This page contains the history of Camp With Wings and as well as links to reviews and articles about Camp With Wings and Not Back to School Camp. For recommended further reading see the links on the sidebar to the right.
Some History and a Review of the First Camp, by Janine Banks
For a week in January 2005, 20 teenagers and five staff from Canberra to Kuranda in far north Queensland, with three visitors from Minnesota in the USA, gathered for the first Camp with Wings at Lesley Dam Recreation Centre near Warwick. This camp was a dream-come-true for me. Ever since my four young people and I attended the annual Not Back to School Camp at the rustic but peaceful and beautiful Camp Myrtlewood in southern Oregon in September 2000, I have wanted a similar event to be available for our Australian home educated teenagers.
Grace Llewellyn, author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook and Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don’t go to School, has been organizing the Not Back to School Camp for almost 10 years. In 2000, we were at the second session with about 120 campers and nearly 20 staff. There are still two sessions on the west coast in Oregon and a few years ago she added an east coast session in Virginia. Over the years, the camp has been slowly evolving to meet the needs of the teenagers as they change with the times. Both camper and staff feedback is evaluated and applied as part of the whole process of keeping the camp vibrant and alive and effective to the goals of the camp. These goals are embedded in the philosophy of Grace’s books that were mainly inspired by John Holt’s writings and the, sadly no longer published, magazine, Growing Without Schooling.
Our family has been officially self-educating since 1992 when our two eldest didn’t return to the little country school where they would have been in grades two and three respectively. Over the years we changed some of our ideas about home education and its advantages. We could see how much our four children could learn in the peace and comfort of our home and the safety and nurturing love of our family. We did not predict the close bonds between each of the family members, children and parents. And we did not for see the levels of self-awareness that would develop in the private, alone times that children can find for themselves during the home educating day. Being a television free household also helps that precious self-awareness to develop, as well as being free of peer pressure. We also did not predict the healthy socialization that occurred away from the school scene.
Memorable Family Home Education Camps
Some of the most memorable moments of our early years of home educating have been home education camps. These events helped fill any gaps in the varying social needs. Some of us need to bounce off other people more than others do. Our family travelled to home education camps in Victoria and central Queensland as well as the array that were organized in northern New South Wales where we were living for half our home educating days. When we moved to Queensland we continued to attend some of the annual New South Wales camps as well as those in south-east Queensland. Although the travel times became many hours, the benefits of maintaining the friendships established in these long-term annual camps far outweighed the drawbacks of the long car trip. Parents’ and children’s needs were met with both friendship and fun, and the support that the parents found in other like-minded adults’ company was invaluable.
Family home education camps were safe learning situations for our children. They could venture away from the security of mum or dad, and spend time with other children, knowing their parents were close by if needed. Their siblings may be part of their group or off with another group according to their own needs. The various activities brought to camp by each family would sometimes be new learning adventures for the other families or inspire them with new directions or ideas. I see family home education camps as the next step outwards in the socialization circle. As our four moved into the teenage years, these explorations and adventures became more courageous. The teenage years can be times of personal exploration, emotional turmoil, soul-searching, and gaining a much broader overview of the world and where they fit into that big picture. It’s about exploring boundaries and testing limits and measuring themselves against various yardsticks of cultural normalcy. The Not Back to School Camps, and now Camp with Wings, are organized to offer teenagers some opportunities for personal growth in safe peer groups.
Inspired by Grace Llewellyn’s Not Back to School Camps
When I read Grace Llewellyn’s first edition of The Teenage Liberation Handbook, I found it totally inspiring. Inside me, my own tightly-controlled and smothered teenager who rebelled out of necessity, and is maybe still rebelling out of habit, became very excited by this book. When I gave it to my eldest, a voracious reader, hoping that he would be similarly inspired, he was rather indifferent and told me he didn’t need to read it as his life was already like that. He was already living his dreams and passions.
As serendipitous as life is, we found ourselves living in Oregon where the Not Back to School Camp is held. Without going into the story of how we got there, the four young people and I attended camp, they as campers and I as a cook.
I made a big effort to stay out of their way at camp as I realized the benefits of their independence at such a camp. This was fairly easy as I spent half my day in the kitchen as a dinner cook and was very involved with a small number of campers who formed a healing group offering reiki (channelling healing energy). The sheer numbers of campers and staff also made it very easy to disappear into the masses and hardly even catch sight of each other some days. This week was a life changing event for us. The whole loving and supportive ambience of the camp infected us and the rest of our stay in the US was influenced by the connections we made that week. In fact, I would say that that camp has had a major influence on our eldest son’s life ever since. At 16, he probably gained the most benefit and it seems the world opened up for him.
When we came back to Australia, I had vague ideas of organizing such a camp but life was still very busy with four home educating teens, and I was still studying, and then beginning, yoga teaching as well. I also trained as a crisis telephone counselor later that year, so I continued to organize familiar and easy-to-run family camps for the next few years.
However, each year, Grace Llewellyn invited me back to be on staff, so in 2003 I let myself be tempted and went to work as cook at both sessions in Oregon. Without my four there, I was able to be much more involved and led a variety of activities including daily yoga deep relaxations in the wellness time, girls’ rite of passage ceremonies, and yoga and reiki workshops. I also joined more activities and had another fantastic almost 3 weeks of camp. At each of the closing circles of these two camp sessions, as everyone set goals for the following year, one of my goals was to organize an Australian version of the Not Back to School camp. So I had made the commitment I had to follow through.
For most of the teenagers I talked to, their first Not Back to School camps have been life changing experiences. Just as many of our Australian families can feel isolated with their choice of home education in smaller and larger communities throughout Australia, this situation is
surprisingly similar in the very well populated United States. While there may be some excellent support groups in larger centres, many families are the only home educators in their town or area. Also the styles and reasons for home educating may keep many groups and families apart just as they do here. While there may be a like-minded support group nearby, there may not be any or many compatibly aged children. There are many reasons for this isolation. So the opportunity to meet and spend a week in the company of other home educated teenagers is usually an exhilarating experience for these young people. Sometimes they find friends who don’t live that far away from them at home whom they’ve never had the chance to connect with before. But mostly they make strong connections with other teens who are scattered all over the countryside, and they keep up their contact in a variety of ways including email, extended visits, letters and phone calls.
These connections are very important to teenagers, who are much more outward looking than in their younger years. There’s a whole world out there waiting for them and they want to start tasting some of the opportunities that are offered. Finding work opportunities for themselves can give them some financial independence as well as valuable life lessons in interacting with others in various positions of responsibility. Satisfying some of their curiosity about the adult world that they will soon be joining can help them gain a broader perspective on their life values in balance with their dreams and passions. Making some strong relationships with their peers helps them feel more confident about themselves as they step out into that grown-up world. Because of this need for connection, many teenagers choose to go to school, often reluctantly, rather than feel the isolation of home education.
Connections Most Valuable Aspects of Camp
I think these connections are the most valuable aspects of these camps. In a way, they give the teenagers the same opportunities as schools do offering a larger choice from which to make friends, but unlike many schools, the camps are a much safer environment. Everyone has come from a nurturing family home education environment. Usually, the social skills they bring to camp make it a very positive and supportive environment. The staff are selected from that same pool, sharing the empathy and values of the whole home education world.
Whatever the teenagers offer to the camp in the way of their workshop or talent show performance or their own personality is taken and accepted in the spirit in which it is offered, be it shy or nervous, tentative or confident, theatrical or humble. Everyone is encouraged, supported and celebrated for who they are and what ever they have to offer. This empowerment of each other is the other major goal of the camp. Being affirmed by one’s peers is vitally important as they take these first courageous steps away from their family who have often been their main source of feedback until this time.
Heart Based Connection and Individual Empowerment
So the first Camp with Wings was an experiment in trying to achieve these same goals of heart-based connection and individual empowerment as well as to develop our own Australian flavour. We had much smaller numbers and a group of campers who mostly had no idea what to expect. But anyone meeting that return bus as it pulled into Toowoomba’s Queens Park at the end of the week could see how successful the camp had been. One parent expressed the feeling when everyone tumbled out as a moment of tangible love. The campers managed to defer their separation for another hour or so with various farewell activities until finally submitting to the inevitable of lingering goodbyes. There has been lots of emailing and visiting since the camp as the new friendships are deepened and strengthened.
There seem to be many reasons for the success depending on which camper or staffer I speak with. Perhaps one of the most important was the need of the campers themselves to make the connections. They were already starting to make friends in the park while we waited for the bus to take them to camp. There was an air of excitement, and an inclusiveness and acceptance right from the beginning. More than half the campers had siblings at camp and most knew at least one other person already. I think this first Camp with Wings group came with that brave pioneering spirit of giving the camp a go, not knowing what to expect. But this courageous spirit set the tone of ‘having a go’ for the whole camp.
When we put the blank roster sheets for workshops up on the wall, they were filled so quickly there was no room left for the staff. We had to find alternative times for other organized activities. There was always lots of enthusiasm for the diversity of workshops presented by the campers themselves as well as the staff. While the boys may not have wanted to learn how to belly dance, the overriding need to be together meant that at the next talent show, there was only a very small audience to appreciate how quickly such a wide range of people had learnt a whole dance well enough to perform together so successfully. Other passions that were shared and taken up enthusiastically by others included guitar, poetry recitation, making pyjamas, drama and unicycling. The workshop presenters gained esteem and confidence and the campers participating learnt new skills.
The wide range of activities helped keep the interest and enthusiasm at a high level. While the need for connection remained paramount, and was often the reason for the high attendance, there were opportunities to participate in a bush dance, both competitive and co-operative sports, social games and group singing,. Also, the wide variety of workshops reflecting the campers interests, the quality talent shows, and some quieter more introspective activities meant the different needs of the campers were all met in some way over the week.
The size of the group also contributed to the camp’s success. It was possible for everyone to be part of every game and activity if they wished. One quieter camper told me she thought the size was good because with the organized activities and the smaller numbers she was able to get to know everyone by just participating. A smaller group also allowed a lot more flexibility with our timetable. If we hadn’t finished one activity in the allotted time we could decide immediately if we wanted to continue or come back later. For several of the campers it was clear that being able to make their own choices about what they wanted to do made the camp successful for them. The only set requirements for attendance were for the morning and evening meetings when announcements were made, and the daily chore that was chosen when they filled in the chore roster. All other activities were free choice. This meant the campers could make Camp with Wings what they wanted it to be for themselves. Of course this was more important for some campers than others, but I think just knowing they had the choice also made the camp the success it was for everyone.
There was always encouragement to take care of themselves by way of enough sleep, or to think about what they needed to do for themselves in the wellness time each day after lunch. The food was as healthy as we could make and provide, with no junk food or caffeine and the sweet food was as natural as possible. I’m sure this attention to the details of a healthy lifestyle contributed to the overall energy and health of the camp.
Camp Designed to Meet Needs of Home Educated Teenagers as they Start to Look Outwards from Safety of the Family and Family Camps
After this first success, Camp with Wings has become an annual event with many people, including myself, already looking forward to the next one. The camp is designed to meet the needs of home educated teenagers as they start to look outwards from the safety of the family and the family camps. Although Camp with Wings felt quite a bit different to the Not Back to School camps, I think this mainly reflects the cultural differences between the USA and Australia. Our American campers loved the camp and plan to be back next year. Camp with Wings is finally launched and I look forward to the future as we soar to new heights.
(The review section of this article was published in an edited form in Education Choices No 2, May 2005.)