Day 33: Losing Control

I realize that the phrase “losing control” may conjure images of two distressed counsellors and a room full of rowdy kids.  Or perhaps thoughts of disorganization and a lack of planning come to mind.  Well, that is certainly not what I am trying to imply here.

It feels like we have hit our stride with programming this week.  Just by making a few small changes in our approach to camp, we have been able to create a very different environment for the kids that seems to be making them more willing to engage and try new things.  I really believe that a lot of this has to do with simultaneously being more organized and being willing to give up control.  To some this may sound like too much of an oxymoron to make sense, but hopefully I will be able to explain what I am trying to get at.

For the most part, we have stopped trying to have kids stop and start activities at the same time.  We have also been much more fluid in our transitions between activities.  With only two of us and sometimes upwards of 20 kids in a camp environment, it is easy to assume that an increased level of scheduling and discipline is the easiest way to run an effective program.  I think this assumption is wrong.

We have shifted our program to involve an ongoing range of different activities that kids can choose to begin at different times.  We have also created more self-directed activities that kids can move through at their own pace.  We actively encourage everyone to participate in all of the activities and have found that more participate if they have a chance to observe for a little while and then gradually join in.  This is very different from trying to gather a large group, providing one set of instructions, and asking everyone to begin at the same time.  This almost always results in a small group of kids who are interested and a large majority who either refuse to participate or are too shy to contribute.

Without a doubt this new approach can be challenging at times and it sometimes feels like we are creating more work for ourselves (we are continually setting up new activities and explaining things to kids individually), but it is not surprising to me that engagement has increased.  I dislike being herded through a set of activities as much as the next adult, so why would kids feel any different?  But, given the chance to try new things in a way that gives me agency, I am much more likely to participate and contribute.

It is hard to let go of that control though.  When a room gets noisy or not everyone is working on one activity, it is easy to feel like you are doing something wrong.  But this need for constant control is what makes classrooms feel unwelcoming to kids who should be given freedom to explore and learn to think for themselves.

A more flexible model like this (or something like it) is what I talk about for our education system all the time.  Anyone close to me knows that it does not take much to set me off on a rant about the ways that our schools often expend unnecessary energy trying to control kids for the wrong reasons.  But rant aside, it is nice to be able to try a new approach, at least in some small way.  I am certainly not claiming to have it all figured out after some trial and error with  a day camp program, but in a world where maintaining power and control often appears to be the highest priority, I will say that I think a little bit of patience can go a long way.

I want to write more about this and spend some more time thinking about what this means in the context of education, but these are just a few thoughts for now.  If there is one thing that I have been learning it is that a willingness to lose control does not always make things easier, but it can make a world of difference to a kid trying to find their way.

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