5 Ways Camps are Creating Self Determined Environments

Posted on 2/19/15 7:00 AM by Laura Kriegel




The number one trend in camps this year is creating self-determined environments. The Theory of Self Determination developed by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, states that people are intrinsically motivated if their three psychological needs are met, those psychological needs are the need for autonomy, connection, and competence. Bob Ditter, a clinical social worker and long time summer camp expert, says the most successful and impactful camps meet campers psychological needs. Jack and I became obsessed with the idea that summer camp could unlock kids' intrinsic motivation and lead them to believe that they can do, make, and be whatever they want in their lives. As we traveled around the country for 2 years searching for camps and collecting best practices in the industry, we took special note of the camps that went above and beyond to create Self-Determined environments. 



1, Trust and Choice 

Boston Explorers is a program created and run by Alphonse Litz and Bob Ditter. Alphonse and Bob provide campers with the ability to choose and structure their own day and make their own decisions. This kind of trust and autonomy are rare in camping environments and much rarer in city day camps. Every morning at Boston Explorers, campers have a chance to make something with their hands in a wood shop. Campers choose what to make and, through the process of making, develop competence and confidence. Kids can choose to make anything including the wooden swords which many boys love, Bob is sure to let you know. 


2. Specific Environments and Loose parts

At camps such as YMCA Camp Kitaki, they have brought Self-Determination into the fold by creating environments that allow for self-directed play. Fort Pawnee, for example, is an impressive play area complete with a stockade fence and scaleable turrets. Located inside its walls are different areas filled with loose parts: there is a stage with costumes for dress up, a pile of tree rounds to for building structures, logs to jump off, and pots and pans to make messy mudpies. Last summer, Kitaki added a music playground. This space is filed with outdoor xylophones, drums, and other noise makers. The magic of these spaces is not the cool new stuff, but the time that is structured into the schedule that allows kids to encounter these spaces and engage in self-directed play and learning. Jason Smith, Kitaki's executive director, says that the music playground is often quiet until one brave camper begins to make their own music. When one camper leads the music-making, he says, others quickly follow and, before long, an outdoor orchestra can be heard throughout camp. Check out YMCA Camp Kitaki.


3. Makerspaces

Parts and Crafts is a community resource for homeschooling families, it is also a makerspace, an after school program, and a day camp during the summer. The space is filled with tools like a 3D printer, a full wood-shop, sodding irons, and computers. They also have every kind of craft supply and loose part you can imagine. Kids can choose from a structured activity or engage in their own self-directed project. Staff are ready and roaring  to provide resources and advice. When Jack and I visited, there were kids learning the computer language Python while others played boardgames on the floor. Katie, one of the founders, was telling us that when you trust kids to find what makes them happy, the learning process follows. We definitely met some happy kids who were totally in their element. Makerspaces at camps look different across the country, some with great tools and others with simpler arts and crafts supplies. The magic of these environments is that the campers are the masters of the domain and they direct what and how their creations will be built. In a makerspace, the process not the product counts. Find out more about Parts and Crafts


4. Night games

Many camps we visited played incredibly immersive night games. Camp Widjiwagen in Tennessee prides itself on creating whole new worlds based on popular books or movies for campers to step into. At Camp Augusta in Northern California, they create real camp magic from the night games that they create for their campers. These kinds of Night Games successfully create self-determined environments because they allow campers to play as an individual traveling though the game independent of a team. Each camper becomes the main character of their own adventure. This allows campers to associate with who they want to be around, what they want to interact with, and how engaged in the game they want to be. This summer at Vanderkamp with James Davis, we took a crack at creating these types of games. it was a huge success. Find out more at Go Camp Pro.


5. Creating a place for kids to call their own. Stomping Ground.

Jack and I have been so fortunate to meet so many inspiring people pushing the camp industry forward and trying to create the best environments for kids to be themselves. This summer, we have decided to combine everything we learned and test it out in a one-week residential camp. We are excited to be partnering with Scott Arizalla, Sylvia Van Meertan, and James Davis to create a self-determined environment for kids. Our unique approach is that we are taking away any presumption that we know what is best for any kid. We want to trust kids to make decisions that will lead them to discover just what makes them happy. We want to provide them with a safe and loving environment where we say yes to their whim and help them to test out their ideas. Self-determined environments offer campers and participants the opportunity to feel connected to a community, competent in their actions and thoughts, and the freedom to encourage kids to make their own decisions. As we embark on this new project, we hope to share our findings with the industry and to continue improving how to best serve kids in our communities. More about Stomping Ground.