Camp. What a Personal Learning Experience
by Yoni Arya, Assistant Director of Programming
Looking back at Passover Camp, 2016, it was the most educational, exhausting, outstanding and rewarding camp experience I have ever had. And that includes Summer Camp 2014, a summer with a war and a not-so-nice principal at the school space we rented, and a special project which brought 14 kids from Israel’s Southern Communities to camp for 1 week in August.
Too challenging? Not at all. I wouldn’t change this Shutaf experience for anything.
Before I start explaining the amazing lessons I’ve learned and how Shutaf’s talented camp director, Marci Tirschwell, teaches me new skills everyday, I must honor the person who taught me the first rule of child care, my mother.
Yes, my mother. As she will tell you, I was not an easy child or teen (sometimes I’m not an easy adult), but I only felt unconditional love and acceptance, regardless of what I did or how challenging my behavior was. Her lesson of unconditional love and acceptance is one which I’ve taken to heart in my life and within my work with children.
Shutaf Passover Camp 2016 was my seventh camp as a staff member, and I still feel like I’m constantly learning and growing. Aren’t we all? This camp’s lessons were about flexibility and what that really means when working with children.
Since I starting working at Shutaf, I have understood and internalized that every child must be treated as an individual. For example, what about participating in daily camp activities? Not every child is capable of participating for the full length of a forty-five minute activity. Some can’t even last a minute as many of our counselors will tell you.
At Shutaf, Marci’s motto is that we used structured flexibility as our approach to the job of figuring out each child’s needs. Marci has taught all the staff to understand that expecting complete structure and order at all times is a mistake that just ends in unnecessary conflict.
For example, when you ask a camper to do something he cannot do with ease, such as participate in activity for five minutes, you set both yourself and the camper up for failure. You end up spending your day killing yourself to get that camper to do something that will most likely not lead to personal success anyway.
If the camper isn’t hurting anyone or doing something they shouldn’t why do they have to participate in the activity?
Of course, in a perfect world all Shutaf campers would be happy and participating in activities at all times. In reality, we need to realize what our goals really are for each and every one of them. Do we want full participation at all times? Do we need full participation at all times? Or, is it okay, like Marci would say, to have our campers arrive and leave camp with a smile?
Day in, day out, I’ve seen Marci practice the art of creating structure with flexibility for many campers. She is open to them, always speaking honestly with each camper and listening to their concerns. She allows those campers who need to play soccer all day the right to do so, as well helps those who need to “scream out” their frustration find a safe and proper outlet. Her open honesty is a trait that too many educators lack.
At this past camp, we faced a serious challenge with a participant who personally boasted about being kicked out of camp and school on a regular basis. The truth? He reminded me of myself. It became our joint mission, this after he told Marci on the 2nd day that he expected to be kicked out of camp, to show him how great Shutaf was. We also wanted to show him that he could make it through the week successfully!
On the third day of camp, his plan for getting kicked out of camp was to leave our camp location at the Nature Museum. As I ran frantically around the perimeter of camp looking for him, I was thinking, “That didn’t last too long. There is no way he is staying now.” I found him outside in the parking lot, unwilling to return to camp, determined to keep moving as far away from Shutaf as possible. I suggested that we take a walk over to busy Emek Refaim where there are restaurants and shops, thinking maybe I’d find somewhere, something that would interest him. I called Marci in order to discuss our options (as I often find myself doing), assuming that she wouldn’t approve, especially given that he’d just run away from camp. To my surprise, she was not only okay with my idea, but suggested that we have lunch together (!), our way of showing him that we can work with him, respond to his needs and help him find his place at Shutaf.
On day four, I found myself again out and about with this camper, until I was able to bring him back to camp. I started thinking about my other work at Shutaf, leading workshops and informational training sessions about our inclusion and informal-education methods. It’s amazing to share what we do, and see how we practice what we preach at every Shutaf program. We look at each camper as an individual with their individual needs and take each day for what it is, for each participant, always looking for the positive.
Did this kid suddenly become a model camper? No. But he successfully completed his first camp. Ever. We responded to him. His fears and his needs. And he didn’t run away the last day of camp, a real victory.