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Director’s Annual Commentary

Autumn 2010: The Best Camp Tenure For Your Child


"I'd like to thank Mother Nature for a great summer," acknowledged Mike Wiff at our season-ending gathering in the Great Room. No question but that 2010 was the best summer weather in our 26 year reign on Lake Tarleton. Oh, it rained some, but storms arrived at night or during times we deemed boys tired, and in need of a break from our fast paced routine. That boys and staff went home happy is beyond dispute.

Ironically, it is due both to the fabulous summer we've just concluded and a deep inner satisfaction with Kingwood's core philosophical tenets that we elect now to endorse a significant alteration to our camp program for the summer of 2011. We have decided to change the second session to three weeks, July 24 to August 13. To many, this might be no big deal, but to the Wipflers and the camp administration, there is enough meat to the issue of "camp tenures" to merit status as this year's post camp Director's Commentary.

The camping industry has witnessed a strong calling for shorter sessions in recent years. Gone forever is the fundamental purpose of the birth of the camping industry exactly 150 years ago this coming summer. On the eve of the Civil War, the headmaster of the Gunnery School in Connecticut led a group of students on a hiking and camping trip into the mountains. In due time, both parents and educators came to see summer - all of it - as the prime time for those precious character-building, away-from-home experiences. No longer.

Today, we live in a world of time crunches, over-scheduling, helicopter parenting, and specialty programs - all of which conspire against the traditional camp concept of giving kids a legitimate foray from the nest. Lots of people nowadays don't comprehend what "camp" really is. For example, they misconstrue a five day lacrosse clinic on a college campus as somehow a camping experience: not even close!

Most other camps have altered tenures to accommodate this trend. Noting too that some school districts have stretched the academic calendar well into June while others have commenced autumn classes before Labor Day, these same camps have crunched their dates into the safer zones of midsummer. During these precious few days, just about every tenure under the sun now is possible, from one week "rookie camp" to mandatory full season sessions.

We at Kingswood have strong opinions on all of these popular session options. You might share these paragraphs with friends of children approaching camp age, be they Kingswood material or not. Ponder this: whenever camp people get together, they moan among themselves on how so many parents are unawares when it comes to the question of separation experiences for their children. Hear us out:

TWO WEEK SESSIONS

Starting in 2011, Kingswood will enroll a limited number of boys for the first two weeks of the summer. Some families simply are locked into this short window of opportunity and, to be completely honest, we at Kingswood would rather take good kids for this diminished tenure than lose them forever to other camps. As do most camps with programs of four weeks or longer, Kingswood, too, will limit the two week option to the first year only.

All kids, regardless of their temperamental stripes, take several days to completely acclimate to being away from home. Most are a tad homesick. Two week campers, no doubt primed by mom and dad, truly believe fourteen days is a huge gob of time. And, almost assuredly, the first few days of the session accrue to confirm the notion that even two weeks is indeed going to be one long haul. "Dear Mom: Thanks for sending me to Alcatraz," is my all-time favorite day-number-three interpretation of the camp experience. Naturally, parents receiving such a missive are the first to call the child, often before my strongly suggested seven-day waiting period. Unwittingly, they have likely made an unpleasant issue for their son as nine of ten boys will self-destruct upon merely hearing mom or dad's voice.

But, now for the part the parents do not see: The child, upon disintegrating over the phone, hangs up and races back to the dinner table so as not to miss dessert. After the meal, he hustles up the hill to join the after-dinner World Cup soccer scrimmage or to the music room for a jam session. Maybe both! A small sparkle in his eye and skip of step creep into his countenance: the process of acceptance has begun. Many camps report that over half of their kids "stretch out" to longer terms that very first year, so illuminated to the progression of adjustment they become.

At Kingswood, we do not press boys to extend their stays because we believe kids view their camp session selections as formal contracts with their parents. Although doing the two week session might result in some boys getting plucked from the camp environment just as the prime value of the experience is kicking in, they all depart having witnessed that beautiful human trait of adaptation. Boys know, deep down, that they have had a "near total adjustment" experience with potentially lifetime ramifications. Simply summarized, they have gleaned that homesickness can be overcome. Do they articulate this feeling? No, but many boys comment that the countdown to next summer begins the moment they get home. I have to believe that the two week term, despite being far from an ideal tenure, strikes many as a good start on the road to independence.

THREE WEEK SESSIONS

"The tipping point is three weeks," argued my son Rob at one morning administrative gathering this summer. "So and so seemed a bit out of his comfort zone for almost two weeks - then, out of the blue, he was making friends and loving camp." This paraphrased quote seemed to apply to boy after boy whose tenure extended three weeks and beyond. For most kids, becoming fully connected is the key element in the continuum of happiness. I remember years ago when a chronically homesick camper, on about day number eight, scored the winning goal in the final moments of an intercamp soccer game. He was carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates and his homesickness evaporated on the spot. Clearly, not every youngster will have such an obvious epiphany. In every case, though, I have become convinced that a kid wakes up one morning and at first consciousness acknowledges to himself that "everybody knows me here." Furthermore, he knows everybody else, admires his counselors, gets all the inside jokes, and has become comfortable with the camp routine. In short, he no longer finds himself being swept along, but now is charting his own course. Life at camp, from this point forward, is good.

I often tell parents of struggling campers that it is only a matter of time before their child surrenders to the fun of camp. Willful youngsters, and there are plenty of these, can put up a good fight, but they, too, eventually hit the tipping point and go on to have wonderful camp experiences. One of the amusing things about kids is their tendency to bury the past once the present gets good. Try and remind them of those Alcatraz-style commentaries of earlier in the session and the best you can hope for is a grinning, "Aw shucks." While our study of the camp adjustment process is by no means scientific, years of experience tells us that by the end of week three, most kids are happy. Thus we feel the three week choice is better than two weeks. There is less risk that a boy will depart camp unfulfilled, not recognized or less well adapted to the camp community. As you read onward regarding the longer sessions, keep in mind that three weeks is sufficient for the positive attributes of camp to take hold. Yes, twenty-one days is enough time for camp to become a child's "home away from home" - a place and a people to whom he feels strongly connected. It is our hope the one day soon, everybody foreordained to a two week outlook will come to recognize the dramatic difference one week can make.

FOUR WEEK SESSIONS

Kingswood has always respected the filial value of a sojourn to grandmother's, a clan reunion or a lengthy family trek to some exotic location. However, at Kingswood, two distinct four week sessions have remained our standard for 26 consecutive summers, not solely in deference to family's needs to save large chunks of summer time for themselves, but also because we feel that twenty-eight days of camp is the optimal short-term stint.

Knowing as we do that by the end of the third week just about all campers are on a roll, the staff now is in a position to use that fourth week to completely win boys over to the camp experience. Indeed, deep into every session, barring none, we find ourselves promising everyone that the upcoming week will be a great one for all of us with full confidence that boys will be satisfied with the outcome simply because they want it that way. There is no stress - that weight of homesickness, that need to impress or perform, that burden of non-connectedness. All of these issues are long forgotten as that last week flies by so very fast.

It can rain cats and dogs during week four and no one will care. Boys of differing makeup who simply endured one another earlier in the session now have become friends. The losers of the touch football tournament or of Bow & Arrow color war are disappointed for a grand total of ten minutes, after which it is time to head down to the waterfront. This is legitimate character-building being made, and the value of the camp experience triples over that of the shorter tenures. These are the gravy days of camp. And, they are a gorgeous thing to behold.

FIVE WEEKS OF CAMP

Over the years, we have had a few second session regulars arrive during the latter part of the first session. Every one of them has hit the ground running, the reason being that camp is now going full throttle, most boys are adjusting nicely (see above paragraphs) and there is so much to do at Kingswood that four weeks simply is not quite enough camp time. What a great part of the summer to be at Kingswood. At this moment, the merry-go-round slows down just enough for newcomers to hop aboard.

It does make good sense, therefore, to take on a few campers from weeks three through seven. Space will open up as that small number of two-week campers go home. We are very confident that five weekers will view the experience as "total," meaning that camp will take on the characteristic of a beginning, a middle and an end. Returning campers especially will see scads of familiar faces, recognizable camp traditions and that pattern of routine they find so comforting. Beyond that, these campers also will get to experience a side of Kingswood they have never seen before, that "parallel Kingswood universe" of different veterans, legends and events. Everybody who ever has mixed his sessions has described the feeling as awesome. Thus, for those arriving at the prime time of week three, any feelings of awkwardness will evaporate very quickly.

FULL SEVEN WEEK SUMMER

Perhaps, with these new scheduling changes, more boys may elect to opt for the entire tenure. As camps go, Kingswood is not that regimented. Our schedule is fluid and we adapt it each day to conditions on the ground. The weather, boys' moods, what counselors elect to sponsor - this is the stuff of our program and, our greatest strength. Yes, boys get options here all day long, but doing nothing never is one of them. We make sure of that. Furthermore, boys gravitate towards all activities that are well promoted or enjoy good reputations. Add up the cumulative summers of the entire 2010 staff and the number exceeds 700 years. This mathematics is Kingswood's ace of spades in many respects, one of which suggests a pedal-to-the-metal schedule which will ultimately tire everybody on the grounds. There is so much to do, and with each counselor having his favorite sponsorships, the boys are always faced with difficult but happy options.

Boys who stay for the full term will get worn down, but, it is a happy, completely contented, measurable fatigue which has lasting effect on them. The full gamut of clinics, games, trips and other activities is an awesome experience and is optimal for getting the full range of Kingswood. Go back and review the procession of values accrued as one moves from the two week start up stint to the seven week summer and the following becomes crystal clear: As tenure increases, so does the assimilated value of the camp experience. However, each of Kingswood's session options is, for good reasons, a "Can do."