What I Learned at Summer Camp

As many of y’all know, I spent this summer working for Plato Learning, a company that runs mythology-themed summer camps all over the country. They’re inspired by and somewhat based off of the Percy Jackson series, none of which I had read before applying for the position. (I’m ten books in now). My job, as Quest Director and Chronicler, was to immerse the campers into the mythological world of Camp Half-Blood.

The whole experience was wild, and I loved it so much. Even when it was stressful, even when I was tired, even when it was 95 degrees and 99% humidity outside (which was every day except one). I’ve never worked with that age group (7-13yos) in so much depth. We’d occasionally do middle school workshops at the ASC, and sometimes I’d have tours for elementary schoolers, but most of my work there was with high schoolers and college students. My K-5 work at the science museum was very hit-and-run, 45 minutes with a class and then out. So this was new for me, but a lot of fun, because I actually love this age group. They’re old enough to be somewhat independent, they don’t need constant hand-holding, but they’re (mostly) not so old that they’ve abandoned make-believe. (This varies by kid, of course; some are 40 years old when they’re 5, whereas I, obviously, have never actually outgrown fantasy play).

Blonde woman in an orange racerback tank; her hair braided with dandelions

So here are some things I learned at summer camp:

Kids Make Friends So Freaking Easily

Seriously. This is a skill children have that adults have forgotten. Put kids together in a group, and they’ll immediately sort out a social hierarchy with the ruthless efficiency of a pack of hyenas. Like a bunch of stray protons, neutrons, and electrons, they gravitate into molecules. It takes basically no time.

Established units can be hard to break into, mind you. If two kids came already friends, they sometimes needed nudging to branch out and include other people. That happened more with our sets of girls who came pre-packaged than with, say, sibling units — who were often perfectly happy to be separated.

But it’s just amazing to watch these total strangers figure out, in the space of a morning, who they share interests with, who they like to play with, who they want to be on a team with. It was brilliant to watch the older campers who were willing to take on a mentorship role with our itty-bitties.

Kids Worry Too Much about Being Cool

Okay, some adults do this, too, but there were so many times this summer when I wanted to take a kid aside and just be like, “Look, you can keep trying to be ‘cool’, whatever that’s even supposed to mean, or you can lean into the story of what we’re doing here. I promise you will have a better time if you lean into the story.” Every single camper that didn’t enjoy camp was a kid more worried about being cool than having fun. A few campers fell into a really interesting place, where I could tell they were on that cusp — old enough to start to feel that worry, but they could still be lured into forgetting it. Who they were around mattered a lot — those social groups they instantly formed weren’t always a good thing.

Take this one kid. Let’s call him Eric. Eric, week one, paired off super fast with another kid, who we’ll call Trey. Trey was a mopey zoo lion. He had his own problems with divorcing parents and being hyper over-scheduled — not a bad kid, but he tended to become A Problem because he was just absolutely not in the headspace to enjoy this camp. This camp has a fairly high level of buy-in necessary! You have to be willing to play make-believe. And Trey did not have the spoons to spare for that. Eric did. Eric wanted to be into it. Not always in the best ways — he was one of our murderbeasts who frequently had to be reminded of heroic conduct during swordfighting — but he wanted to be in the world. Unless he was hanging out with Trey. When they were together, they got into this awful feedback loop which led them to be disruptive, bully other kids, deride all our activities as “so cringe,” and generally make me want to dunk them in the lake.

Trey phased himself out and stopped coming to camp. And when he wasn’t there, Eric was so much easier to handle. Still a wildly energetic little murderbeast, but one who was playing the game. Playing it so hard that we almost had to tackle him sometimes, but also — in a moment that made me so proud I could’ve cried — the first kid to put down his sword and show compassion for one of the monsters the campers needed to befriend rather than attack. Once he let himself go and stopped worrying about how other people were judging him, he was fully immersed.

So many times during camp, I was grateful that I realized very early in life that cool was never going to be an option for me. I had to lean into weird, and I did so with gusto.

The Buy-In

Mind you, once you get the kids to buy-in, they do so whole-heartedly. The kids who were there for the game — even though they were plenty old enough to understand the difference between fiction and reality — went all in. These were my favorite kids, honestly. The ones who wanted to unravel every riddle. Who were convinced every single thing they found in the forest was a clue — not just the things that were part of the Quest, but, well… Litter. Broken twigs. Park signs. Bird feathers. Mortals.

Yeah, kids. You reject that reality and substitute your own. Go for it.

GIF: Pocahontas jumping off a cliff into water, captioned "I regret nothing"

What’s particularly wonderful is the ability they have to terrify themselves once they get into it. I was most proud of this with my monsters the last week, which were as creepy as I could make them on a budget. And the kids did not want to fight them. They were petrified. I had never heard them so quiet as when they were trying to sneak past these ghoulish creatures.

I remember that feeling, where the boundary between reality and imagination blurs. Where you manage to psych yourself up and actually feel the thrill of fear, the heart-pounding exultation of Being On A Quest. I miss it, not infrequently, but you hit a certain point of adulthood and it just gets harder and harder to summon. Getting to be the person who built it for someone else, though? That was fun.

Pratchett Was Right

I mean, he generally is. But what I said above about the murderbeasts? I’m thinking specifically about when, in Hogfather, Pratchett wisely tells us:

Most people forgot that the oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories more acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than to the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quote keen on blood provided it’s being shed by the deserving*), and then wondered where the stories went.

*That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with kids.

I’ve always been vaguely aware that, yes, this is correct. But it came into sharp focus when I realized I was spending a significant amount of any given day telling the campers that, no, they could not sacrifice one of their number to the gods. No, they could not sacrifice me, either. No, not their counselor. No, you may not catch a lizard and sacrifice it. No, you may not sacrifice a mortal (our term for the mundane folk wandering the park, often quite oblivious to our chaos). No sacrifices, I swear to Juno, if I have to tell you again!

We also tried to steer them away from language of death and killing when it came to dueling, whether each other or the monsters and villains that showed up during Quest Day. The idea is to defeat them, stun them if you have to (which is what our foam swords are designed to do), but murder is not heroic. (Never mind the example set by… Well, basically every Greek hero in the traditional mold. And most of the Celts. And the Norse. It’s been 3000 years; we’re supposed to have evolved from them — and several of our Quests did include things like Odysseus and Perseus apologizing for all the morally questionable things they did back in the day). We were more successful with some kids than others.

GIF: Theoden, raising his sword, screaming "DEATH"

Also, Cults

This, I knew instinctively and from my own youthful experiences, but these kids verified it for me. Leave a group of children to their own devices long enough — and it won’t take long — and give them liberty of imagination, and they will inevitably start a cult.

We had at least three in in four weeks, that I was aware of. One was to a pig-god of their own invention. One involved T-posing. (I’m still not really sure what that is; I am assured it’s a TikTok thing; no, I am not asking for further information.) One was dedicated to the turtles in the lake. They came up with chants. They performed summonses. And, of course, they wanted to perform sacrifices, because what good is a cult without sacrifice?

They’re Here; They’re Queer; I’m Jealous

I think one of the things that surprised me the most was that we had a few queer kids in every week. Some were very certain of themselves; some were still exploring, testing out new names or pronouns, trying on new identities. Which is fine, by the way! “It’s just a phase”, okay, so? That’s how kids discover who they are. They try things on to see what fits. Let them. I really love that camp was a safe place for them to do that. There were a few who wanted us to use one name with them during the day, but not use it in front of their parents.

What gobsmacked me, though, was how comfortable most of them were with it. The ideas weren’t baked-in for everyone. I overheard — and monitored — several conversations about what “trans” and “nonbinary” mean, but I didn’t hear any meanness about those things. Confusion, lack of awareness from some, yeah; but once it was explained, they pretty much all just shrugged and went on with the day. And so many kids already had that language. That was what astonished me! This one little boy, in discussing who his “godly parent” or patron might be, talked about Apollo. And he went on about different things, liking music, liking to be out in the sun, and so forth. Then he quite casually adds, “Plus, he’s bisexual and I’m bisexual, so that’s cool.”

Ten years old. Just pops out with that.

I was fully eighteen before I was able to reconcile that within myself, even though in a lot of ways it should have been staggeringly obvious well before then. But I didn’t have the language, and I didn’t have the comfort. I only knew a few people who were openly queer in some way (then; many have turned out to be in the course of time), and it was still much more furtively discussed. The counselors, who aren’t that much older than these kids, but enough to be just slightly more towards youngest-Millennials/oldest-Zoomers than these late-Zoomers/early-Alphas (is that really what we’re calling the post-Zoomers? Ugh), were also astonished. In just a few years, the awareness and acceptance has radically accelerated. (Representation matters, y’all).

A Week Is Long, But Not Long Enough

It’s amazing how much you can get to know a kid in a week, even at just a day camp like this one. Their personalities are so open, so much on display, and at that age, they’re so eager to tell you who they are and what they like!

But there’s a difficult side to that, too. A week is long enough to get a glimpse into their lives — and to see which kids, like Trey, are having a rough time. Or the kid with anger management issues and a lot of self-blame about them, who I had to talk down out of a couple of shame spirals. Or the hyper-competitive daughters of Nike whose bullying behavior could, I figured out, be traced to and in no small part blamed on a sports coach that appears to be an absolute monster.

I can learn those things in a week. But I can’t fix them. A week — or two or three, even, since we had some campers join us for more of the month — just isn’t enough time to dig in and really deal with the hard issues. I was surprised at how rough that was on me, and it made me realize that if I were to have a job where I was with kids full-time, like an elementary school teacher, I would just be perpetually emotionally exhausted. And I’m not a therapist or anyone else with actual training in dealing with those issues, anyway. I’m just a person who’s dealt with her own share of bad stuff and has developed some tools to deal with it.

The best I could do, I realized, was just… try to be a counterpoint in their lives. An example of something other than what they’d been taught by toxic influences. To show empathy and compassion, to say some words that I have found useful and meaningful in tough times, and to hope they remember that later.

GIF: Cinderella, "We must simply have courage and be kind, mustn't we?"

So those are the things, by and large, that I learned at summer camp.

It was awesome. I want to keep doing this. Yes, a lot about it was challenging, but I loved being responsible for building a fantasy world, and these kids are fascinating and just so much fun.