Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Camp is Open

Our Troop had planned on going to Camp Loll, right up by Yellowstone the last week of June into July, but while I was out of town the week before at a family reunion, I got a call to let me know that Loll was still under several feet of snow. We had to either switch to a different week or go to Camp New Fork instead. After my Assistant Scoutmaster called around to all the boys, we figured that no matter when we go, someone can't make it, so we might as well go the week we had originally planned.

I had wanted to go to Loll or New Fork, since I hadn't been to those camps before and had heard they were nice. Both camps are in Wyoming, a few hours apart. But I was scared of New Fork.

The problem was that New Fork runs an open program. That is, instead of signing up for classes that you attend at a certain time, you don't really sign up for most things. There were still a few classes that they taught at certain days and times, but most merit badges and activities are just whenever you want to do them. As a Scoutmaster that wanted to relax at camp while the boys head off to their classes, this scared me. As a constructivist and a firm believer that the boys need to run their own program and learn to be leaders through a combination of their own successes and failures, this should have been the ultimate camp. But I was scared nonetheless, which was why we picked Loll. I picked Loll.

Well, I have to say that it worked out rather well. I would even go so far as to say New Fork was one of my favorite camps. I imagine there would be some groups of Scouts for whom New Fork would not have ideal. We had it good, since we had all first year campers who worked on all the same merit badges, so my ASM and I went around with them to all their classes. If they'd all been at different classes they might have had a harder time staying on task without our gentle reminders. It also helped that the dad of one of the boys and the former Scoutmaster who was up the first couple days with us told the boys he'd take anyone to dinner if they earned 7 merit badges. So they were motivated by a reward and were lacking the influence of older boys who might have taught them some of bad habits that are sometimes learned at camp, like skipping classes.

We pretty much did all of the canoeing merit badge by ourselves the first day, with just a few things that I didn't know so we had to follow up with the waterfront staff later. We also worked on a couple other merit badges in camp ourselves. For the ones they worked on with the camp staff, they just pretty much showed up and worked on things and signed off each requirement for the merit badges as they completed them with what I'd call a junior counselor. When all the requirements were completed for a given award, they'd go to the adult over that area, who would then sign off the whole thing after doing a quick review of what they had already passed off.

Normal merit badge classes at other camps go the whole week or sometimes half the week, and if you attend every day (even if you're not paying attention), you earn it. The problem with that is if you already have done much of it or are quick at completing things, you still have to wait the whole week. With the open system, if you finish something in one day, you can start something else without missing out on what they did the first day in the other class.

Part of the benefit was kind of a psychological thing. At regular camps, usually kids will sign up for 3 or 4 classes and attend those classes in the morning each day. Then they will have free time for a few hours in the afternoon. There are merit badges that can be earned in free time, and some kids take advantage of those to earn several more on top of the classes they signed up for. However, most kids want to play during free time. It's free time. Come on, we should play, go swimming, take the boats out, carve spears, burn stuff, etc. The difference with the open system is that there is no separate class time and free time, just program time. So not having a designated free time (even though it was really all like a regular camp's free time), there was less feeling of entitlement to a break, since it was all program time.

There were a few things I didn't like, such as the junior staff not being empowered to do anything out of the ordinary - almost every question or request I had was answered with a referral to the area director. Also, there were several merit badges that they didn't have all the materials needed to complete it at camp, so the kids had to take a partial home to finish up. I should also mention the freezing cold water, but there's not much they can do about that one.

As we talked about where the boys want to go next year, they all wanted to come back, since none of them wants to have to sit through a boring class. So they worked harder than they would have sitting through boring classes and enjoyed doing it. I like trying new things, so I may pick Loll again next year, but it really is the boys' program, so if they can put together a cohesive argument, it may be New Fork again.

Our troop, the troop from Salt Lake we shared our campsite with, and our troop friend.

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