If only school was like camp

English: It is good sportsmanship to shake han...

English: It is good sportsmanship to shake hands with your opponent after playing a tennis match, whether or not you have won or lost. Français : Il est d’usage de serrer la main de son adversaire à la fin d’un match de tennis, que l’on soit le gagnant ou le perdant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

July 9, 2012 – sorry for the very short post yesterday.  I accidentally hit the “publish” button, instead of “draft.”

The last couple of years we have come up with a list of a possible options and let M choose which camp he is most interested in, depending on availability and our vacation schedule. This year, he decided to do 4 weeks of tennis camp and 2 speciality camps at the community centre – circus and magic. This is his 4th year at the same tennis camp, so M’s pretty comfortable with the staff and the routine. Many of the counselors who work at the After School program also work during the summer, so it is also familiar territory.Having two work parents who work full-time means that M spends the a good chunk of the summer at day camp. We are lucky that our neighbourhood offers a number of camp options, within walking/biking distance – drama, gymnastics, and karate. Plus, the community centre where he goes after school runs a full slate of camps throughout the summer.

It is early days, but tennis camp seems to be a big hit this summer. For one thing, M is a pretty fair tennis player. But even more importantly, he does well at the camp. We get very few reports of behavioural problems and he finishes each week feeling good about himself. They also do some sailing during the day and even though M sometimes sits this part out, it’s not a big deal.  There is a different theme for each day and while the school say’s he doesn’t like to take risks, he left the house one morning wearing a blue wig and a crooked tiara in celebration of Crazy Hair day. There is a tournament on the last day of week and while M has won on a number of occasions, he didn’t seem too concerned about winning this time around.

When I asked him why he thinks that he does so well at tennis camp, he told me that it was fun – “school should be like camp.”

So what’s the difference? Obviously, camp is more fun than school. It’s not to say that school is never fun, but there’s a whole set of expectations associated with school.  Camp is more relaxed and the kids are active.  M’s teacher lets the kids in his class move around a fair amount, but there are certain times when they are expected to be quiet or sit in a certain spot. This is hard for lots of kids, including M. Being outdoors and constantly moving around avoids the whole issue of sitting still and paying attention.

A big plus for M is that he knows what to expect at tennis camp.  No matter what week he attends, the schedule will be basically the same – he knows that every Tuesday is Crazy Hair day. This is a big deal for an anxious kid with ADHD. I know M’s teacher works hard to keep the class apprised of the agenda from day-to-day, but changes in the routine are the norm, rather than the exception. The teacher could be absent or there could be a parent in the class for some or part of the day. But the tennis camp has followed roughly the same schedule every summer M’s attended.  While some children might find this tedious and repetitive, M finds it comforting. The more predictability the better.

The other part that works well for M is that the kids earn points for almost everything they do during the week – the team with the most points at the end of the week wins. I don’t think M’s ever been on the #1 team, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. This seemed strange to me, given how much he likes to win. But I realized that it is earning the points that is important to M because it gives his tangible and immediate feedback on his performance. He wears a costume for Super Hero day and he gets points. Looking at it this way, it isn’t a big surprise that he is so willing to dress up almost every day, even if it means wearing a pink tiara. One of the key pillars of M’s school is non-competitiveness, which I fully support in principle. But M is a naturally competitive child. Rather than get over-whelmed by the points system at camp, he seems to thrive on it. The rules are clear and there doesn’t seem to be much deviation (although he was pretty annoyed that the child who beat him out for 1st prize on Crazy Hair day apparently got extra points for wearing a full costume).

Because he is comfortable at tennis camp, M performs really well. The first couple of years, if he lost in the final tournament, he tended to get upset and would yell or throw his racquet (we explained that while John McEnroe used to do this, it was not generally considered good form). But he has become a much better sport, to the point where even if he doesn’t win, he can still cheer on his teammates during their matches. Being a good sport is a life skill that is not always easy to master – by his own admission, M’s dad isn’t always a good sport about losing.  There are also plenty of examples of professional athletes who are paid big bucks but are sore losers. It is also important to learn to win gracefully and avoid hurting anyone else’s feelings. These are not skills that M possesses naturally (really, who does?), but through tennis camp, he is learning about being a winner and accepting when he doesn’t.

Another reason M does well at tennis camp, is that there isn’t much free time, except at the end of the day. They keep the kids pretty busy. Unstructured time is fine for M at home but at school or a large group setting, it is more problematic. Today we got a call from the community centre saying he had a minor conflict with another child after lunch.  Turns out it was during “free time,” which 9 times out of 10 is the most challenging part of the day for M. During these times, the rules of engagement aren’t as clear to him and a simple exchange with another child can quickly escalate.

I don’t expect school to become like camp. What would be the point of camp if that was the case? But looking more closely at what makes camp work from M’s perspective is instructive – structure, clear rules that everyone follows and lots of reinforcement for participating. Something to think about over the summer, before school starts up again.


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