What Can Schools Learn from Summer Camp Success at Adapting for Safe Activities?

Partnerships Manager, Cognitive ToyBox

For the last few months at Cognitive ToyBox we’ve had the pleasure of working with Matthew Jacobs, a social impact fellow from Claremont McKenna College. His experience as a summer camp counselor may provide some insights on protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in a group setting. Jacobs wrote the following blog post with “lessons learned” from his experience.

A few months, or even weeks ago, running a summer camp seemed impossible. Allowing elementary and middle school kids to run around together for an entire summer amidst a global pandemic sounded reckless. Yet as ludicrous as it may sound, outdoor exercise and building friendships are exactly what kids and families need. Of course, safety precautions such as enforcing social distancing must take precedence over everything this summer.

I have quickly learned that safety and fun can co-exist, for one simple reason: kids want to interact with their friends and will follow the protocols or guidelines necessary to do so.

My job as a tennis counselor at a summer camp in suburban Massachusetts has presented numerous challenges. Due to the necessary obstacle of following social distancing protocols, I learned to adjust not only my activities but also my expectations. I have found ways to make my lessons not too strenuous for kids wearing masks, yet still fun and informative. This is possible with just a little bit of creativity. For instance, rather than campers catching balls with their hands when playing a game, they used a cone that can easily be sanitized between groups.

sport-equipment-tennis-accessories

Even my daily schedule and responsibilities were “strange” at first. When I arrived in the morning, I filled out a daily wellness questionnaire and had my temperature taken, as did the campers. Once cleared to enter camp, I went to the courts and arranged the court for social distancing. I then took out the tennis balls and equipment, which were sanitized at the end of the last camp session, and waited for the campers to arrive.

My day is peppered with constant reminders “to please stay six feet apart from each other” or “masks up.” To my surprise, these requests are rarely met with anything other than compliance and a smile.

Campers have been quick to adjust to these protocols in a group setting partly because the size of their camp cohorts is no more than 10 campers to every three or four counselors. This strong counselor-to-camper ratio not only makes monitoring the campers easier but also models appropriate mask-wearing behavior. When campers leave the tennis courts, my next responsibility was sanitization. I wiped down all the tennis balls and equipment with sanitizer before a new group of campers arrived. Although all these steps may sound repetitive and monotonous, camp is anything but boring.

The Joy of Summer Camp

In spite of frequent reminders to wear masks, keep your distance, and sanitize, the campers still shared smiles, laughter, and the contagious joy associated with summer camp. Kids are running around, going to the playground, swimming, conversing at lunch, and making new friends. Random video game facts, made-up games, and curiosity still drive the imagination of the children. In fact, once the first few days of camp passed and the safety protocol was ingrained into the camp’s culture, camp felt like nothing other than just that, camp.

During orientation, another counselor commented that “summer camp is a test-trial for the schools.” If that is the case, a few valuable observations can be made about the camp setting:

  1. Kids will follow safety protocols with the right guidelines and instructions in place.
  2. Camper-to-teacher ratios need to be lower than ever.
  3. Environments need to be laid out in a distanced arrangement so it is intuitive, and kids do not have to constantly adjust themselves.
  4. New resources must be introduced to both instruct the kids and provide teachers with more time.
  5. Creativity is a must to find ways to adhere to health guidelines.
  6. Kids are enthusiastic and want to talk and interact with each other, no matter the modality, so match their enthusiasm with your lesson plans and activities.

It is important to understand which resources and adjustments are needed to prevent the world’s unpredictability from crushing our youth’s enthusiasm, need for community, and intellectual curiosity. That is why we need to utilize products that help teachers adjust and harness their students’ excitement and are also fluid enough to support consistency if the academic setting changes from in-person to virtual (or vice versa). For instance, in addition to being a camp counselor this summer, I am also working as an Impact Fellow, through my alma mater, Claremont McKenna College, with Cognitive ToyBox (CTB), an education technology company.

Just as I have been adapting my practices as a camp counselor due to COVID, it has been interesting to watch the CTB team make adaptations to their ed-tech product and their resources to better support the evolving needs of teachers, children, and families. I know that CTB is not alone in doing this. Based on my research, ed-tech companies across the board are being more responsive than ever to meet the needs of educational institutions.

This transition and needed flexibility, although daunting at first, are possible and essential to proceed. At camp, when I became accepting of the transition and took advantage of the available resources (such as the low student-to-instructor ratio), my instructional quality increased as did camper engagement. Within CTB, I observed the team let go of all of their assumptions and go back to the drawing board to redesign their product and resources to support learning in the “new normal.”

Although a day camp is not perfectly parallel to a school setting, both have the same challenge of keeping children safe while providing valuable lessons. This similarity should provide hope and inspiration. Unquestionably this is a challenging time for schools and teachers, just as it is for the kids, but I have found that there are resources available and even minor adjustments can make major differences. My main takeaway from working at a summer day camp in the time of COVID-19 is this: Children want to learn, to engage, and they will surpass your expectations in terms of following the rules.

Editor’s Note: Matthew Jacobs is unaware of whether any campers or counselors tested positive for COVID-19 during their time at camp, or soon thereafter. 

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5 thoughts on “What Can Schools Learn from Summer Camp Success at Adapting for Safe Activities?

  1. So, 10 or fewer kids, play games outside, do engaging physical activities, and in a state where people mask commonly. I have 35, must teach them precalculus in a language they don’t speak, in a windowless room in GA where we all must stay in our tiny 3’x3’ box, most can’t afford or won’t wear masks. Thanks kid! Super useful hints for the professional teachers.

  2. I totally agree with – kids WANT to learn, but we have to guide them. Previously I wrote online vs traditional education essay, now it should be something about overcoming difficulties on the way to knowledge.

  3. Also, the overall camp experience can help with the implementation of gamification in the classroom. And it can help with turning groupwork into distanced groupwork (but still fun).

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