Life as a Camp Leader

I miss camp. I miss the way it fast becomes the whole world. Life outside its confines, each worry, bill, half-baked future plan pales into insignificance and all that you are left with are the undulating fields around the Woodhall Estate in Hertfordshire, the peaks of the seven cream tipis, the unpolluted night sky punctuated with stars, your small team of mentors and, best of all, a band of children with whom you get to spend a week playing, teaching and learning more from than I could possibly have anticipated.

Without all that, the silence feels oppressive, the world dauntingly vast again and there is less laughter to be found out here.  

The camps were a level of intensity beyond which I have ever encountered in work before. In my day-to-day life, ether writing or mentoring, the stakes are mercifully low; the only person I can disappoint is myself. At Camp, I was suddenly confronted with children who had wasp stings, nettle stings, nosebleeds, homesick children wanting their parents and pets, and children finding it hard to socialise, confessing they were lonely. There was no longer any time for my own emotions; I had to be there, all of me, all of the time and that, in itself, was the hardest and also without a doubt the most important thing I learnt from camp – to step up.

You don’t often sit down at camp. If you aren’t giving a class on creative writing, getting to chat about the children’s favourite books (many of which are comfortingly still the same ones we grew up with: The Series of Unfortunate Events, His Dark Materials,) and playing endlessly silly games of literary consequences with them, then you are racing around upstairs preparing your outfit (and dubious accent) for the invented tycoon you are going to transform into for the Dragon’s Den workshop. If you aren’t teaching the children about physics and the laws of motion by organising balloon races to see whose balloon will travel furthest, then you are running a do-it-yourself fashion show with haute couture dresses made from only bin bags and duct tape.

Compared to the formless, unstructured days of university or freelancing, it is a blessed relief to give oneself up to the fixed version of time that exists at camp. Each day is carefully timetabled with endless games, sports and workshops, as well as moments of respite when external practitioners would come in to teach the children how to be more charitable, how to code drones, run a BBC news programme or show them what it takes to join the Royal Marines.

It still amazes me how different each child you meet is and how, already, their divergent circumstances and life experiences have begun shaping them into the person they will grow up to be. There are kids who are so unfalteringly confident and assured in themselves that they will fly through life, kids whose only wish is to play football at all hours of the day, kids who sleepwalk through the days, content to exist in their own private, imaginative worlds, kids who are so painfully shy that it takes half the week before they will even talk to you. It is a joy to learn the personality of every one of them, feeling slightly honoured when, at the end of the week, those that were anxious to even come to camp give you a big hug goodbye, tell you they’ve really enjoyed themselves and want to come back next year.

 And you, too, have to learn to play all roles, all versions of yourself for them: at times being their friends and allies, their substitute parents when they need you to be, their teachers, older siblings they can jump on, enforcers of rules, disciplinarians. It is the most split-personality of jobs, revealing parts of yourself that you had no idea existed until that very moment.

At the end of my last week as camp leader, an eight-year-old asked me, quite earnestly, why it is that adults have to be so much more serious than children.

“I don’t know,” I said, and paused. Where once I would have answered dismissively, through mentoring I have learnt to appreciate the perceptiveness of children’s questions. “I guess because we have more to worry about than you – about the planet, and money, and politics, and we have to worry for you too, or…” But nothing I could say felt like it was reason enough to excuse how little we, as adults, get to let go and play. While playing is decreed a right to all children, it would be thought ridiculous if an adult were given an apportioned time each day, purely for play. There were times when the responsibilities and pressures that came with running a camp terrified me. But I don’t know when I’ll get an experience more valuable than being allowed – required, even – to spend my days chasing kids up and down a football pitch in the dusky evening light, dressing up and pretending to be people we were not, yelling and dancing to silly pop music together around the campfire and having whole weeks in the sunshine just to be yourself and to play.

Lamorna Ash