After spending an evening bundled up around a campfire, singing familiar songs and telling stories, we came back to our bunk, shared our “highs” and “lows” of the day with our counselor and bunkmates and began to get ready for bed. We had just inched into our sleeping bags, lazily swatted away another pesky mosquito, and yawned through our last “goodnights,” when our counselor crept back into our bunk.
“Listen close!” he whispered. Through our squinted eyes we saw him motioning for us to lean in. “At midnight,” he said very seriously, “you will be embarking on an adventure—just the four of you. No one else knows, not even the other counselors.” All of a sudden, we weren’t feeling so tired. “I’m leaving these envelopes here. Each one contains a clue. I’ll be by the campfire if you absolutely need me. You must not be seen. Don’t open the first envelope until exactly midnight!” With that, he slid back through the door just as softly as he had come in.
The four of us looked at each other for a second and then did one of those girly, hand-flapping silent screams. “Not even the other counselors know!?” we whispered excitedly. We patiently laid back down in our beds for two hours, checking our watches every two minutes, give or take. At exactly midnight, we gathered up the clues, grabbed our flashlights, and slowly peered out of our door.
The scavenger hunt that followed was among the most exciting and spontaneous fun times I had ever had. It is something I still talk about with some of my best friends, who, incidentally, happened to be with me that night.
Our counselor had cut out pages from a black and white magazine, folded them into little envelopes, and filled them with rhyming clues that sent us running and hiding all over camp until 2:30 in the morning. He was not required to create a bunk activity that night. He created this scavenger hunt purely because he wanted to give us a chance to bond, to give us a sense of adventure, and perhaps unknowingly, to give us a memory we would cherish long after we were campers. It made us feel incredibly thought-about and special.
As a student teacher in West Philadelphia, I would think about that night from when I was 14 as I would sit down to create my lesson plans. I wanted my students to feel that I wasn’t just making them go through the motions. I wanted them to feel thought about and I wanted them to have fun while they learned. I wanted my students to bond and I wanted my classroom to feel like a close community. I knew what that felt like, and it felt entirely worth sharing, camp setting or not.
This past summer, nine years after my tearful last day as a camper, I found myself back to a comforting and familiar place. I had finally returned, this time as a counselor, and I was determined to be the counselors that I was so lucky to have. I played Suzanne Vega’s “Gypsy” lightly on the guitar as my campers nodded off to sleep, I swam with them to the middle of the lake in the rain to watch the sailboats, I hugged them close when they felt sad, I laughed with them about their exciting adventures of the day over turkey sandwiches, and of course, I made them a scavenger hunt. If they left that summer feeling a little more confident, a little closer to nature, a little more playful, and like they were part of a community that made them feel a little more special, I knew the rest of the campers, directors, staff and I had done something right.
In an age when children are spending an unprecedented amount of time using technology, sitting in front of screens, it is especially important for them rebuild a relationship with the natural world and engage in free play during the summer months. This lack of interaction with the environment has led to what Richard Louv calls, “nature deficit disorder,” which leads to “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.” Children today are more disconnected from nature and are allowed less time for free play than ever before.
Summer camps originated specifically to address this issue in the 1800s. As America became increasingly urbanized, there was a collective feeling of loss over the wholesome, outdoor experience of living in the country, and camps were created to fill this void. Many summer camps today still serve this purpose, allowing children a protected space to play and explore in the out of doors.
Summer camp was a transformative experience for me, both as a camper and a counselor. It influences how I treat the environment, how I treat other people, how I think about the world. It helped shape what I want to do with my life, how I want to contribute to society. Summer can be an invaluable time in a child’s life. With time off from school, where playful learning is often hard to find, it allows time for children to grow in so many ways.
Whether a child spends more time playing outside away from technology, takes on a project of their own, gets the chance to meet some new friends, or goes to camp, the summer months have the potential to be a time to take a risk, to learn about themselves, to be inspired, and to grow. Summer can create a rich resource of internal memories to inform a child’s identity. It doesn’t take a scavenger hunt, but it’s not a bad idea…
United Way's 2-1-1 SEPA— a free, confidential helpline providing referrals to thousands of local health and human services—has information about camps and other summer programs for youth in the Philadelphia region. To learn more, dial 211 or 1-866-964-7922.
View the Notebook's Summer Camp guide here.