Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lessons from camp

My first week of camp for primarily 6-7 year-olds was great! It looked like the kids had a really great time. And I learned so much! First, that it's a lot of hard work. Every night (around 10-12 pm) I spent probably a couple hours planning the following day (I did do some homework starting several months ago, but I had to make several adjustments due to group interests, group dynamics, etc.). I'd wake up around 6 am to shower, have a quickie breakfast of yogurt and maple syrup, and begin prepping activities and cleaning up the house. I wouldn't finish that until 9 am, when camp is supposed to begin. The kids would trickle in, so I couldn't do my originally scheduled activities...eventually, it became a free drawing time at our large, extended dining table until I had a critical mass. It was a good time for me to chat with the kids and get to know them better. Then, we'd have "couch time" (formerly known as "circle time") and sing a couple songs in Chinese (a greeting song and a washing hands song, for use before lunch). [These kids were really good singers! They loved learning the meaning of each word. This is an ideal age for teaching foreign language!] This would be followed by storytime (biggest hits: Traction Man by Mini Grey and What Time is It, Mr. Crocodile? by Judy Sierra). Depending on the energy (or appetite) at the time, we might play music games or have a snack of organic fruit and nuts. Afterwards, we'd usually go to the playground across the street and they would play on the monkey bars or climb the jungle gyms. One day, they flew the paper airplanes they had folded and decorated. Sometimes, we played circle games, did a relay race, or played a tag game. The kids also made several catapults out of Kapla blocks.

Depending on how much time we spent at the playground, we might do an art activity or go straight into lunch. After lunch, the kids had some free time to play with toys or ride our horse swing in the backyard. They learned how to take turns in a civil manner (each kid could stay on for a count to 50). If things started to sour, i.e. the energy wasn't positive anymore, we would go into another activity -- sometimes hip hop dance, sometimes another arts and crafts activity. Twice, the kids made fresh lemonade from the Meyer lemons they picked themselves, and they also helped make Belgian waffles, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and French chocolate cake, all from scratch. For many of them, it was the first time they were allowed to operate a mixer on their own. It was so exciting for them.

It was free time until their treats had baked and cooled a little (only a little!). Then it was time to enjoy the fruits of their labor. One afternoon treat they especially enjoyed was the fresh pineapple. I cut it in front of them and passed around the spiky trimmings for them to examine (and taste). I was lucky that the pineapple had reached the perfect ripeness that day. The kids just gobbled it up and asked for seconds and thirds.

I learned that there needs to be a nice balance between free time and structured time. Earlier in the week, I think I erred on too much structured time. I put pressure on myself to ensure that the kids were either learning or creating. I had forgotten that kids sometimes just need to play. Free time always had to be closely monitored because sometimes there were clashes -- the more dominant ones interacted negatively with the more sensitive ones which resulted in hurt feelings and sometimes tears. For example, a child may be excluded from a game or a child may not follow the game's rules and subsequently be spoken harshly to. I had to incorporate some activities for the kids to learn more about each other and how to really listen -- hopefully, resulting in some growth in the empathy department. In one activity, the kids paired up, spent some time getting to know each other better, and then introduced their partner with name, favorite color, favorite camp activity, and something they're proud of. In another activity, I paired up the children again, who took turns with the blindfold. Their partner had to guide them verbally through an "obstacle course" until they reached a posted U.S. map. The partner had to guide verbally again so that the child could "land"/adhere their self-decorated cut-out airplane to the map (and not "crash" in the water).

The last 10 minutes of camp, I was a little bit more lax with the free time monitoring since the children were playing their own made-up game in the backyard and looked like they were finally coming together as one cohesive team. I checked on them every couple of minutes while cleaning up our last activity, but still we had an incident. One child didn't follow the rules and was "punished" by two leaders of the game by having her pants pulled down. Fortunately, the poor child was not distraught in any way. But Maylin was. (The previous week, Maylin expressed her relief that she wouldn't have to return to traditional school and be a witness to children being bullied and humiliated. She herself was a frequent victim in preschool while we were in Paris. I didn't learn how frequent it was and how much it bothered her until her recent tearful confession.) My lesson learned is to never leave them unattended, even when it looks like things are going well with the children. Looks can be deceiving.

Another lesson learned is transitioning from one activity into another. When the kids are waiting for something to begin (and are getting antsy), it's best to keep them occupied and entertained. Two games that are perfect for this age are "I Spy" and "20 Questions." The adult can initiate it, and the children can finish it up on their own while the adult finishes setting up the next activity.

I also learned that it's time to stop playing a game of chance (in our case, homemade bingo) when the same person keeps winning time and again (even after switching cards). Everyone else gets pretty jealous (temporary tattoo and sticker prizes involved) and feels it is an unfair game. The last couple days of camp, I stopped giving out the tattoos and stickers altogether, and then energy was much better. Less focus on "stuff" is always good.

I learned which arts and crafts activities work better. Anything that doesn't require drawing is pretty safe. We had some tears when a child got frustrated with his own drawing. I could relate because Maylin was the same way. When a very visual child can see the end product in his/her head but cannot execute it, it can be very upsetting. I tried to teach the child to "practice" on a scrap sheet before drawing the final version. The most successful project was the paintings done with foam dot brushes. The children mixed their own colors of tempera paints and then used brushes of varying diameters and colors to make their paintings. Another favorite was the bleeding tissue paper watercolor paintings. Bleeding tissue paper is an excellent and inexpensive product that releases watercolor paint when water is brushed over it. Tear and place the pieces of tissue paper on the paper first for best results. One child had a really special painting that Maylin and I tried to recreate.

We also did v-fold pop-ups and tissue paper flower bouquets which had amazing results, but required more adult assistance. My least successful project was the bean mosaic on homemade salt dough. Some looked pretty cool with designs using red lentils, gray-green French lentils, and shiny black beans. The main problem was the salt in the dough. One child had cuts on his hands -- so you can imagine. "My hands hurt!" Kids shouldn't feel pain during a craft activity. Yikes.

For this particular group, the hip hop dance wasn't something that most of the kids wanted to do. They were actually pretty good, and I really had fun teaching the routine (half borrowed, half original). It's too bad we didn't get a chance to show off to the parents -- but we had early pick-ups, babysitter pick-ups, and late pick-ups. I have to let the parents know in advance next time if we're going to have a performance. I should have at least videotaped it.

My tag-teaming parent volunteers were great and I wouldn't have been able to do camp successfully without them. I think I still need to learn how to utilize them better. I need to learn how to delegate instead of trying to do everything myself.

Well, it's been a great learning experience, and I'm looking forward to my last week of camp which is in August. It'll be a new group of kids so I'll have new dynamics and personalities to work with. I like the challenge of adjusting to those dynamics and personalities, and energy levels at a given moment, and individual and group interests. Quite a juggling act but it energizes me! Though I planned so many activities, I think my best time was when I could just sit down and chat with the kids and make them laugh with my silliness.

Photos to come.

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