My office is unusually quiet today, because the 3rd/4th graders who live on the 2nd floor above me are off at Camp Edwards. Listening to the rain on my window, I am wondering if it’s raining in East Troy, but, even if it is, I know they’re having the time of their lives.
Camp is one of Ancona’s oldest and most beloved traditions. Every spring, when I do an exit interview with each graduate, I learn again how much Ancona’s experiential education program means to them. Camps dominate their fondest memories of their Ancona educations, and I myself have numerous powerful memories of being at various camps and outdoor learning programs with kids from third through eighth grades.
In 2008, I accompanied our 7th/8th graders on our first trip to Camp Chingachgook on Lake George in the Adirondacks. We chose Camp Ching (as I like to call it), because we wanted our uber-urban children not to leave Ancona without at least a taste of wilderness in a non-Midwestern environment. The mountains were aflame with the breathtaking brilliance of a perfect New England fall, and every day was beautifully warm and sunny – until the day of the final challenge, making the three-mile hike to the top of Buck Mountain. It was drizzling, and the rocky path was sometimes slippery. Not one of our students had climbed a mountain before. Many lacked the right kind of boots or rain gear. The camp had estimated three hours for the round trip; it took us five or six. There was plenty of complaining as we slogged our way through the woods and climbed hand over foot up the rocks at the end.
But the reward was awesome. Wet, muddy and hungry, with a scrape from a slip here and there, we perched on a rocky outcropping more than 2,400 feet above Lake George. We devoured our sandwiches and took in the 360° bird’s eye view of the lake and its islands and the many peaks of the Adirondacks surrounding us. It can be difficult to impress some of our tuned-in city kids with something as incredible as a mountain range, but even the dubious and the complainers were proud that they had “made it.” Many grads later recounted conquering Buck Mountain as one of the highlights of their years at Ancona.
Every camp offers our students developmentally appropriate learning challenges that are both physical and mental. There’s much talk nowadays about the importance of grit as a capacity we want to cultivate in children. Educational researchers are looking at how and whether grit can be taught. Well, it takes grit to hike up a mountain in the rain or to overcome your fear to get to the top of a climbing wall or to keep going in your canoe when you’ve never done it before and for some reason, you’re going in circles. From these experiences, children learn not only that their bodies can accomplish more than they imagined, but that perseverance, determination, grit – call it what you will – pays off in accomplishments and satisfaction. They learn that one doesn’t have to be completely comfortable or happy while learning something to feel great once it’s achieved, and because these lessons take place in authentic settings away from the comforts of home, they make a particularly powerful, emotional impact on the brain. These are fundamentally crucial lessons our students can apply to their lives, their work in the classrooms and their later educations.
Our kids return from each trip a little prouder, a little more self-confident, a little more mature – and full of great memories.