Why Camp is Important for Teens Too.

Why Camp is still Important for High School Students

I recently had a conversation with a long-time Camp Akeela parent.  She was wondering whether or not camp was still an appropriate summer option for her 10th grader.  After many years at Akeela, she wondered if it was time to move on. So to encourage her son to get a job or to take summer classes.  She is certainly not alone in asking these questions.  As parents, many of us constantly worry if we’re making the right choices for our children.  Are we pushing them enough?  Are we pushing too hard?  And how much should we push during the summer?  Many parents wonder if their kids need some down time. And others worry that too much unstructured time leads to feeling depressed or lonely or even more anxious.

The transition phase for important life skill

As camp directors, it’s probably obvious that we believe that for most kids, camp is an amazing opportunity for our older teens.   For our long-time campers, one final summer as “the oldest”, is like a graduation year.  They benefit from feeling like they are the leaders in the community. That they have knowledge and wisdom about life that they can share with their younger peers.  It also enables them to learn how to transition away from childhood.  So many of our oldest campers struggle with saying goodbye. Either avoiding it all-together or becoming so emotional that it overwhelms other people.  Having a final summer at camp with peers who are going through the same transition is an opportunity to teach them. This very important life skill which will continue to come up as they begin new experiences and then have to leave them (college, jobs, relationships…etc.).

Camp Akeela Experience

We also believe that there is an important arc to the Akeela experience.  One where campers build upon skills they’ve developed in other years at Akeela.  In their oldest years at camp, our teens get more choice in their activity. More freedom to be in camp with less direct (obvious) supervision and opportunities to lead activities. And also to be role-models for younger campers.

After 9th and 10th grades, our campers participate in our “Teen Time” program where they can choose to participate in writing and performing Camp News. Or STEM projects (robotics and building an escape room) and community leadership (planning and running a camp activity and working closely with a younger bunk of campers).  In addition, our oldest teens benefit from guided conversations around topics that are particularly salient to that age group such as romantic relationships, appropriate use of social media and technology and wellness (mental health, hygiene, sleep and nutrition).

Finally, camp is fun.  While of course we believe there is value to learning how important it is to work hard and to earn money. We also think that finding opportunities for our campers to really connect with peers in a meaningful way. To feel totally accepted and to be a part of a community where they are valued is just not something that can be undervalued.  As our campers prepare for life beyond high school, we want them to head in to that next phase of their lives. On feeling secure in who they are.  We believe camp allows them to do that.


Teens and Technology

I just finished reading two articles about the impact of smartphones on our emotional wellbeing and our intelligence. Neither article was uplifting. The bottom line is that our constant use of our phones has caused us to feel more depressed, to sleep less, to interact with others less and to be more distracted. All of these factors are even more intense for teens who are using phones these days as a way to interact with peers.

An article in the Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/) highlights how much things have changed for teens since most parents were going through middle school and high school. The author reminds those of us who are GenXers of an adolescence marked by events like rushing to get our drivers licenses, an eagerness to have time with friends away from parents and dating. Teens now are much more likely to spend time alone in their rooms connecting with peers using social media. They use Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. None of this is inherently bad – in fact, teens these days feel lucky that they don’t have to leave home to be with friends. The problem is that, although they are connected to peers, the author notes that teens report feeling “alone and distressed”. Teens report that they struggle to interact in person after being so used to screen interactions.

Most notable to me was the author’s findings that teens feel MORE left out these days. It’s obvious when a teen is not invited to a party when everyone on social media is posting photos of parties or gatherings from which they have been excluded. Girls, in particular, are masterful cyberbullies and it seems that teens feel more at liberty to be unkind when they don’t have to look their victim in the eyes. For young adults who are struggling socially, for those who have trouble navigating the complicated social world, who are feeling left out and different, social media is even more troublesome.

The author suggests that, although very difficult, parents should work hard to limit time teens spend on social media. (The other article I read in the WSJ – https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-smartphones-hijack-our-minds-1507307811, also suggests that even having a phone NEAR us decreases our ability to focus.) The more we can encourage young adults to spend time face-to-face with one another, participating in activities that DON’T involve screens, the more likely they will be to feel less depressed, to sleep better and to feel less alone. Camp seems like a great opportunity to practice this. Taking a break for a few weeks from screens can literally be life-changing.


Mindfulness for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Mindfulness Children Autism SpectrumIt seems that MINDFULNESS is the new “buzz word” these days. Even our first-grade daughter is learning mindfulness in school! As a therapist, I had a basic understanding of meditation and the scientific research that has demonstrated that a relaxed brain is a healthier brain and can also decrease stress and the impacts of stress on the body. On a cognitive level, meditation for children on the autism spectrum has always made sense to me. AND, I always felt that I couldn’t “do” it. My brain moved too fast and thoughts were always running through my mind. I couldn’t sit still for more than 5 minutes before I got bored and decided that meditation just wasn’t for me.

But over the course of many years, I kept hearing about MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) programs taught at major hospitals and universities. Friends and colleagues kept mentioning the course to me and recommending that I give it a shot. And so, this year after giving the idea of Mindfulness some more thought and recognizing the benefits not just for myself but for our camp community and children on the Autism Spectrum too, I decided to give the program here at the University of Pennsylvania a try.

As I write, I’m about to enter week 7 of the 8-week program. And I have to say, learning about Mindfulness and starting a daily meditation “practice” has really changed the way I interact with the world around me and my own personal experience of myself. While I still feel frustrated, tense, anxious, angry at times, I’m better able to understand those experiences as just moments in time. This allows me not to get “stuck” and to be open to making a choice to feel differently. Is it easy? No. Finding 30 minutes to meditate every day (and doing that 3 times a day while we’re in the “boot camp” phase of the program) has been challenging. Stopping to breathe deeply when I’m feeling really stressed is also not easy. But the challenge has made it even more meaningful.

Because of my own growth, I’m excited to bring Mindfulness to our campers and staff this summer. I truly believe that we can help our campers feel more calm and able to manage their own struggles and hope that they can add Mindfulness to their “toolbox” of coping skills. I will be educating our Leadership Team and our staff about what mindfulness is and how it can change the way we all deal with stressful situations. We, as a staff, will learn how to use mindfulness in our daily interactions with our campers so that we are better able to help them achieve their goals. In addition, I will teach counselors how to use Mindfulness during morning meetings with their bunks and as part of the bedtime routine in an effort to help our campers unwind after a busy day at camp.

As always, our hope is to help our staff and our campers learn how to manage life’s challenges with greater ease and to find more joy in their lives. We believe Mindfulness for children on the Autism Spectrum is yet another tool we can use in this effort.


Holiday Family Time with a Child with Special Needs

The holidays are a stressful time for everyone. There are gifts to buy, meals to cook and family members to visit. The joy that we all look forward to and the warm family moments around the fireplace sharing memories of seasons past are often fantasies that don’t work out the way we plan. And then, the joy becomes stress and resentment. All of this is true for most families but it is more common for families who have a child who struggles socially (including those with Asperger’s, NLD / NVLD).

Holidays bring about change and change is hard! At Camp Akeela, we do everything we can to prepare our campers for changes in routine. We try to give them as much notice as possible. (Rainy day plans are more difficult as the weather in Vermont is not always predictable!) Schedule changes are discussed and printed. We allow some time for our kids to express disappointment and frustration with any changes but then we move on and get them involved in an activity that they enjoy. When we can anticipate the events that make our children anxious, we can help alleviate (though not eliminate) that anxiety and perhaps allow for smoother sailing.

Our campers really enjoy helping others and they get very involved in our community service days at camp. The holidays are a wonderful time to remind our children of how much they have to be thankful for in their lives and to share some of that with others. Perhaps your child can choose a local charity that he is interested in supporting and can do some research on how he can support that cause. Then, the whole family can get involved in working together to give back. This is a wonderful way to spend family time and to teach children empathy. (It’s also a great way to add structure to a week without school!)

Many families have told us that they dread holidays … they spend family gatherings worrying that their child will do or say something that is embarrassing, inappropriate or rude, that he may have a complete meltdown and that everyone else will judge or give unsolicited (and unhelpful) advice. If we plan for these potential pitfalls and even predict them for key family members, the holiday may feel more relaxed and enjoyable.

Here are some suggestions for ways to make your holiday and family time run smoothly:

  • Preview any schedule changes a few days in advance and give your child a printed plan or itinerary.
  • Try to keep her routine as close to normal as possible. For example, for the week without school, try to keep wakeup, meals and bedtime as close to a typical day as possible. Maintain normal school-week expectations, when possible (e.g. limits on screen time, household responsibilities, etc.)
  • Make sure your child will find something familiar to eat at big holiday meals so that you know that he will eat something and feel valued
  • Bring along your child’s favorite game or an activity he can play with others at family gatherings
  • Bring along something she can do independently in case she does not want to participate in the group activities or conversations
  • Try to relax and enjoy your family. Things may not go exactly as planned but that’s ok … holidays never do!

— Debbie


Asperger’s and Bullying: Summer Camp Can Help!

A mother of a Camp Akeela camper recently sent us the link to a New York Times article about school bullying: “School Bullies Prey on Children with Austism”. The author explains how kids on the spectrum, and other quirky children – those who learn differently or have unusual mannerisms or who don’t share interests with most of their classmates – are much more vulnerable to teasing and bullying at school. Of course, as directors of a camp for kids with Aspergers and NLD, this wasn’t news to us. Many of our Akeela campers feel that school represents a social world that can be fast-paced, cruel and unforgiving. They tell us that lunch and recess (and often gym class) are the hardest times of day. During class, although they may get funny looks for shouting out the right answers or not wearing the most up-to-date fashions, at least a teacher is there to intercede. In the cafeteria, they’re expected to navigate social situations on their own. For our campers, this can be extremely difficult. Where should they sit? Who can they talk to? What should they talk about?

At our final campfire on the last night of the camp session, we take some time to reflect upon the time we’ve spent together as a community. We talk about all of the campers’ wonderful accomplishments: becoming more independent, leaving home for three and a half weeks, going without video games!, cleaning their cabins every morning, making new friends, trying new activities and pushing themselves to do things out of their comfort zone. We encourage them to remember how accepted and loved they feel in that moment, the final night of camp. We tell them that we know how hard school can be at times and that not everyone they encounter will appreciate them for who they are. We tell them, “When you have a bad day, when someone is unkind, close your eyes and imagine you’re back on Miller Pond surrounded by friends who really care about you.”

As camp professionals, we believe that all children need to have experiences away from home where they feel successful, where they know that they are likable, where they are accepted for who they are. For our campers, that’s even more true. Children on the autism spectrum need to have experiences in safe environments where they can learn and grow, including learning how to fail. Those experiences give them the confidence and skills to manage the “real world”, where people can be so unkind.

– Debbie, Eric and Jaynie


Camp Arrival Day

When I was asked to be a “guest blogger” I started thinking about the start of the summer and in particular, arriving at camp. Arrival Day is a big deal. Some people find it exciting, some totally overwhelming … and I’m talking about everyone: campers, families, staff, newcomers and returners. I come from the UK, where camp isn’t nearly as much a “way of life” as it is for many in the US. When I first started my camp career many years ago, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Yes, I’d seen movies set at camps and read all of the information that I’d been sent, but it was all a bit of a voyage into the unknown. I had my safety net though, as I knew a couple of people at that camp. Years later, when I started working at Akeela, it was a different story. This time I knew the basics of camp life but didn’t know anybody at Akeela. I’d spoken with Debbie and Eric on Skype, but that was it. Both very nerve-wracking experiences, but both very positive experiences. I was made to feel so welcome at each, and quickly came to feel like a part of the family.

Over the years, I’ve seen many different ways of people handling their emotions on Arrival Day. From those who arrive filled with energy, eager to see old friends and have new experiences, to those who experience more difficulty with their transition: the camper who refused to enter their cabin because “it smells of wood”, the boy who refused to speak for 8 days and would only communicate by scribbling notes, the girl who was so over-stimulated that she couldn’t stop talking, barely even pausing to draw breath.

The arrival that will stay with me forever though, comes from my second year as a Unit Leader at my old camp. Arrival Day was going smoothly, and eventually the time came when the buses arrived, and everyone had arrived. I was performing my duties and checking people off on my list, when I realized that one was missing. At pretty much the same moment, my walkie-talkie crackled into life and asked me to make my way to the Health Center. When I arrived I was confronted with the sight of a young man, sobbing and on the verge of hysteria. One of the nurses pulled me to one side and told me that he’d been like this for a lot of the bus ride, and so they got him off the bus at the office and brought him straight to the Health Center to try and calm him down. I sat down and talked to him for a good couple of hours. I found out that he was homesick, that this was the first time he had been so far away from home and that he thought that he had made a big mistake coming to camp for the summer. Over the two hours, he calmed down a lot, and when I eventually asked him if he felt ready to go down to the bunk and meet people he nervously agreed.

The thing is that this was not Camper Arrival Day, it was the Staff Arrival Day! Martijn was a 22 year old counselor who had come on his own from the Netherlands. Well, it took Martijn a few days to come out of his shell, but he turned out to be one of the most empathetic and engaging counselors I have ever had the privilege of working with. He came back to camp for three years and did some fantastic work with the campers that were placed in his care. We’re still in touch to this day, and he always reminds me of his inauspicious arrival and how he didn’t think he would make it that summer, and I think that’s what will stay with me.

In fact, I suppose that’s what I’m trying to say in this blog. No matter how nervous you feel about coming to camp, we’ll do our very best to help you through it and get you to have an amazing summer. Everyone that I’ve mentioned here went on to have a great time and made new friends, enjoyed their activities and did better than they thought they would with being away from home. Sometimes these things aren’t the easiest, and that’s OK – but there are always people who are there to help and make you feel better.

– Rob Glyn-Jones
Camp Akeela Head Counselor


Unplugging at Camp – A Break from the Digital

I was in the gym the other day and I noticed something incredible.  The person next to me on the stationary bike had his blackberry out checking email, the girl behind me was watching a show on her personal TV, and the receptionist was behind the front desk playing a game on her iPad.  It hit me as I glanced down at my iPod that most of us are not even able to separate from technology long enough to get a work out in.  I found myself longing for the summer where I get back to nature, put my phone away and save my eyes from days of sitting in front of a computer.

All of the buzz and national attention surrounding Richard Louv’s bestselling book “Last Child in the Woods” (http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/) about nature deficit disorder and children has reaffirmed for us as camp professionals that the summer camp experience is an excellent way for children to put away technology and reconnect with nature. Most of the potential campers we have the pleasure to meet during the off-season tell us they are very interested in computers, video games and other forms of technology.  When we meet a new camper, we are asked without fail these important questions: “Can I bring my video games?”, “Can I have my cell phone?”, or “Do you have computers at camp”.  When we respond with the very unwelcome, “no”, many of them look absolutely horrified.  Even parents say, “There is no way my child will make it without a computer and his handheld games.” Months later when these same children are at camp, we smile when they stand beaming on the dock with a fishing pole, stand at the top of a mountain they just hiked with arms raised, or fly down the zip line with a huge grin on their faces.  Once they get to camp and are trying so many new activities and meeting new people, they are not thinking about their video games or computers anymore. Many of our campers also make new friends by bonding over their shared interest and begin discussing together which level they are currently battling on a certain game.

One of the many wonderful benefits of any summer camp is a break from the digital and our reliance on technology.  Campers get the chance to experience nature, try brand new activities they never knew they would enjoy and to just be a kid.  For our campers, this break from technology is especially important. Handheld games are most often a solitary activity and for children who have difficulty fitting in at school or interacting with their peers this can be a source of comfort, but can also be quite isolating.  At camp, campers are surrounded by their peers and have many incredible opportunities to meet new people and engage in different activities. When they do not have their video games to rely on, they are able to interact with their bunk mates and practice many of the critical social skills that are sometimes difficult for them. At camp, campers can prove to themselves that they can go 3 1/2 weeks without technology and can “rough it” in the wilderness! As camp professionals, we see this as an amazing accomplishment and we hope the take home message is that kids do not need to rely solely on video games to have fun. When our campers put down their video games, they might just make a great, new friend and discover many amazing activities in nature that can become new and important interests when they return home!

An interesting article about unplugging at camp:

http://www.americanwaymag.com/hannah-viroslav-american-camp-association-iphone-camp-champions

-Jaynie


Homesick and Happy – A Book Preview

As an avid and unapologetic reader of novels, I very rarely get excited about the publication of a non-fiction book. (Compared, for example, to the thrill I feel whenever I think about the May 8th release of John Irving’s next novel!) Yet, here I am, devoting this blog post to a parenting book coming out on May 1st.

Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow is the newest work by Michael Thompson, author of (amongst others) Raising Cain and Best Friends, Worst Enemies – Understanding the Social Lives of Children. If you’ve read his books, or been lucky enough to hear him speak, you know that Dr. Thompson really understands child development and that he shares the results of his research with humor, compassion and warmth. In a recent issue of the American Camp Association magazine, he described his approach to writing Homesick and Happy. Rather than criticize overprotective parents, he empathizes with every parent who wants what’s best for his/her child … and makes the case for going away to sleepaway camp as a critical step in a child’s social and emotional development.

Here is Amazon’s description of the book:

In an age when it’s the rare child who walks to school on his own, the thought of sending your “little ones” off to sleep-away camp can be overwhelming—for you and for them. But parents’ first instinct—to shelter their offspring above all else—is actually depriving kids of the major developmental milestones that occur through letting them go—and watching them come back transformed.

In Homesick and Happy, renowned child psychologist Michael Thompson, PhD, shares a strong argument for, and a vital guide to, this brief loosening of ties. A great champion of summer camp, he explains how camp ushers your children into a thrilling world offering an environment that most of us at home cannot: an electronics-free zone, a multigenerational community, meaningful daily rituals like group meals and cabin clean-up, and a place where time simply slows down. In the buggy woods, icy swims, campfire sing-alongs, and daring adventures, children have emotionally significant and character-building experiences; they often grow in ways that surprise even themselves; they make lifelong memories and cherished friends. Thompson shows how children who are away from their parents can be both homesick and happy, scared and successful, anxious and exuberant. When kids go to camp—for a week, a month, or the whole summer—they can experience some of the greatest maturation of their lives, and return more independent, strong, and healthy.

At Camp Akeela, we talk to campers all the time about how it’s okay to feel both homesick (sad about missing their parents, siblings, pets, house, bed, foods, etc.) AND happy (glad to be making new friends, having new experiences, feeling confident and valued, etc.) at the same time. As Dr. Thompson seems to understand, we have very similar conversations with the campers’ parents! Every parent who sends their child into our care makes a decision to tolerate their own anxiety in exchange for the unique and life-changing benefits that camp has to offer.

— Eric


Asperger's and Romance

Many of you probably saw this article on the front page of last Monday’s New York Times. It’s great to see any story about Asperger’s getting such prominent real estate in “The Gray Lady”. This one in particular brings attention to a important topic: young adults with Asperger’s (or NLD or any others on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum) navigating romantic relationships.

So much of what we do at Camp Akeela is to help our campers develop and practice appropriate social skills. For many of our kids, Akeela is the one place in their lives where they feel truly accepted by their peers, which allows them to form uniquely meaningful friendships and connections to others. When we first started the camp in 2008, our oldest campers were 16 years old – completing 9th grade. The following summer, we had so much demand for teenagers that we expanded the program to include boys and girls finishing 10th grade. We’ve found that camp has taken on even more significance in the lives of our campers as they move through adolescence and the world gets even more complicated socially.

It quickly became evident to us that we could do even more to help prepare these amazing kids for adulthood. Towards that end, we started a new program last summer, called Beyond Akeela. It’s for boys and girls finishing 11th and 12th grades and is essentially a hybrid of a traditional camp CIT program and a life-skills training experience. We had 18 participants in Beyond Akeela’s inaugural summer and it was a huge success. In addition to having an amazing summer at camp, they also came away with concrete skills and experience in the areas of job readiness, managing money, cooking & nutrition, college options and appropriate peer relationships. They toured colleges, attended cooking and banking classes, volunteered in a variety of community service efforts, organized and led in-camp activities, discussed relationships and sexuality, went shopping and did their own laundry, challenged themselves on outdoor adventure trips, and much more. The program culminated in a 4-day trip on which they put all their newfound skills to work while living independently (with staff supervision!) in condominiums.

Overall, it was a huge success and a program we look forward to offering for many years to come. Reading the New York Times article last week allowed us to reflect on and be thankful for the role we may play in helping a very deserving group of people find what we all seek in life: loving, fulfilling and reciprocal relationships with people who value and respect us.

— Eric