Author Archive

Finding Beauty in an Ashtray

Posted on April 4, 2016 by Dr. Christopher Thurber

Canadian Camping Association Crafts“What is it?” asked my cabin leader, gently.  We both eyed my clay creation as it emerged from the camp kiln, glazed and cooled.  I was 12, so I hadn’t made a something; I’d made an anything.  It had just been fun to pinch and push the clay for our hour-long arts and crafts period.  Now came the hard part: I needed to identify my project.

“Hmm…” I thought out loud.

Finally, my cabin leader said confidently, “Oh, I see.  It’s an ashtray.”

And there it was.  The year was 1980, so it was still permissible to make an ashtray.  Today, the same object would clearly be a politically correct candy dish or a heart-healthy, hypoallergenic soy nut dish.  In any case, it was what it was and there it was.  Like most arts-and-crafts projects at camp, it was, more than anything else, an expressive snapshot of my thoughts, feelings, and actions at the time of creation.  It was simple and personal.  Which is probably why it still sits (sans ashes) on my mother’s writing desk.

Volumes are written about what makes art art and what differentiates art from craft, so instead of writing an essay on aesthetics, I just want to share why I think arts and crafts at camp are so meaningful.  In my mind, anything creative and pleasing to the senses can be art.  Crafts, on the other hand, are construction skills, often learned through apprenticeship.  Naturally, arts and crafts go hand-in-hand.  Michelangelo used the craft of stone carving to create pieces of art like David.  At camp, children learn crafts such as weaving and woodworking to create pieces of art such as baskets and birdhouses.  To what end?

Contemporary conceptualizations of the human mind include the idea of multiple intelligences.  Simply put, we have different domains of cognitive strength—such as mathematical, social, verbal, artistic—and those domains complement each other.  So combining some athletic and social activities at camp with some arts-and-crafts actually feeds kids’ brains.  It’s kind of like intellectual cross-training.  The trouble with some camp arts-and-crafts programs is they are either marginalized or mechanized.

Marginalization occurs when the leadership at camp fails to create an atmosphere where art is valued.  Arts-and-crafts becomes an “uncool” program activity and few campers attend the lame periods that are offered.  The campers who do participate are labeled in ways that suggest they must not be athletic, adventuresome, or heterosexual.

Mechanization occurs when the leadership at camp relies on kits rather than creativity.  Arts-and-crafts devolves into campers purchasing nearly-assembled moccasins, birdhouses, wallets, etc.  The activity periods—if you want to call them that—involve very little activity besides counselors explaining to kids how to interpret the kit’s assembly directions.  Creative juices dry up along with the seed for self-esteem: a genuine sense of accomplishment.

At the best camps, arts-and-crafts programs flourish because the leadership recognizes the value of a balanced program of activities—something that includes athletics, adventure, and art.  Equally important, these programs flourish because campers are challenged to refine their crafty skills, solve problems, and create new works.  The brains and souls of these children are nourished and the camp staff become actively involved in their mission: to nurture positive youth development.  And as an added bonus, some lucky parents and grandparents may get an ashtray—I mean paperweight—on closing day.

This article originally appeared in the Week-Ender blog, a product of Camp Business magazine. To subscribe to this content, visit

How Do We Treat Each Other?

Posted on May 18, 2015 by Dr. Christopher Thurber

How do we treat each other? was the question the leadership director at one of North America’s oldest overnight camps asked the staff one evening. It seemed to be an inane question, given the label of “brotherhood” that the staff had given itself for decades. But the silence in the room suggested legitimate soul-searching had begun. The leadership director, Tom Giggi, was also silent, prompting even more serious reflection. (One of Tom’s strengths is asking good questions; another is his ability to wait for thoughtful replies, rather than answering himself for the group.)

Back when I was a camper, I worshipped my cabin leader. At a camp with strong internal leadership development, it was easy. The prestige of becoming a staff member, borne in part from the competitive selection process, coupled with the pure kindness the staff exuded, meant that most campers at Belknap grew up wanting to become cabin leaders. But now Tom was asking us to peel back the outward layer of kindness and examine its internal purity.

My thoughts drifted to a version of that question I’d been asked by my division head, Mark Goodman, back in 1984, my leader-in-training year. It was my first time working at camp for the full nine-week season and the first time the fabric of kindness that ostensibly bound the staff into a brotherhood started showing tears near the seams.

“Why is Saul being excluded?” Mark had asked me, speaking then about one of my fellow LITs. My defensive response included a litany of Saul’s foibles. “Well,” I began, “he can be kind of annoying. I know he loves camp, but his over-the-top enthusiasm comes off as insincere. And he’s constantly asking questions he knows the answers to, just to make conversation. And he’s clingy. Sometimes people want to be in smaller groups during nights off, but Saul is always there glomming on.”

I went on for several minutes and Mark just looked at me, patiently nodding. Eventually I realized that I hadn’t answered Mark’s question at all. I’d answered the related question, “What don’t you like about Saul?” but not “Why is Saul being excluded?” Mark was still silent. I swallowed hard, then spoke.

“Saul is being excluded because the rest of us LITs are excluding him.” Mark nodded, almost imperceptibly. I took a deep breath. “Now I’m thinking that one of the reasons Saul is clingy and over-the-top is because we’re not including him like we should be.” Mark’s eyes widened a bit. I continued: “You think if we treated Saul differently, he might change. You want us to include him more.” Finally, Mark spoke. “That would seem like the kind, campy thing to do.”

And so began a new chapter in my understanding of how camp helps people grow. It’s a social microcosm that serves as a proving ground for almost every interpersonal transgression and its positive opposite. The dialectics of bullying—befriending, gossiping—confronting, rejecting—accepting, prejudicing—understanding, hating—loving, and, yes, excluding—including, all infiltrate camp at different points in the summer. The key is to leverage the collective strengths of your staff to create a positive community. To do that takes regular, honest reflection and discussion.

Every staff group (indeed every group of human beings anywhere) will have conflicts and will, at times, mistreat one another. Having come to terms with that truth, camp professionals can prevent burnout, breakdown and belligerence by facilitating at least one pre-season and one mid-season discussion that begins with How do we treat one another?

What followed the pregnant pause in the lodge the night Tom posed that question to the staff was a great discussion that included:


  • Silly habits that had grown into traditions unintentionally hurtful to others
  • Greater awareness of others’ needs and ideas about providing support
  • Increased motivation to be inclusive, for the good of all
  • Sincere appreciation for the genuine kindness staff do show one another
  • Renewed sensitivity about how the hierarchy among staff can become a barrier to candid communication

Most of the staff left the in-service training that night encouraged by the group’s insights and armed with two or three concrete new practices that were generous, inclusive, and more in line with the vision of leadership they had romanticized as campers. Only now, that vision of pure kindness seemed closer to reality. One staff member summarized it well: “We were doing some things to ourselves that we never would have tolerated having campers do to one another.”

In pre-camp, plan a time or two to have your staff discuss their behind-the-scenes treatment of each other. Does the way they treat each other after hours, during time off, and away from campers truly reflect the values they purport to embrace as a member of your camp?

This article originally appeared in the Week-Ender blog, a product of Camp Business magazine. To subscribe to this content, visit

Bullying Redux

Posted on April 26, 2015 by Dr. Christopher Thurber

In 1929, Camping and Character: A Camp Experiment in Character Education was published.

Authors Hedley Dimock and Charles Hendry reported on the results of a multiyear study conducted at Camp Ahmek in Ontario. The study sought to uncover the changes evidenced in campers’ behaviour during six weeks at camp, and to understand the mechanisms behind those changes. Among the more than 50 behaviors the authors tracked was bullying. Dimock and Hendry recognized that even small increases in bullying behavior needed to be addressed by the camp leadership. They were also encouraged by huge increases in many prosocial behaviors in youngsters. My favourite is: “Making friendly approach to [an] unlikable boy.”

Over 80 years later, what are the most important things we’ve learned about bullying? The answer has four parts. First, bullying itself is only half the picture. For every bully, there is at least one target. Second, bullying is cyclic. A recent study by the Center for Disease Control confirmed that about three quarters of bullies are also targets and about three quarters of targets turn around to bully another child. Third, bullying is social. Antisocial, to be sure, but it represents a dynamic, complex, interaction whose origins lie in unhealthy relationships. Therefore, the solutions lie not in simple punishment, but in the formation of healthy relationships. And finally, there are often bystanders; onlookers who have the power to say something. “Hey, that’s not cool” or “Dude” or “Lay off” or “C’mon” are examples of benign-sounding comments that have the power to derail nascent bullying.

Camps are uniquely suited to deal with bullying because they are such healthy social environments. At camp, leaders supervise children and have opportunities to educate bullies and targets. Leaders can teach the kinds of prosocial behaviors Dimock, Hendry, and their pioneering predecessors saw so often at camps. This is easier to do than most people think, partly because bullying is so often a misguided attempt to make a social connection. If you can teach a bully how to make a social connection without using coercion, threats, or violence, you have actually met that child’s needs instead of simply punishing his or her misbehavior.

Specifically, camps help children in the following ways:

  • By having the camp staff set a sterling interpersonal example for all children to follow.
  • By seeing beyond the bully alone and including his or her target, plus any bystanders, in an intervention.
  • By strengthening bullies’ fragile sense of themselves by providing opportunities for authentic achievement and human connection in various athletic or artistic domains.
  • By teaching bullies to make social connections through healthy interaction. We all want to belong to a group…it’s just the bullies go about it in antisocial ways.
  • By teaching targets to stand up to bullies in ways that makes bullying unrewarding.
  • By setting, early and often in the camp session, strict guidelines for kindness and generosity…and then heaping on the praise when staff witness prosocial behaviours.
  • By providing the kind of close supervision that allows both bullies and targets to replay unacceptable or unassertive interactions under the guidance of experienced adult staff.
  • By deliberately creating a culture of caring that is perhaps different from school or the neighborhood at home…and then immersing children in that culture.
  • By allowing positive peer pressure to exert itself such that children feel appreciated and rewarded for gentleness, honesty, kindness, and unselfishness.

Camps are not a bullying panacea. Outside of camp, there are powerful forces, such as violent media, that infuse children with the notion that violent, even lethal solutions to vexing social problems are both effective and glorious. Nevertheless, camp is a powerful, positive force for change. Educating bullies, targets, and bystanders is just one of the many ways camp enriches lives and changes the world.

So next time you’re talking with a parent about how your camp handles bullying, provide a better answer than “We don’t tolerate bullying.” Instead, explain how your staff is trained to help children make friends. That is the single best way to prevent antisocial behaviour. Give everyone a sense of belonging.

Then, explain how you use a combination of pre-season online training and in-person on-site training to train your staff to spot bullying, teach prosocial behaviors, encourage bystanders to be “upstanders,” and give opportunities for bullies to make amends. There will always be some kinds of egregious misbehaviors that require expulsion from camp, but most instances of bullying are below this safety threshold. Showcase the strength of your camp by outlining how well prepared your staff is to prevent bullying and respond thoughtfully when it occurs.

This article originally appeared in the Week-Ender blog, a product of Camp Business magazine. To subscribe to this content, visit

10 Reasons to Give Kids 10 Seconds

Posted on March 30, 2015 by Dr. Christopher Thurber

In a recent faculty meeting, our Director of Information Technology explained some upgrades to the school’s hardware and software. “One of the benefits of this series of upgrades,” she said, “will be faster load times on the pages you use most, such as the page for entering grades and comments.” One of my colleagues shot her hand up and shared how eagerly she was anticipating these technological enhancements “because some of the load times on these pages are devastatingly slow.” My curiosity piqued as she continued: “I’m sometimes having to wait 3 or 4 seconds. That’s unacceptable.” Wow. If 4 seconds is “devastatingly slow,” I shudder to think how this colleague might tolerate, for example, baking a batch of cookies.

Canadian summer camperI like fast Internet speeds just as much as the next person. And yes, baking is different from online surfing. Heck, 4 seconds is Bugatti-quality if we’re talking about acceleration from 0 to 60mph. Time is a constant, until you approach the speed of light, but the perception of speed is a function of the task. So the question is: How impatient have we become when we find a few seconds of waiting unacceptable?

Cultivating patience is something we all need to do, especially if we work with children. Here are 10 different reasons to give kids 10 seconds. (None involves the Internet. Patient or not, I think we can all agree that faster is better when it comes to page load times. Just don’t take it too hard when your browser takes a deep breath.)

  1. So you can better understand. Kids don’t always say what they mean. (“I’m bored.” “Math is stupid.” “The ref was an idiot.”) When you give yourself 10 seconds to consider how the words that come out of a child’s mouth may differ from their underlying meaning (“I’m sad.” “I don’t understand.” “I’m disappointed we lost.”) then you’ll be in a better position to provide empathy.
  2. So you don’t say something you regret. When you wait before you open your mouth—even if you’re not actually counting to ten—then you are less likely to yell, swear or exaggerate.
  3. So young people feel listened to. Even when you’re feeling calm and confident that you understand what a youngster is thinking and feeling, it can feel good to them when you occasionally pause before responding. It demonstrates you care without your having to say so.
  4. So others have a chance to respond. It’s easy to start believing that you have the best advice until you give other people—both children and adults—a chance to say something. Not only is that behavior deferential, it can also be enlightening.
  5. So that kids have time to process. All young people need time to think about what you’ve said or asked, especially those with a developmental disability such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. Whenever any child is marching to the beat of a different drummer, it’s your job to slow down. Rather than repeat the question or decide for others, wait for them to formulate a response.
  6. So that you sound smarter. The first thing that comes to your mind may have merit, but the second and third things may be even better. It’s fine to say, “Hmm. Let me think about that for a second” and actually give yourself ten. Words of wisdom or more likely after you let a little time tick by.
  7. So that you’re sure the young person is done talking. Adults have a pesky habit of believing they know what a youngster is about to say. By occasionally waiting after one sentence concludes, we may be rewarded by a fresh sentence or a whole new idea. And we can be certain that we haven’t interrupted.
  8. So that play becomes more creative. Outside the confines of a conversation (the focus of reasons 1-7 above), we have other opportunities to give kids space. Play is one domain where adults are constantly interrupting young people. We give directions, advice and scripts when what we should be doing—in a free play situation—is playing along. Try asking a question, such as, “What happens next?” rather than being prescriptive, such as, “That should go here.”
  9. So that youngsters don’t feel “multitasked.” When adults slow down the pace of a verbal or nonverbal interaction with a child or adolescent, it usually means setting aside the mobile devices, the paperwork and the TV remote. Do what you can to provide your full attention, rather than dividing your attention. Quality suffers the more tasks you perform simultaneously.
  10. So that you develop a little more tolerance for waiting. Young people’s brains are still developing. Expect them to be impulsive, reckless, selfish, preoccupied, distractible and, sometimes, downright slow. Give them time to grow and learn without interrupting and rushing them.

Now it’s time to share a surprising piece of data: You don’t have an accurate perception of what 10 seconds feels like in an interaction with a young person. So count it out now, for practice. Stand in front of the mirror and ask yourself a complicated question. Now wait a full 10 seconds for the reply. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand, five one thousand, six one thousand, seven one thousand, eight one thousand, nine one thousand, ten one thousand. Now you’ll be able to do it better in a real-life situation.

It may seem counterintuitive, but an upgrade to your interpersonal interactions entails slowing down, not speeding things up.

This article originally appeared in the Week-Ender blog, a product of Camp Business magazine. To subscribe to this content, visit