Leading the simple life – at camp!

In his book, Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne asks the question,  “Are we building our families on the four pillars of too much: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information and too fast.” 

He argues that these trends are robbing kids of their childhood and creating stressed-out children who are hypervigilant, nervous, anxious and lacking in resiliency, empathy and impulse control. His solution is to slow down, reduce clutter, filter the flow of information and in general, simplify life.

My first thought on reading this was: “or register them for camp!”

“Too much stuff”

At camp, children learn to do with less. Campers are urged to restrict their possessions and wardrobe to the necessary items on the camp list − preferably old clothes that can withstand rough treatment and nobody (including mother) will be upset if they get dirty, torn or lost.

Labels have no relevance as long as the clothing provides warmth and protection if the weather turns cold or wet. Valuable items and electronic devices should be left at home.

No need for a cellphone; your camp friends are always nearby to chat with face-to-face. Camper cabins have limited space, which is shared with others.

Campers make do with their own bunk (which doubles as their lounging area during the day), some floor space to plant their suitcase and maybe exclusive rights to a cubby or shelf. They learn to keep their belongings collected and tidy – no television, audio equipment or spacious cupboards in sight.    

“Too many choices”

Choosing a camp from the plethora of options may be a formidable task, but once the decision is made, life becomes simpler. There are some choices to be made at camp, but the options are limited and manageable.

Payne states: “Children given so very many choices learn to undervalue them all and hold out − always− for whatever elusive thing isn’t offered.” Balance is the answer.

Some choice is good to give children some control and enable them to learn to make good decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. At camp, individuals or cabin groups make daily choices about which activities they will attend. Some camps schedule new campers to an introductory period at each activity, then allow them to focus on a few. 

Sometimes there is no choice. On an island property, water safety trumps choice and swim lessons may be mandatory until a certain level of expertise is achieved.   

Camps cater to children with special dietary needs or food allergies and some choices may be available at a meal, but for the most part meals are served at the same time each day and the menu is fixed. Camp kitchens prepare meals that are nutritious, abundant and appealing.

After an active day, even fussy eaters happily eat what is served. I recall one new young camper who joined my table on the first morning of camp. Megan sipped her orange juice but refused to eat anything.  The choice of hot oatmeal or a cold cereal followed by pancakes did not suit her.

I asked her what she ate for breakfast at home and was told, “cold pizza.” I assured her that one day she could anticipate hot pizza for lunch, but cold pizza for breakfast was not happening!

By lunch she was hungry enough to eat what was offered. Sometimes at camp, menus are repeated on a weekly basis: Wednesday morning sleep-in breakfast, Saturday night dinner barbecue or make-your-own-subs for lunch on cook’s day off.

Campers look forward to these predictable, repeated menus. In a carefree setting where watches and calendars are rarely consulted, repetition helps keep track of the days.

“Too much information”      

In researching a recent book, I heard the story of a bus group of students who left Toronto on a Monday morning, heading north to a camp in Muskoka for a week of outdoor education.

When they arrived at camp two hours later, the teachers and students were oblivious to the fact that in the short time while they were en route, the world, as we know it, had changed forever. It was Sept. 11, 2001.

The principal had called the camp to warn the staff that the students may not stay; however, shortly after the bus arrived, he confirmed that the camp visit would go ahead as scheduled.

The school and camp staff then conferred quickly and decided they would not share the frightening but as yet incomplete information with the Grade 8 students. As no students had a cellphone or access to a radio or television, the camp program continued as if nothing had happened. 

On departure morning, the school principal arrived to explain the event as best as he could to his students.  Shielded from the knowledge of outside events, the students had fully enjoyed the benefits of their short camp stay.

Directors are sometimes accused of creating a perfect paradise at camp and protecting children from the harsh realities of life. I believe they should be commended, not condemned.

In a world where we are constantly barraged by tragic news and catastrophic events, which even adults are challenged to comprehend, a peaceful respite at summer camp should be lauded.

“Too fast”

Events at camp unfold at a steady, calming pace. With the exception of a swim or canoe race on regatta day, no one rushes.

There are short periods each day when campers do nothing − if watching the clouds roll by, lying on a bunk and chatting with friends or attempting to catch frogs is considered nothing. Given some free time, campers will amuse themselves by dealing a deck of cards, challenging a cabin mate to a game of tetherball or spontaneously organizing a game of kick-the-can.   

A primary predictor of success in life is the ability to get along with others. There is no better place than the child-centred, slow paced, uncluttered, peaceful, stress-reduced, simplified camp environment to acquire this valuable skill.

Catherine Ross is a Canadian Camping Association Communications Officer.