against someone else. We call taking a child out of the moment "creating a point of tension," and make sure that our counselors have an excellent reason to create a point of tension before doing so.
When given to their own devices, children are capable of being in the moment with so much of their time. They invent games with objects that seem inane to adults. They have long conversations that some adults would consider idle chatter. We believe these activities are absolutely crucial to children and their development. They are exploring their passions, practicing human interaction, being in awe of the world, and most importantly, having fun.
Our strategy, therefore, is to create an extremely nutrient rich environment for them to flourish. We provide guidelines for activities, but then participate actively when possible instead of lording over the activity dictatorially. During each "activity period," we attempt to present children with diverse options that allow them to pursue their individual interests. If it is obvious that none of the options are palatable, the remaining children are then given more options to see if anything suits their fancy. Occasionally, campers choose to sit and talk with one another instead of participating in an activity. Rather than take this personally, we understand that this relationships formation is beautiful and natural, and in many cases, far more valuable than the activity we had planned.
To accomplish our goal of keeping children in the moment, we mindfully present options to engage them throughout the day while being sure we are not pressuring them to take us up on any of our offerings. We offer time for children to engage in "Structured, Imaginative play," an activity that has general guidelines but no linear progression or enforced timetable. In one activity, we told the children who wished to participate that they were in ancient tribes, tasking them to create as much or as little of a fictitious culture as they wanted.
This involved some painting their faces and bodies, some coming with their own names and languages, some coming up with songs and drum beats, and some only modestly participating but demonstrating that they really loved just feeling a part of the activity. Structured and imaginative play is so important, especially for children who are used to being told how to play, because it points them in a direction for them to use their creativity without spelling out for them exactly how the activity must go. Campers from the ages of 10 to 17 participated in this activity and had a wonderful time. Staff members enthusiastically participated as well, but no one was told during the activity that there were any "rules" to follow.
I can recall very vividly speaking with a camper one summer, who said:
"I can't believe it's already dinner! Today went by so fast, but I guess it does feel like we did so much today that I guess it should be dinner!"
She spoke to exactly what we are trying to facilitate: that unique "camp" feeling that time flew by a lot more quickly than you thought, but that your days felt so full that everything feels just right.
So please, come out to camp this summer and live it for yourself. Watch as time passes, and you gather more memories in a week than you may have in a year. We hope to see you there!