I am hideously, monstrously out of date when it comes to cataloging the various adventures on this trip. My pockets are full of little wads of paper, each covered with hastily-scribbled descriptions of the projects I’ve visited and quotes from the dedicated and inspiring people who have shown me around. I’m trying to catch up, but for awhile it’s safe to assume that whatever I’m talking about happened some time ago.
After New York we flew to California, landing in Arcata and then exploring the redwoods, the coast and inland. Then down south to San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley – which is where I am now, ensconced in a comfortable sublet and surrounded by all my bits of paper.
Doing this trip without a private car has been an exercise in patience and sociability, waiting for buses and cadging lifts from colleagues and new friends. The most recent leg, down the coast from Arcata to San Francisco, logged some serious bus hours. I’d made the crucial mistake of checking all my reading material into the compartment bel in favour of looking out at the scenery, and this had seemed like a great plan until we stopped outside Santa Rosa in a line of traffic that extended up the nearest hill and away. I’d stared out the window until my neck was cricked permanently to the right, my brain slowly turning inside-out from boredom.
Luckily we weren’t that far from a stop and, knowing that there was much more traffic to come, I leapt off the bus and grabbed one of every free publication available in the Greyhound station racks. Once back aboard, I saw I had four different real estate magazines and an old copy of the Christian Science Monitor.
Having perused the luxury condominiums of Marin County as long as I could bear, I turned to the CSM and found, to my glee, an article on summer camps. Having just spent two weeks working at one, a piece on their history, cultural resonance and potential demise was perfectly timed.
I was on a grant-funded day camp for children aged 8 – 12 in rural Northern California and spent a happy session tie-dyeing shirts and playing rainbow tag, wading through icy creeks looking for crawdaddies and panning for gold. The local area has been economically deprived for many years and, in spite of a recent influx of new farmers, tells a classic story of a long-closed timber mill, widespread unemployment, young parents, large families and few teeth.
The children were all local and represented a range of family cultures, expectations and experiences. For the most part though, the children at the camp had an amazing facility with their worlds and were confident in their ability to navigate and master it in a way I had rarely seen in city kids. Many kept animals and had their own produce gardens at home, went hunting in the woods, were strong swimmers and able collectors of tadpoles. During a ‘get to know you’ game on the first day, we paired off and came up with two things we could teach our partner. Mine told me that she could teach me “how to raise chickens. And babies.” They were bright, engaging, curious and expressive – at the end of the session I waved them all off with that peculiar pang of knowing that they would stick in my memory, and that they had already moved on.
The classic American summer camp is residential and all summer long in semi-wild surroundings, with a vaguely ‘Native’ sounding name and lots of sleeping outdoors, singing around campfires, pulling pranks and getting dumped in lakes. This one, day and run in two-week sessions, had a core curricumum of arts and crafts followed by trips to creeks. It was tightly scheduled, but with time for free play built in. All campers and counsellors were reminded of the two core rules of respect (for self, one another and surroundings) and safety. In all of these respects the camp I was at seems indicative of the wider changes cataloged by the CRM article.
At the same time though, it was not about improving their test scores or literacy. It was about showing the children the wonders of the natural world that surrounded them – which some of them had scarcely seen. It was about making friends and new connections, being with adults who were there to support you, rather than grade your achievements. For the co-ordinator, it ultimately about fostering a sense of pride in children for where they come from and broadening their ideas of what they were capable of.
Camp counsellors are not playworkers, but I learned so much about supporting children’s explorations of the natural world and about different ways of structuring adult-child relationships. I’m understanding more and more how culturally particular the UK notion of playwork is, and how if a version of it is to develop here how it must be equally particular to the cultural needs and touchstones of American children.