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Why This Redesigned Summer Camp Put Kids in Charge

In the experience of children, the whole world is constructed around what's convenient for adults: Speak when you’re spoken to, you must be this tall to ride this ride and, of course, the school bell rings at 8 a.m. Typical summer camps are no exception. Children are grouped by age, assigned to a counselor, and move around a set of activities in a rotation. Is this because that is the most enriching, stimulating, rewarding experience people can possibly imagine for their kids? Or just because it's the easiest logistically?

Back in 1980, Steve Susskind was pretty sure it was the latter. He decided that this age-old system wasn't serving anyone, and set out to create a different kind of summer camp. This is how Steve & Kate’s Camp was born. And 33 years later, a growing number of parents and kids are finding that the differences are crucial. Instead of pre-selecting activities, campers start with a foundation of freedom to choose—literally from minute to minute—what they're doing from an array of activities.

If they want to spend the entire day making a stop-motion animation or figuring out how to make the ultimate spaghetti sauce, no one will force them to do anything else. But with an inflatable soccer stadium, audio recording booths, a dance studio, and a rotating array of special attractions like water slides and climbing walls offered every day, most campers end up sampling a variety of experiences and even discovering new loves.

If play is the work of children, then this is a dream job for them. Campers are free to play with older or younger siblings and friends. But they also encounter a challenge that's unique to free, self-directed play: negotiation. This might sound like a paradox in the context of freedom, but consider the social situation. If you want to play with a friend, but the friend wants to do a different activity, there’s going to be a give and take. Maybe it involves the sharing of time. Or maybe it means going your own way and meeting up later. This is an emotionally sophisticated planning function, and kids so rarely have a chance to practice it.

The camp wasn’t designed to create these social opportunities, but they emerge from the core value of giving kids free choice. The camp has seen many changes over the years, and will continue to be a work in progress. The design team is always looking for new activities and ways of presenting them. One thing that’s unquestionable, however, is the commitment to making the camp conform to kids—and not the other way around.

Image courtesy Steve and Kate's Camp

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