Why I Love(d) Working at Summer Camp

What, you didn't get to design and 3-D print toy cars at camp?

What, you didn't get to design and 3-D print toy cars at camp?

I love working with kids. On the surface (and on my resume,) it doesn't seem to connect to my passion for design or add to it in any meaningful way; this couldn't be farther from the truth. This summer will be my first away from camp, from some of the best people I've ever met and from the job I held for years teaching art and design; finishing my undergraduate degree felt like about the right time to get a “real” job of sorts. I’m not sure where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing, but I already miss camp. I won’t miss constantly explaining to family and friends why I kept going back- even turning down a much higher-paid internship offer last summer- but if you keep reading you might find out why.

One morning, a camper asked me what we were going to do that day. Well, every morning every camper would ask me what we were going to do, but that’s not the point. I told him, in these exact words, that we were going to make a huge mess. I didn't need to qualify it any further. He looked like he had been ready for this his entire life. Most kids love to make a mess, and so do I. Being a student/intern/designer mash-up, I am many things to many people, and often the hardest part is finding clothes that look good covered in sawdust, paint and the occasional spot of blood. It’s easier not to pretend that my work space looks more like the Apple Store than Ground Zero, which is exactly what I get to do at camp. I've been known to say that if your hands end up the same colour they started, you might be doing something wrong; that’s the way I like to work, and it’s also the way my campers like to work, but it’s certainly not the only reason why I love working at summer camp.

Throughout my illustrious career at summer camp, I've done a lot of explaining. Whether it’s about how and why we see the world in 3-D, or how not to burn yourself with a glue gun (hot glue is hot!), I've had a lot of practice at distilling complex ideas down to the point where even an 8-year-old could not only understand them, but explain them back to me. The more I do this, the more I realize that it’s not all that different from talking to grown-ups. In fact, a lot of what I cover in a summer’s worth of design lessons comes up in conversation all the time with friends, family, colleagues and clients. And I usually explain things in exactly the same way as I did to my campers. What’s more is that young children never shy away from letting you know if you’re boring them, or if you've completely lost them somewhere along the way. Every so often I’d pause in front of a room full of them and ask a simple question- “did that make sense?”- to which I’d get some nods of approval, or a collective blank stare. It’s real-time feedback, and I don’t get it quite as raw or nearly as honest anywhere else.

I love the interest that kids have in things they've never seen or heard before. I would almost always say, at the start of a new lesson, or a new day, or maybe a new session at camp, that my goal is for everyone to try something that they've never tried before. My odds were pretty good, and it got me trying all sorts of new things too. Now, of course I try new things at work, and at school. I do it all the time. The difference is, when things went wrong at camp, I got to be wrong.

When things go wrong, they can go very wrong. And that's OK! (drawn by a camper.)

When things go wrong, they can go very wrong. And that's OK! (drawn by a camper.)

And I loved it. In the “real” world, at school or work, when things don’t go according to plan there’s usually a cover-up. Or a re-write. At camp, I got to be wrong. I got to be confused, or silly, and we all got to work through the problem together. And somehow, when we ended up having fun anyways, it just seemed to add to my mystique- that sense of awe that kids always seem to have when they say things like, “how did you do that?”

It occurred to me one summer that I could use the brutalist architecture of our building to my advantage. Stuffy, poorly lit classrooms became photographic dark rooms with the help of a couple of pieces of bristol board. Throw in some leftover supplies from a high school photography class and a bottle of vinegar, and we were in business making pinhole cameras. In the end, when we went to develop our prints, it didn’t work. At all. At that point, making it up as I went, I decided we would investigate the problem as a team. We figured out through experimentation that even though the dark room was sound, the photo paper had been previously exposed, learning about photography and light along the way. The kids still had fun (they were detectives!) and learned what I wanted them to learn, and in the end we just sat in the dark room and told ghost stories. I like being wrong sometimes. It makes you that much more sure of yourself when you know you’re right. We extol the virtues of being willing to fail, yet maybe we don’t fail nearly often enough.

I love the way that kids think; I wish I could do it and I wish clients, colleagues, professors and employers could think like children sometimes. What I love the most is how easily kids pick up new ideas and new ways of doing and thinking. Last summer, I really tried to instill in my campers some fundamental parts of the design process. We started talking about how design is everywhere, and how everything really is designed, and then we started talking about what it means to design. There were a few things I really, really wanted them to learn, but we’ll get to that.

"What if the peel opened this way? And was purple?"

"What if the peel opened this way? And was purple?"

To learn about the design process I had them design a better banana. They all looked at me like I bet you’re looking at the screen if you made it this far, but after a few minutes the shock wore off and they started brainstorming and creating like it was completely normal.

Lets turn the tables for a bit. I’m almost done, I swear. I love working at camp, because there is so much these kids can learn from designers. It's all the rage these days- creative thinking, design education and whatnot. Maybe the best setting for kids to learn creatively is an informal, mentorship-based one (just like summer camp!) In that banana brainstorming exercise, there were two really important things I wanted my campers to learn. I know they won’t learn them just from designing a banana; maybe after four or five bananas, or even a cantaloupe, but I digress… First, I wanted them to learn that when you design, it's not about how pretty your drawings look, but about how they communicate your ideas. This was freeing for many of the campers, who thought that I, being an art teacher and all, might be impressed by fancy linework or shading that they couldn’t do. At the end of the exercise, every single group pressed me to tell them which one was the best. My first resort was always deflection- “mine, of course,” I would say. Well then who came second, they asked. The real lesson was that it's never about who had the single best idea, because the best idea is always the sum of good parts from each idea.

And then there’s the magic. Someone very important to me once said that on judgment day, you will be asked not whether you were good or bad, but did you have a sense of wonder about the world? Camp was one of those places where people found what I do not just cool, or interesting, but actually incredible. Now, the word incredible is often used pretty lightly, but what it really means is unbelievable. As in, nearly impossible to believe. When I’m at school or work, professors and clients automatically expect me to be able to do what I do. My campers think it’s magic. Where do you think I’d rather be?