Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center runs two camps for children ages 5-15 in Mattapan and West Roxbury. Campers are placed by age into small, counselor-led groups and each group has its own weekly curriculum based on a nature theme within an age-appropriate framework. Weekly themes are explored through hands-on, minds-on activities including nature observation and investigation, trail explorations, outdoor play, and more.
Campers remember the small interactions they have with counselors and campers more than anything else; when staff focus on building positive relationships campers are more successful and connected to the program.
Building traditions into the everyday life of camp makes for easier transitions from home to camp, builds a stronger community and promotes a sense of ownership for campers.
Children and adults respond to a diversity instruction methods including verbal instruction, visual instructions and modeling.
The teaching practices you model when training your staff is the way they will teach throughout the summer.
What strategies do staff use to encourage students to actively listen to one another?
Overall we spend a good portion of staff training on positive behavior management. While Camp BNC is a place for children to connect to nature and have hands-on science experiences, we also want them to grow as person. We want children to build friendship, learn new skills and traits, practice working with others, try out leadership roles and more.
We build a safe and inclusive environment that focuses on reinforcing positive behaviors and less on punishment. It is key that staff model the behavior that we want to see in children. We use appropriate and positive language when talking to children and others and listen respectfully when children are talk to us. We don’t shout but find other ways to gain attention. We have five camp rules that everyone follows. They are written in a positive format and include both the rewards for following the rules and the steps that all of the take when a role is forgotten. We want to highlight and reward positive behavior but be consistent and compassionate when correcting behavior.
Every week as a camp we review the rules and discuss what happens when you remember a rule. We praise campers, we give out leaves where staff recognize kids in writing, and we have special activities for the group and so on. We encourage staff to reward children for small victories. A child shouldn’t have to do 20 great things to be recognized for their good behavior. If a child is having challenges throughout the day but has a moment where they are listening and engaged the staff should recognize it with positive reinforcement.
A child can also receive a reward that benefits their whole group or even the whole camp. It is a powerful lesson that your behavior can impact the whole community in a positive way. Too often the usual refrain is that your actions are disrupting the group or because of your behavior the group loses out. It’s wonderful to see a kid who struggles at camp or at school, and here they do something good and the whole camp gets so excited. I had this one camper who had some challenges, and I often worked with their family to help them be successful. One day, I called them to share that their child earned a reward for the whole camp because of their positive behavior. The family was overwhelmed because a program had never called them to say her child did a good thing.
We emphasize that positive behavior management is a learning opportunity for the child. It may be an instance where the child learns how to reflect on their motivation or chance to give them tools to help relate with their peers. It’s appropriate for children to make mistakes, to act impulsively or struggle to control their emotions or actions. The staff are there to help children to understand, how they went wrong, what they could you do better in the future, and what are the tools they can use to be more successful.
We could have fancy gadgets, expensive toys and bring them to six flags every week but really what the campers remember are these small compassionate moments they have with the counselors when the. We want those moments to be positive and successful.
How do staff model forms of effective communication with one another?
One of the things, and it seems small, is we don’t allow any yelling at camp. Raised voices, even if it is a positive message, changes the energy at camp. It encourages the campers to raise their voices, it lowers the expectation that we should listen to each other and does not respect the conversations or activities that the campers are engaged in. Staff use call and responses to gain the campers attention in both small groups and large group setting. We want to create a camp atmosphere of calm, listening, caring, and respect.
Each day we opportunities to hear different voices. Each morning and afternoon we hold an all camp meeting – morning circle and afternoon blob. Camp directors, assistant directors, counselors, junior counselor and campers lead elements of these camp get together. Campers lead most of the meeting by reading announcements, leading songs, telling jokes, and demonstrating stretches, and more. Campers are practicing speaking in public, holding an audience’s attention and the importance of listening. We are constantly modeling that when one person is talking, the whole camp is listening whether they are campers or counselors.
How does your program encourage students to reflect on their projects, and what are the benefits of reflection time after an activity?
Camp BNC’s curriculum is an inquiry based science program in which children learn and practice science skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, and environmental literacy in a real-world settings. Learning about the world around them with exploration activities and open ended questions allows for staff and students to reflect on their content knowledge, the connections between everything and what they still want to know. KWL charts are a common tool for teachers as well as quiet reflection, group discussions and journaling.
Novice teachers often shy away from unstructured explorations, silent moments and reflective activities. We find that some teachers tend to ask a few questions but move on quickly. During training we focus on teaching practices instead of science content. Teachers are trained on questioning strategies, leading unstructured exploration, science journaling and leading group discussions. We encourage them to ask questions, follow student questions and answers, and to be comfortable telling students “I don’t know”. We model these strategies when teaching with the staff by reducing content and incorporating reflection throughout each training day.
How do your activities foster competencies in forms of nonverbal communication?
Throughout the day children have three opportunities to choose nature play at camp. It is a time for unstructured play in both a built and natural environment. Children play in mixed age groups, they can choose to play by themselves or start organized game. It provides a great opportunity to practice both verbal and non-verbal.
So many of the organized games that children take part in are adult driven. The adults supply the instructions, manage disputes and start/ finish the game. In comparison when a group of children are trying to build a fort together or put on an imaginary play; they have put into words what they see in their heads, they have to solve problems together, they have to interpret their peers words, actions and nonverbal cues.
Because it’s not adult-centered, children have to create their own rules. They get to choose whether they play alone or in groups or who leads the group. Children also have the freedom to let their actions speak for them. If one child is being unfair or uncooperative, in unstructured play the other child can walk away and join another group. They don’t have to stay and finish the game or keeping playing with them because it is the only playground structure.
When behavior management is treated as a learning opportunity and paired with the idea of building lifelong skills, it can provide opportunities to teach and model for students the importance of nonverbal communication. It requires discussing with children about their emotions and empathy for other. This can be especially helpful for children who struggle with social cues or others emotions. We talk about, “Can you see that he’s upset? Did you hurt him on accident or on purpose? Oh, it was on accident? Well, is he still upset? How could you make him feel better?” The staff are explicit in pointing out the nonverbal cues and how the child might respond.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you have for programs trying to foster Communication in middle school-aged students?
I would encourage, all camps to include a morning circle or other all camp activity. It’s away for middle school-aged children to mentor younger children and try out new leadership skills. We have older campers participate in morning circles most days of the week and we have them help lead all camp activities.
Morning circle is not always their favorite time and it can seem silly or childish. We discuss with them why it’s so important that they’re engaged at morning circle and why it is so silly and high energy. How important it is for the little ones, five and six year olds to have something to focus on as they transition into the day. They may just look like they are wide eyed and starring but they’re actually watching the older kids and starting to feel comfortable. It’s one of the benefits of having mixed-aged activities; morning circle, free play, recess, etc. It’s a time for them to be mixed with the little ones, and you can see the older kids who really gravitate towards helping, and we encourage them to become our counselors in training.
We also provide them opportunities to lead during morning circle or all camp activities. They lead songs, lead stretches, and help the younger ones tell jokes. We also have roles that only the older campers can take part in such as act out rules, read special announcements, or dress up as characters for the game. It’s often during these times that new traditions start at camp. An older camper does something new or interesting, we jump on it and we keep doing it, year after year. With these daily practices, campers are afforded a chance to speak in public in short manageable time periods, they are learning how to communicate clearly to variety of audiences and have the chance to make mistakes in safe environment. Overall it gives them a special and valuable role at camp and add to what makes camp so special for everyone.