Summer of Self-Direction
Our interview with three successful summer camps that support Self-Directed Education
May 15th, 2017

Education is a whole-life process; it’s the sum of what we learn that enables us to live satisfying and meaningful lives. Self-Directed Education is about being supported and empowered to direct our own process and create our own lives.

For most young people, there is almost no opportunity to experience themselves as the author of their own story. Most young people are spending all year learning how to survive inside of someone else’s value system, concepts of success, and authoritarian demands of their time.

Tipping Points interviewed three summer camps that are designed to support Self-Directed Education. For some young people, these camps are a place to continue their Self-Directed Education in a different setting, within a close-knit community, and with access to valuable resources. For others, it is a rare and powerful glimpse into the Self-Directed Education experience.

Learn more about Steve & Kate’s Camp, Not Back to School Camp and Camp Stomping Ground, and consider who you know that may benefit from a summer of self-direction with one of these incredible communities.

Tipping Points: Let’s start with some of the basics and background information. Tell us about the history of your summer camp — how it got started and how it has evolved since then.

Steve & Kate’s: Steve & Kate’s Camp began as Steve’s Camp, named by the campers, when Steve Susskind put together a summer camp program in Mill Valley California in 1980. It was certainly different than what Steve & Kate’s Camp has evolved into today, but the focus was always about giving kids choice and allowing them to be in the drivers seat of their own experiences. Steve & Kate’s Camp served one location for several years before exploring the idea of expansion, but the Mill Valley location was filling up, so they decided to take on a second site in Kentfield, CA in 2006, and now in 2017 we operate 40 Steve & Kate’s Camp locations across the country.

Steve & Kate have always pushed the boundaries of summer camp and sought out unique experiences for campers. In the 80’s some of the activities at camp included pony rides, limo rides, and original Macintosh computers! Today we keep working to push boundaries, offering new and exciting opportunities to campers which they may not experience in schools or other programs. This summer we are introducing digital music components like DJ mixing stations and midi keyboards for campers to create their own electronic music.

Not Back to School Camp: NBTSC launched in 1996—one summer week, Oregon, 90 unschooling teens from around the U.S. and Canada, 11 adults—believing that in such a gathering, magic would inevitably arise. At the time, NBTSC founder Grace Llewellyn had been speaking at homeschooling conferences throughout the U.S. and parts of Canada. She remembers meeting one teen in Washington who was building a bike, another in Ohio planning a 3-state bicycling trip, and wishing they could connect. (Grace was also looking to fill a personal void—after leaving her teaching career in 1990 to write the Teenage Liberation Handbook, returning to school was philosophically impossible, but she missed working with youth.)

22 years later, NBTSC has expanded—we now operate for 5-6 weeks from summer into fall, running one- and two-week sessions, each for 50-100 unschooling teens, in Oregon, Vermont, and sometimes the Mojave desert of California. Our staff continues to refine the nuanced art of supporting self-directed teens during the brief-but-potent time we share.

Dozens of new folks join us every year—of course we couldn’t continue to exist without this recurring renewal which brings not only new bodies but also new perspective and energy. And we’ve deepened into a true community – with many families sending teens over a period of 10 or more years and with many staff having been involved for 15 or even 20 years (often with their first 5 or so years as campers). Groups of alumni rent houses together in Portland or San Francisco; shared businesses are launched; babies appear; decades-long friendships are celebrated.

Camp Stomping Ground: Stomping Ground is an overnight camp dedicated to empathy, self-direction, and possibility located in the Catskill Mountains outside of Binghamton, New York. Our mission is to develop emergent communities of self-directed individuals practicing radical empathy and re-imagining a world where more is possible.

We are entering our third summer and each summer is different. Before starting Stomping Ground our directors, Laura Kriegel and Jack Schott, spent 3 years traveling the country visiting and researching summer camps, intentional communites, museums, schools, learning centers and more. They visited over 200 camps and 47 states collecting the best ideas in youth development and re-imaging what is possible in an intentional community. See: The Stomping Ground Origin Story (short video)

TP: Obviously things can look very different day-to-day with Self-Directed Education, but if you could, describe what a day might look like at camp. What are some of the daily features of your camp that may be unique?

SK: Steve & Kate’s Camp offers five main Studio Activities which are available to campers every day of the summer. The Studios include: Music, Bread-making, Fashion, Coding/Robotics, and Film (which offers both stop motion animation and live action film making). In addition to these studios, we also offer a variety of outdoor sports and games from traditional activities like hockey to more unique activities like Zorbs or go karts; as well as a game room and an indoor lounge. While all these activities are happening throughout the day, campers have total control over what they want to participate in and for how long.

A camper may decide to start his/her day in the lounge reading a book when a group of friends enters filming a live action movie. The camper may decide to join the group and in the course of filming, perhaps decides that what they really need to make the scene pop are some colorful costumes. That camper may then head over to the Fashion Studio to put together a few items (capes, scarves, gloves etc.) and then head right back out to finish the movie....all before lunch! There is certainly a bustle around camp as campers flow between activities, but it always makes for an exciting day where the sky is the limit... smelling of freshly baked bread!

NBTSC: Most days have a reliable rhythm within which there is room for near-infinite variation depending on each camper’s preferences. After breakfast, we gather for a community meeting that includes singing, announcements, going over the day’s schedule, etc., and then we break into small groups of approximately 11 campers and one staff advisor. These advisee groups meet daily for half an hour (longer at the start and end of camp), and offer an anchor of connection and safety. After advisee groups, there are usually a series of workshop blocks (interrupted by lunch and various lunchtime discussion groups) where campers and staff offer everything from ultimate frisbee to Israeli folk dancing to discussions on privilege to hikes up the mountain to Japanese language to Magic the Gathering to jewelry making to “how to have a non-trivial conversation.”

There are usually 4-6 things to choose from every hour, and it’s always an option to opt out in favor of walking, talking, swimming, playing music, journaling, napping, whatever. After dinner comes our second community meeting—more singing, personal announcements, information regarding the evening’s events, etc. (These 2 community meetings, plus advisee group, are pretty much our only required activities other than minimal chores plus first day orientation events. We find that with such a large group living together in close quarters, it’s essential to gather twice daily—other than that, random dispersal and individual choice is much of what gives life to NBTSC.) Evenings bring a variety of events, many designed and organized by campers&mdashtalent shows, bonding and sharing ceremonies, dances, bizarre skits, campfire singing, etc.

SG: We ask that all members of our community agree to three simple agreements and then provide a sandbox like environment for kids and staff to play in. What that boils down to is agreeing to protect the future of camp, respect ourselves and others, and work through conflict when it arises.

At Stomping Ground almost everything is optional as long as you aren’t taking away from other people’s experience, keeping yourself and the community safe, and are supervised by a staff member.

Because we are constantly asking campers what they like and every person is different our schedule is constantly evolving. This is the latest iteration. We can’t imagine the different elements will change too much, but we almost certainly will adjust timing and frequency each week to personalize the experience for each camper.

Campers can choose to participate in the offerings below or spend their day in Downtown Stomping Ground. Downtown Stomping Ground is a loose parts heaven designed to create a playful camper driven environment. Many campers favorite part of camp, DTSG houses our arts & crafts makerspace, gaga, Magic cards, board games, Legos, hammocks, and more.

The current daily schedule begins with breakfast at 8:30 am, followed by three hour-long Open Choice Offerings. Then, we have lunch and Village Time. The rest of the day consists of Open Waterfront, Open Ball field, and All Camp Games, with Dinner and other spontaneous fun sprinkled in.

Photo by: Skye Posey

TP: Part of our interest in conducting this interview was to highlight summer camps that are SDE-Friendly. In what ways would you say your camp is aligned and supportive of with Self-Directed Education?

Steve & Kate’s Camp is based on a philosophy of allowing children to have choice in what they do. Choice is a crucial foundation for learning to trust your own judgment, because if you don’t choose what you’re doing, it’s easy to write off successes and failures as if they had nothing to do with you. The best way to learn how to make choices is—surprise, surprise—to make choices!

So we give campers an endless amount of choice. Kids make choices for lots of reasons—because they love something, because they’re curious, or just because other people are doing it—and then we nurture them to really dig in. (For example, boys who are typically into sports often wander into our Fashion Studio to give sewing a try, and unexpectedly realize they love it.) We believe that this approach fosters an environment where kids develop newfound confidence, independence, and creative bravery that is tough to find elsewhere.

Also, the freedom to choose what you’re doing means that children will never have to be separated from a sibling, a best friend, or their favorite counselor. And we see far fewer behavioral issues and much more engagement, because kids feel as though their decisions are being respected.

NBTSC: Our whole existence is based on Self-Directed Education—specifically unschooling—so this is a funny question for us to answer. The flip side is that over the years we’ve gradually come to understand the ramifications of what it means to be adults organizing a residential camp for youth. Both for campers’ safety and for legal reasons, there is a fair amount of structure and supervision that we, the staff, simply must provide. Discerning what is respectful and SDE-friendly support, versus what is arbitrary or even ego-driven supervision, is an essential and ongoing part of our work. There are lots of nuances we could get into, but to avoid being longwinded we’ll just sum it up like this: we’re a camp for unschoolers. (Although we do heartily welcome the many kindred spirits in our midst who happen to be mainstream homeschoolers or even conventional schoolers!) Our program, our philosophy, and our staff trainings are organized around the principles of trusting youth and not restricting freedom unnecessarily.

SG: We believe that an effective learning environment is one which invites failure and mistakes with genuine empathy and the promise of unconditional love and support.

At camp we are constantly trying to find the balance between providing kids with our feedback and reaction to their decisions without stepping on toes or controlling them. We understand that we, as a staff, have had more time on the planet and therefore may have run into similar situations as the ones campers might be struggling with. We want to listen and provide our concern where it is appropriate. This is the unconditional love and support piece. In practice it looks like active listening – taking an appropriately long amount of time to step into the campers shoes and see their struggle from where they stand.

We strive to create an environment that is respectful of kids’ thoughts, decisions, and learning process. We strive to make it clear that no matter what they still belong in our community and we care about their happiness. The famous psychoanalyst Carl Rogers calls this unconditional positive regard, or basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does. At camp we find that this simple idea can completely change the outlook on a tough conversation. Instead of searching for blame, we begin to recognize something deeper and more core to our humanity. We begin to trust that our intentions and the intentions of others are good and to learn how to make decisions that benefit our community as a whole.

Photo by: Laura Kriegel

TP: Tell us about your “customers”. Are most of your summer camp families already choosing Self-Directed Education year-round, utilizing your camp as an extension of a whole-life choice? Or, do the majority of your families see camp as a helpful respite from a more traditional education?

SK: We have a mixture of families who come from different backgrounds, schooling systems, and educational methodologies. There are certainly families joining us who already choose Self-Directed Educational programing year round and others who have never even heard the term prior to coming to camp with us. Often times we find that a part of our role in running camp is to offer parent education to families who are unfamiliar with self-directed learning environments and come to camp feeling a bit nervous or even uncomfortable with what to expect from the experience. However; many of these families are thrilled to see that their children successfully navigate through camp and build confidence, develop social skills, and discover new interests (and sometimes even new eating habits!). Andrew Stanton, a film director and screen writer, had this to say about his family’s experience at camp, “The children that attend Steve & Kate’s blossom and discover a freedom of identity that, in a way, no other institution I’ve experienced has ever managed. Kids find their thumbprint at Steve & Kate’s.”

NBTSC: The majority of our campers unschool. (This includes a lot of teens who have chosen to start community college classes around age 16 or so.) We also attract young people attending a variety of alternative, democratic, and free schools. And a good chunk identifies as more mainstream homeschoolers, in that their parents offer a fair amount of educational leadership. We love the mix that chooses NBTSC and we definitely welcome homeschoolers of all stripes—it’s clear to us that many families adjust back and forth on the “self-directed” to parent-directed spectrum, over time, in response to their shifting needs. That said, we’ve rarely attracted families who homeschool for fundamentalist religious reasons and we think that’s probably for the best given that some of our activities and discussions (subjects like yoga, meditation, or fluid gender identity), though optional, may cause concern for some parents.

We also draw a few more conventional schoolers—most have unschooling sibs or themselves have dipped in and out of unschooling, but some sign up purely because of our reputation as a great social gathering. Given the ubiquity of the “but how will they make friends” question unschoolers get so tired of hearing, we love this.

SG: Part of the magic of an overnight camp experience is the ability to bring people from lots all over and with incredibly different backgrounds. For us that looks like bringing kids together from different socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures, and educational experiences. We serve campers that are in conventional schooling, progressive education, unschooling, at Sudbury style schools, and more. Typically between 20-30% of our campers are involved with SDE year round.

Photo by: Laura Kriegel

TP: What’s the most important thing you think your camp provides or makes possible for its campers?

SK: At Steve & Kate’s, we believe that when you trust kids, they develop the confidence to trust themselves, and learn to use their own judgment. Unlike traditional schools, summer gives us the freedom to reinvent learning in a way that allows kids to make their own choices—and, of course, a few mistakes along the way, which we think is truly the most important piece of learning anything. We believe that children’s learning is most meaningful when it is personally significant—when it occurs authentically within the context of children’s own unique hopes, questions, goals and experiences. To this end, we provide children with a rich, generative environment filled with genuine choices, and we empower them to forge a path guided by their own particular points of curiosity, fascination and excitement.

Along the way, we work to provide the kinds of structures that will inspire and support children in defining and pursuing the trajectory of their own learning, in both the short an the long term. Instead of instructing children what to make or do, we introduce possibilities; instead of demanding that they ‘do it right the first time’, we encourage experimentation. Instead of telling them to keep their eyes on their own paper, we help them find ways to collaborate with others; instead of insisting that they stick to the plan, we furnish kids with resources to use if they need them. All of this helps children to develop habits and dispositions that will serve them as learners for the rest of their lives, even beyond the years of their formal education.

NBTSC: It’s a tossup between community and catalyst, though these things are perhaps inseparable (and mutually reinforcing). Via all kinds of games, discussions, workshops, talent show performances, informal conversations, and bonding activities – as well as simply out of their personal courage and hunger to connect – our campers engage each other with sincerity, vulnerability, and authenticity. Many return to NBTSC year after year and stay in touch with each other for decades, enriching each others’ lives immeasurably.

Those same types of events—workshops, performances, etc.—as well as long talks with adults, also catalyze life-changing visions and decisions. We would be remiss here not to mention our staff—most are, themselves, grown unschoolers. They are chosen for their ability and desire to inspire and connect meaningfully with youth. We often hear that their informal mentoring is a key positive force in campers’ lives as they choose and build the pathways they will walk into adulthood.

SG: Everyday kids see great examples of how the world isn’t working. They see bullies and liars bullying and lying their way to power. They see angry adults on TV yelling about who knows what, instead of working through differences and finding common ground. Growing up in a media crazed world it would be easy to assume this broken world is the only way groups of people can live. As much as want to, we can’t wave a magic wand and make all that go away.

What we can do is create spaces where kids can live a different way. At Stomping Ground we get the opportunity to show the world that people from diverse backgrounds can come together, build authentic life long friendships, have an incredible amount of fun, and make lasting memories, all while living in a community where everyone’s voice is heard. They are free to make their own decisions. Conflict is worked through in a restorative way, and people are treated the way they want to be treated.

Much gratitude to Steve & Kate’s Camp, Not Back to School Camp and Camp Stomping Ground—thanks for sharing with us and for all you do for the Self-Directed Education movement!

May 15th, 2017