Fun at Summer Camp

As the Community Programs Coordinator, most of my work done from the comfort and convenience of my desk and computer. This is contrasted with my co-workers in the Humane Education Department, who frequently go off-site to run programs at local schools, libraries, or even juvenile correctional facilities.

Business really picks up during the summertime. As early as February each year, we start getting calls from Chicago Park District directors looking to book our Humane Education Specialists to come out to their parks and present in front of groups of children ages 6-12 that attend their annual summer camps. Being in the middle of summer break, July is obviously the busiest month for these camps, and as a result, our busiest month of the year. We actually received so many requests this year that at least one of our educators will be off-site every (working) day this month.

When we were short-staffed last summer (meaning the department solely consisted of myself, Elliott, and 5 high school-aged interns from After School Matters), I did get a few chances to go to off-site to run programs at these summer camps. At that time, I was pretty much completely uninitiated to running programs, and while it’s still not something that I do with any regularity these days, I have slowly become more accustomed to it. However, unlike our tireless Humane Education Specialists – who are the ones that have been traveling around the city and running programs in front of as much as 180 kids each day – I have a lot more leeway in terms of the groups and programs that I work with (for the most part).

This past Thursday, all three educators were originally scheduled to go to Olympia Park on the far north side of the city to present for approximately 150 campers of various ages. A last minute change meant that Elliott could not attend because he had to go to the July Hive Chicago meetup to represent not only The Anti-Cruelty Society, but also our partners in the Youth-Led Badging grant (since our organization is the lead on the project). Thinking that the counselors would split up their different groups of campers so that we could run multiple programs concurrently, I offered to go with Sarah and Mary to keep things moving smoothly and efficiently.

Turns out that the way that the camp had scheduled the kids to see us made it so that my presence there was superfluous. Instead of having groups in different locations around the park, they had our educators in a room in the field house and groups (usually more than one at a time) scheduled in 45-minute blocks that would rotate in to play games and see our presentations. (Note: This is not all that uncommon and not something that is any sort of problem for us; it’s simply different than the setup we were expecting before we arrived.)

So while I certainly wasn’t as helpful to Sarah and Mary as I had intended to be when I offered to attend, it was still nice to get out of the office for a few hours and see the great work that the educators have been doing all summer in person, as well as play with puppets and interact with some kids, which is ultimately what the job is all about (the kids, not the puppets, though it’s arguable I guess).

What I found to be the most interesting was how our educators take drastically different approaches to presenting for a group of kids that are 6-7 and those that are just a little older, like 10-11. Obviously, the developmental differences between these age groups requires significantly altered approaches to connect to the kids and ensure that they take something valuable away from the lesson, but what impressed me most was the way that both Sarah and Mary were and are able to spend just a few minutes gathering their bearings between groups and then run a completely different presentation with a new style without really even thinking about it. They simply assess the group (size, temperament, etc.) within the first few minutes of them entering the room and decide how the program will go for the next 40 minutes.

For instance, the first audience was a big combination of at least two groups of girls ages probably 6-8. Obviously capturing the attention of 40+ kids requires a certain talent, and Sarah and Mary did a great job of engaging the group in a game of Facts of Five before we ended by doing “safe” animal introductions with the two puppets that we brought (my main role throughout the day was acting as a handler for the safe dogs, Nifter and Lucky). Despite how many kids there were, things went well, especially when compared to the next group, which was a much smaller (under 20) collection of 10-11 year old boys.

From the moment they entered the room, this group was already much rowdier than the previous one, so it was decided that the focus of this presentation was going to be the Facts of Five game, and that we wouldn’t be doing the puppet interactions because (A) the group was already hard enough to control while they were sitting on the floor, let alone standing up and walking around the room, and (B) these boys were not going to be impressed by our puppets. (To be fair to the educators here, they were working against a stacked deck from the beginning, as this particular group’s counselors were the definition of unhelpful. During pretty much the entire first half of the presentation, the counselors sat at the table about 4 feet away from their kids on the floor and talked loudly over the educators, which is obviously going to indicate to the kids that they don’t have to take the program seriously.)

So that presentation was obviously more focused on just harnessing the energy of those boys and playing into the competitive aspect of the game (and things certainly got competitive). It took a very different skill set for Sarah and Mary to control the room, and even though the group was significantly smaller, they seemed to require a lot more energy. Luckily, that was that hardest it got for the day. The next group was about 40 more young boys (ages 6-8), and the educators decided to switch it up (probably for their own sanity, at some level) and not play Facts of Five with this group. Instead, this presentation was puppet-centric and had the kids interacting with Nifter (who was speaking through Sarah, his handler) and helping him go through his bag of toys, treats, and necessary accessories to learn more about proper pet care and the things that every pet owner should have to give his or her dog a good life.

The final group was a mix of boys and girls between 9 and 11 years of age, so it was back to the game and once again the puppets did not make an appearance. However, the biggest difference between this and the second group was that the two counselors (as opposed to the four earlier) were much more engaged and helpful, correcting the behavior of kids that were acting out, participating in the program by answering and asking questions, and generally just making sure that the kids were paying attention and not just checked out for the duration of the presentation. This highlights yet another important factor that determines the success of a program: the quality of the group’s teachers/counselors/supervisors. We had another example of this the following Friday (July 17), when a group of kids from a local community center came in for a program in our on-site auditorium. Their supervisors were totally no-nonsense, and while they were by no means rude or aggressive with their kids, they also weren’t putting up with any of their attempts to distract or take away from the presentation and tour. The result was a very successful program that all of the kids seemed to enjoy and learn from.

Personally, this was a great opportunity for me to remind myself of how much hard work our Humane Education Specialists put in to pulling off these programs, and how incredibly talented they all are to be able to do this every day.

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