Almost three months ago to the day I woke up, brushed my teeth, and put my clothes on backwards. It was Reverse Day, a camp-wide, camper-created theme day. We started our day with Evening Program, ate a delicious breakfast of waffles around 6:00 p.m., and ended it all with Morning Program as the sun was setting. What started as a joking conversation between campers and staff—why do we follow the same schedule every day? What would happen if we flipped it around?—became a silly, shared reality for everyone at camp.
I went to Camp Lookout for the first time when I was going into seventh grade. I had already been in middle school for a year, and I was under a lot of societal pressure to conform and be “normal.” This feeling isn’t unique to me, either. In lieu of being ostracized, kids oftentimes choose the easier way out: conformity. By valuing creativity over conformity at camp, we create a radically different (and happier) environment for ourselves and each other. When I was a camper, I felt free in a place devoid of judgment and stress. The community created by myself, my peers, and the counselors around me seemed too good to be true. I had never experienced life in a place that was so universally accepting. After working as a counselor, I clearly see how important it is to create an intentional community. Once we set a common goal of empowerment across the board, the desire to conform disappears and self-love and acceptance surface.
Saying that we want to empower children is one thing, but the actual practice of empowerment is more difficult to define. A concept as broad as empowerment can seem impossible to achieve in a camp setting, where there are many moving parts. The key is to start with little steps. As soon as we internalize acceptance, it becomes easier to set aside judgments and allow for creativity. Why does it matter what direction our clothes face? If our socks match? The pressure to conform to these seemingly arbitrary norms stems from a fear of judgment and lack of confidence. We uphold norms without much thought, but as soon as judgment is removed from an environment, these unfounded rules fall by the wayside. When we encourage and empower campers, their confidence skyrockets and their individuality emerges.
Once everyone feels accepted in a community, inclusion naturally occurs. Kids who feel left out in other circles can find lifelong friends and support within a nurturing community. Alongside inclusion comes encouragement. Encouragement at Camp Lookout can be something as simple as a compliment or as involved as working with a camper to develop an activity idea. When we prioritize camper ideas in a programming setting, we open ourselves up to a wide variety of fantastically creative experiences invented by kids. Just this summer, I had the pleasure of helping campers lead activities in which we pretended to be chimpanzees, built fairy houses in the woods, went on a survivalist adventure, and much more. Being able to participate in those activities was a treat in itself, but witnessing firsthand the effect that just a little encouragement has on campers was amazing. By showing kids that they have the ability to affect change in their session, we create an opportunity for them to realize the power and responsibility they hold in their surroundings. Campers learn to take ideas they deem “silly” seriously. By encouraging kids to take chances and believe in themselves, we allow for more situations in which kids can positively affect change in their community. When we emphasize creativity over conformity in our daily lives, we grow as a community and foster inclusion.
Taking “normal” and challenging it is the key to creating the accepting, empowering environment of camp. The atmosphere of curiosity and discovery that permeates the air at Lookout is created by its inhabitants. By encouraging camper-led activities, we empower kids and show them that their ideas can shape the experiences of others around them. They have the power to create their own world.