If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Summer Camp: Making the Rules

Many of the things that make my former summer camp so unique have been a part of the camp essentially from its beginning. The two things I have talked about so far, appreciations and comfort and caring, are both aspects of the camp that I remember vividly from my days as a camper. One significant aspect of the camp that arrived between my time as a camper and my return as a counselor many years later was the camp constitution.

Schools and other programs for kids have a wide variety of approaches to setting the rules and getting kids to follow them, and no one way is perfect or appropriate for every situation, but I really like the way we went about creating the constitution. It was a multi-day process, and limited time spent on other activities during that time, but I think the rewards more than justified the time spent.

The first step was to get the kids thinking about the idea of community in general, and their place in various communities in particular. Each camper was given a badge, a circular piece of paper divided into three wedges, with space for their name in the middle. They were asked to think of three communities they were a part of. The counselors coached them through some possibilities: their school, their family, their sports teams, etc.. Then they were asked to think of a positive attribute that they brought to each of those communities, maybe something they did to be helpful at home or to be friendly at school. Once they had thought of their three attributes, they drew a picture in each section of the circle. Once completed, this badge represented them as a member of the new camp community that was re-created each summer.

Step two was to start coming up with the rules. They did this in small groups, so there was an opportunity to discuss and refine their ideas. One of the keys was that each rule needed to be phrased as a positive action. They had to say, "Respect other people's belongings," instead of, "Don't steal," or something similar.

Once the various groups had their suggested rules, the whole camp would come together to decide what should be included in the final draft. The rules were read out, and the campers were asked to raise any objections. The counselors leading the discussion were careful to steer the conversation toward objections to the ideas, not the wording. The idea was to build general consensus. At the end, everyone would make some symbolic sign of agreement (usually a hand motion with some silly sound effect) chosen by the kids. The final step was to put all the agreed upon rules onto a giant sheet of paper, and to attach the kid's badges to the paper as symbols of their role in the camp community.

Those of you who have been following along with these camp related posts will begin to see what I meant about certain cult-like, or at least ritualistic, aspects of the camp. But, having seen it in action, I have to say that this approach to creating the camp constitution was an incredibly powerful tool. When there was an problem with one of the kids, it was very effective to be able to remind him about the constitution discussion and why it was that the camp had chosen to include certain rules. It was like putting a judo move on a kid who was all prepared to get yelled at, and suddenly found himself explaining to you why what he did was wrong.

As with many of the things I talk about in this blog, I'm not a big believer in the idea that there is one and only one way to do things. When something seems to work, I look for the essential element that is making it work, and think about how that piece could be adapted to many different situations. In this case, I think the essential element comes from giving the kids a chance to help make the rules, and in doing so really think about their purpose. If the rules are something they have agreed to, and even helped create, they are much more likely to see the point in following them. It becomes not just about staying out of trouble, but about behaving as a responsible member of a community.

What effective ways of creating/enforcing the rules have you come across?

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