The beloved phrase "Only at camp..." can be heard in use around the country at all kinds of camps. It encompasses all the wonderful things a camp experience offers that sets it apart from the rest of the world. The magic in spending a day playing large group field games, challenging your group through a low ropes course or team building session, kayaking, practicing archery, learning about nature and then spending the night around a campfire, singing songs and roasting marshmallows before heading back to the cabin to bunk with new friends. It really is an experience that can't be recreated anywhere else but at camp! 

You have probably heard the Camp Henry staff raving about all the fantastic activities and experiences Camp offers. But it's not everyday you have the opportunity to hear this from someone else. Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School at Stepping Stones Montessori and guest blogger this month, details in the paragraphs below, her experience as a school group leader when she brought over 50 elementary age students, 1st-6th grade, to Camp Henry for a 1 night, 2 day experience.

You may find yourself chuckling as she writes with an honest and humorous perspective, juggling her expectations for her students (what she hoped to have happen) with the pleasantly unpredictability kids bring to any situation (what actually happened). She brought her students with the hope of creating lasting bonds, skills to work together as a team and a community to bring back to school with them for the school year. Here is what she had to write about her experience.

 "I'm a school leader, and I've learned that educators lean toward the idealistic. We believe in potential and in possibility, especially as we imagine the beginning of a school year.

As our staff talked about adding a Camp Henry experience for the Stepping Stones Montessori elementary students, I pictured children exploring the woods, dining together, and singing songs around a campfire. This experience would begin our year so beautifully that during our entire year, there would be no fights, every utterance would be kind and polite, and we would return completely connected to nature.

As the date for our camp experience approached, my picture clouded with anxiety. What were we thinking planning an overnight trip with first grade children? How would this work? Would anyone sleep?

My anxieties worsened at camp. Some students chose not to participate. They sat out. They refused invitations to join the group. Everything was in place for my vision to occur. And these kids were being difficult.

Then, things changed.

The first thing I noticed? One of our students dumped an entire two liter pitcher of juice at lunch. Most of it landed in the lap of another student. That student reacted to the spill with irritation and annoyance. She was wet. She was cold. She was sticky. The first student was visibly upset. In tears, he found a rag and started to clean up.

Enter the third student. She quietly walked over to the sink and grabbed a rag. While she was there, she reassured the first student that it was okay. Just an accident. The second student just reacted because she was wet, sticky and cold. They cleaned up the mess together.

Later, one of our older students invited a student new to our school to share a canoe. He reassured the newer student. "Don't worry. I've canoed a lot. You can just relax. I'll take care of everything."

When a teacher commented how kind that was, the student said, "I could tell that she was feeling anxious and no one else was going to invite her. She didn't have any friends there. I figured I could do it."

I could share many similar stories about how our students used camp to transform themselves. In some ways, nothing changed. Our agenda, schedule, menu, staff was the same. In other ways, nothing was the same. Our students created a community. They taught one another what the community expected. They demonstrated who they were and how willing they were to take risks with one another.

Community is at the core of Stepping Stones. Our students do not need to do math or language as soon as their eyes open and before their feet touch the floor. They don't have to count, multiply, diagram a sentence or understand cultural differences before they arrive at school.

That said, before they rise in the morning, they feel and know whether they belong. Before any work happens in a classroom, they will know whether they feel safe enough to work and risk a mistake.

The Stepping Stones elementary students created their community at Camp Henry. Sure, we could have created community without Camp. It would have taken longer. It would have been more adult-driven. It would not have been nearly as breathtaking.

Our children still have conflict. They occasionally speak unkindly. [But] They know that they are capable of resolving it, of forgiving and of moving forward together.

As for my vision, It wasn't big enough. My vision settled for perfection instead of the imperfect beauty of a community. We'll be back next year for more!"


Elizabeth Topliffe is Head of School at Stepping Stones Montessori School in Grand Rapids, a member school of the American Montessori Society. Stepping Stones Montessori School is celebrating its 30th anniversary of cultivating a lifelong love of learning.