Monday, October 29, 2012

Wanderers 2012 takeaways & 2013 goals

I enjoy this time of year as a summer camp director.  It is a time for me to reflect on how the past summer's camps went, look over the feedback, and start planning for next summer.  One of my favorite parts of being a camp director is planning and creating new itineraries and improving on old ones.  Each year, I learn more about what I think Wanderers campers enjoy, which aspects of the program were effective, and which ones didn't work so well.  It's challenging to parse this out sometimes, especially because we work with a number of different age groups, offer both day camps and sleep-away camps, full of many different activities ( rock climbing, hiking, games, natural history education etc.) and because each individual child is so different.  I'll share with you some of my takeaways from 2012 and some of the goals for 2013.  I like to frame these takeaways  by using a big idea and then breaking it down to come up with some tangible goals for improving the program.

Building Character

Making it to the top of Yosemite falls!

2012 Takeaways

One of the things I'm realizing about Wanderers camps is that they build character.  I know the phrase "character-building" has become a cliche, but here's what I mean.  For many of our campers, a Wanderers sleep-away camp is their first experience being away from their parents.  We expect a lot of the campers; they set up their own tents, cook their own food, pack and carry their own backpacks on hikes, work together in a group of peers to accomplish goals, and hike further than they thought they could.  It's exhausting for them and a real challenge at first, but by the end of the week I usually see a lot of improvement in their teamwork skills, manners, self-sufficiency and confidence.  When I founded Wanderers, I believed our central focus would be to instill a sense of love and passion for nature.  Now I'm realizing that building character might be what we do better than anything else.

2013 goals

Provide more opportunities for the campers to do things themselves, more activities that get camperes to work together as a team, and set the stage earlier as to what the staff expect of the campers. They need to understand that we expect a lot!

Wilderness Experiences

Ansel Adams Wilderness

2012 takeaways

In 2011-2012, I spent a lot more time in the wilderness than I had in recent years.  My wife and I climbed the Grand Teton together, I backpacked the Grand Canyon with my brother, climbed Mt. Whitney with my wife and son, hiked and climbed in the Wind River range in Wyoming, and spent a lot of time hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, and backcountry skiing all around northern California.  All this time in the wilderness forced me to unplug from technology, get exercise, bond with a group of people, and use all of my senses in a way that I hadn't recently.  In other words, I was reminded of the power of wilderness to rejuvenate.  

I'm also reminded of the power of wilderness to rejuvenate when I see what effect it has on the Wanderers campers.  Here are some of the examples of this from the Wanderers summer camps of 2012

-Swimming in Wapama Falls at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, one of the boys turned to me and said- "This is the best thing I've ever done!"  After that, all of his sentences seemed to start with "This is the best....."  Ex.- "This is the best hike I've ever done!"  "This is the best view I've ever seen", etc.  It was pretty funny, but he was being honest.  He hadn't spent much time in the outdoors and this whole wilderness thing was blowing his mind.

-Hiking to the top of upper Yosemite Falls.  It's a 7.6 mile round-trip hike with 2,600 feet of elevation gain, not an easy hike for a 10-11 year old!  The group of kids who made the top, were ecstatic.  It was such a thrill for them to have pushed through the pain and make it to the top of such a beautiful falls, one of the tallest in North America.  Just look at their faces in the photo above.

-During our hike in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, we had the kids all spread out and do "solo sits" in a quiet area among the giant trees, wildflowers, etc.  The instructions to the kids were to sit quietly for 10 minutes and take in everything you can, using all your senses.  We instructed them to look closely at the ground, smell the air, listen for sounds, feel what's around you. Take it all in.  We then brought the group together to share what they had seen, smelled, heard, touched.  It was pretty powerful because they all had a lot to say.  They really seemed genuinely moved by the experience and it sparked a lot of interesting discussions about what was going on in the forest ecosystem.  I don't think these discussions would have happened without taking this time to "tune in" to what was around them.

I could go on and on with examples, but these are a few that stand out in my mind.  My argument is that these discussions, experiences and realizations would not happen without the rejuvenating power of wilderness.

2013 goals

Wanderers will continue to take kids into the wilderness areas we already go to and we'll go deeper into the wilderness.  The Sierra Nevada mountains are such a spectacular mountain range and they're only a few hours from the Bay Area.  We'll explore the range much more in the future.  For 2013, we'll offer our Yosemite Adventure camp for rising 5th and 6th graders and introduce a new backpacking trip for rising 6th and 7th graders, probably in Yosemite or the Ansel Adams wilderness.  Stay tuned!

Experiential Education

Learning about 1800s trade at Fort Ross

2012 takeaways

“Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.”

-Chinese Proverb

This quote is one of my favorites.  I was reminded of it recently because it's taped on the wall in the office at Fort Ross.  The staff at Fort Ross really live this proverb in all of the educational programs they provide.

Fort Ross is one of my favorite places we visit on our Wanderers camps. Fort Ross is a Russian Fort on the Sonoma coast of northern California.  It was occupied by the "Russian-American Company" in the early 1800s as a settlement to hunt otters for their valuable pelts and grow food to ship back to Russia's growing northern empire in Alaska.  We take the campers here for the final two days of the Sonoma Coast Explorer camp.  While we are at Fort Ross, we get into full-on acting mode and pretend that we are living in the early 1800s just as the Russians and native Americans did.  We dress as they did, we cook bortsch over an open fire, we have a militia assigned to muskets and weapons who march and patrol the fort, we have a night watch, we make rope, candles, and baskets, we go fishing with traditional 1800s fishing rods, and we learn why the Russians were there by a hands-on trade demonstration involving fun costumes (see photo above).  As the proverb says above, we really involve the campers by immersing them in the history of the area.  They do it all, adults don't do it for them,we are just there to help them if they need it.

9 out of 10 kids say this is their favorite part of the Sonoma Coast Explorer camp.  Most of the kids even eat the bortsch and like it!  I really think they learn a lot too.  I know I have!  I learn and retain much more of the history because it is much more interesting when I'm actually living and experiencing what the Russians and Native Americans of that time were experiencing.  

2013 goals

We'll be heading back to Fort Ross for sure, but we'll also incorporate more experiential learning like this into all of our programs.  In Yosemite, we do a mock trial about the building of the O'shaughnessy dam at Hetch Hetchy.  I'd like to improve this activity and add more like it.