The other night I went to my kids’ camp’s parent night and was truly floored, personally and professionally, but what I felt emanating from the counselors, directors, CITs, and - of course - campers...JOY. I’ll give you a bit of context so you can picture it a bit. The night was essentially a run down of lip-synced songs from Disney’s Camp Rock. Each group (broken up by gender and age) had a song/dance on a stage with the actual soundtrack playing. There were 5 kids doing some actual speaking as a means of giving the story and transitions. A bit over a hundred kids. Place packed with parents. The show ran from 6:30-8 and then the pool was opened up for the kids to swim until 8:30ish, all after a full day of camp and before this morning’s start to another full day of camp. It was hot, high 80s and humid. Aside from the directors, none of staff were out of college and/or experienced professionals in any form of caring for children.
Here’s what I saw that made the educator in me just stand up and take note:
- Everyone was excited to be there. Period. While at schools’ back-to-school nights, I’ve heard pretty consistent grumpiness about the long day, this event was about celebrating the relationship between the kids and the camp.
- Every staff member there knew each of my kids names and greeted them with high-fives as we walked around.
- All of the compliments we got were about the effort that they’ve been making to meet people, get involved, and improve and/or how hard they’ve been working at something and/or the pride that they’ve been showing in their work. Nobody spoke to us about measured accomplishments.
- The night’s show was a great example of differentiation. Everyone performed. Period. Some definitely had big roles and, yes, some kids were in the back lines of the performances, but all kids were on stage. The younger kids had simpler songs, simpler dances and people on stage to help, but nobody considered it “cheating.” The girls’ groups had cuter dances with more twisting and “gymnastics.” Some of the boys’ groups literally ran up and down the aisles getting high-fives from the families as they went; that was dancing for most 7-10 boys.
- The night ended with all of the camp staff forming lines on either side of the exit’s pathways and literally cheering, clapping, laughing, and high-fiving each camper and family as they walked through. People left camp that day feeling fully loved and energized.
Listen, I know school isn’t camp, and I don’t think it ought to try to be camp, but I do know that my kids love going every day and that they are getting better at tons of things like swimming, diving, team sports, archery, and making friends. I know there are definitive outcomes schools ought to be helping students meet and that teachers work a lot harder than camp staff. At the end of the day, though, I also know - and was reminded by this night at camp - that schools need to find a way to integrate as much joy and acceptance as possible. It is a truth in learning theory, after all, that students will gravitate towards scenarios and activities that make them feel valued.