Breaking Camp


Day camp used to be all about softball and lanyards. There was one good fistfight every summer, one heinous case of poison ivy contracted on a field trip, and, in a good year, at least one broken arm. (Hard to believe, but a plaster cast was considered a great accessory when this city kid was in third grade.) Crafts class centered on making a lumpy clay ashtray for mom. The counselor’s whistle was the number-one mediation tool.

This was just after the earth cooled, in about the 1960s, back before day camps routinely included computer labs teaching animation skills, before counselors were trained in techniques of “anger management” and “conflict resolution,” and before it became so unhip for parents to light up that smokers’ kids now probably spend their days agonizing over whether to stage a nicotine intervention.

Things are different out there in today’s day camp. Just ask Nashae and Rashawn.

“I like to come here a lot because we can draw on computers and do the memory game, like, where you match a house and trees and flowers and butterflies on the screen and you win the game,” says Nashae, a painfully pretty seven-year-old. “I like to come to learn math,” Rashawn flatly adds. Nashae and Rashawn are day campers at the just-opened PAL Harlem Center on Manhattan Avenue at 119th Street.

Nashae travels across Harlem daily to get here. Rashawn is ferried from Brooklyn by an aunt. The two are among the 65,000 city kids served annually at facilities run by the Police Athletic League, most of them immune to the irony of being served indirectly by an institution—the police department—that most inner-city kids learn early to distrust.

The famous “third place” that social scientists write about—that crucial point in the triangle of home and work/school—is embodied in the PAL Harlem Center. There’s an indoor basketball court, a weight-training room, a boxing ring, an arts and crafts center, a computer lab, a game room, and a ceramics center with four state-of-the-art kilns. A certain amount of clay-ashtray making still goes on. More important, though, the center is clean and new and feels solid. The message its architecture sends is a component of any camper’s experience, especially since, as the center’s director Scott Leach says, many PAL kids “don’t know what it is to be anyplace this quiet and safe.”

“A lot of these kids, in their daily life, they’re constantly dealing with tough environments, in school and, to some extent, at home,” adds Vinnie Hurst, the Harlem center’s after-school director. “They come here and they get a different point of view.”

That point of view involves “frustration tolerance,” Hurst goes on. It involves replacing a smack in the head with “soft behavioral cues.” It involves the kind of motivational techniques that are the hallmark of every management-training program on the planet. “We make a contract with the kids at the beginning of each session,” says Hurst. “And the kids make the rules themselves—no fighting, no cursing, whatever. Then it’s up to them to decide as a group what to do when someone breaks the rules.” In psych circles they call this “peer cultural programming.”

If a fight breaks out during a game of hoops, all play stops until the group finds a resolution. This can make for some protracted quarters, but it works. Another technique that comes into practice when all else fails is known as “planned ignoring,” or shunning, as it used to be called.

But day camp isn’t just about finding fancy ways to say shut up. And one of the most successful programs at PAL’s 11 centers is the Adventure Based Counseling program, a kind of urbanized version of Outward Bound. “It’s a program that uses adventure as a modality and therapy tool,” explains Lorraine Conti, director of PAL’s ABC facility on Longwood Avenue in the South Bronx. “We set it up as a club and we do problem solving and self-esteem building through outdoor activities.”

The activities are the sort that would have been useful to the three hapless bozos in The Blair Witch Project. “That would never happen to our kids,” Conti notes. Neither, she adds, would the recent fatal canyoning accident that claimed 19 lives in Switzerland, and not just because the ABC program is averse to extreme sport. Maybe ocean kayaking wouldn’t strike some people as perilous, but then they probably weren’t raised in neighborhoods where open water means somebody screwing the cap off a hydrant.

So far this summer the ABC kids have gone sailing and fishing and hiking. They did stuff most suburban kids would take for granted. The difference, says Conti, is not just a matter of exposure to the great outdoors but to the culturally challenging idea of teamwork. “We get a large number of kids who are at risk,” explains Randi L. Klein, one of PAL’s therapeutic recreation specialists. She means, among other things, children whose primary point of reference for teamwork is Ñeta, or a local chapter of the Bloods.

There are those who’ll argue that gangs are not always the worst way to learn the parameters of social structure. It’s just that the outcome of gang membership is not always so great. (Jail time or death, as rapper-actor Ice Cube recently pointed out.) “These kids are constantly stimulated,” says Conti. “They’re in noisy neighborhoods, noisy schools. In a lot of cases all they know is hit, scream, yell. They don’t necessarily get the opportunity to be quiet, to see their actions in an environment where they can focus on themselves. You’d be amazed at the changes in self-esteem when we go camping. They all love camping the most, of course, but the first night out everyone’s freaked. All you hear is, ‘It’s too quiet. I can’t sleep. I need car alarms.’

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