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Camp Girls

What is the value of camp? What unique opportunities are presented at camp that are rarely found elsewhere?

What lessons do kids learn at camp and what role do they play later in life? A discussion with Iris Krasnow, author of Camp Girls – Fireside Lessons on Friendship, Courage and Loyalty.

April 9, 2020: with Iris Krasnow.


Get Iris Krasnow’s book Camp Girls- Fireside Lessons on Friendship, Courage and Loyalty.

Janet Jefferson (00:14):
Welcome to Third Floor Views where we at Chesapeake Family Life talk about health, education and living with kids. I’m your host, Janet Jefferson. Today we are talking about summer camp. What is the value of camp? What unique opportunities are presented at camp that are rarely found elsewhere? What lessons do kids learn at camp and what role do they play in life later? My guest today is Iris Krasnow, New York Times bestselling author, professor at American University, mother of four. But today most importantly, a camper. She has a new book coming out called Camp Girls: Fireside Lessons on Friendship, Courage and Loyalty. She’s here to talk to us today about her experience and all things camp. Welcome Iris and thank you for being here.

Iris Krasnow (00:56):
Thank you. I’ve known you, Janet Jefferson, since you were so little and now you are a mother. Ah, how times have changed. I’ve known your mother for 28 years.

Janet Jefferson (01:10):
I’ve been lucky enough now to read a copy of Camp Girls before it comes out in April. And you in that book have distilled down the life skills gained at camp and the important role campus played in shaping you into the person you are today. But you also speak about your personal experience and have interviewed many other people about their camp experience as well. So in light of our current crazy pandemic, I just wanted to ask, how is camp helping you weather the storm that we’re in right now?

Iris Krasnow (01:45):
So I separate the chapters into one word headings that characterize the life skills and character traits that a person received in repeated summers at summer camp, I started going to Camp Agawak in Minocqua, Wisconsin when I was eight years old. I went until I was age 18 and then I skipped 40 years and resurrected the camp magazine where I got my literary starts. So this summer, will mark my seventh season back at Camp Agawak. I’ve been there 17 summers. So I still go to summer camp and I’m 65 all right, let’s just start there. And so the character traits, Janet, are independence, resilience, ambition, perseverance, community, which is so important and tradition, loyalty. And I would say resilience, community and connection to deep friendships are things that we really deepen through repeated summers in a camp community in nature and especially resilience and community are key connections that all of us need for survival during this time when we’re socially distant. I was thinking the other day, gosh, how could I come out with a camp book that seems so light in these horrific, unthinkable times. But to me it’s really a very deep and true mirror of what we need in terms of our internal battery packs and in our internal spines now in life, which is hope, resilience and community. So whether or not you went to summer camp, I believe everybody has a place in a sacred place, a meaningful place, a place that could be their history holder, where they can go back to in their hearts and really feel anchored. This is a great time, which also happens in summer camp for self-discovery. To see who you are, to realize your potential. At summer camp you’re pushed to try everything. I mean to humblebrag, I can shoot a rifle. Not that I’m really proud of that one, but I can fence. I do archery. I can swim six strokes, I can do eight dives. I can swim back and forth of a lake. I can portage a canoe in a heavy rain. I can do a flip on a trampoline still. You’re pushed to try every activity when you’re in a summer camp. And so often right now you’re pushed to your limits. You’re pushed to realize your full potential. You’re pushed to get up off the ground if you’re tossed off a horse. And so, right now, all of us, people my age, people older than me, people your age, people younger than you are all pushed to discover and uncover their internal resources and carry on. I mean, we have to carry on. And you know what? This ain’t so bad. I have a shelter. I have food in my refrigerator. I do not have an illness. My family is safe. Most of them are here. I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who did this for 14 years. She hid and dodged and found shelter and did stuff unthinkable, we’re going to get through this. I don’t think we’re going to be in church by Easter, which our president had once declared. And this could be the most memorable, hardest passage for all of us that we’ve ever been through. And you know, kids who grow up with helicopter parents and with a lot of privilege, they may be complaining that they can’t, and well, a lot of us are complaining. I mean, why can’t I go have happy hour with my girlfriends?

Janet Jefferson (06:26):
I know that you’ve talked a lot about the power of community and the power of the camp community, and I can see you spoke about it in your book that during challenging times you’ve really been able to rely on that. How has the camp community supporting each other in this challenging time?

Iris Krasnow (06:46):
Oh, Janet, we’re talking every day. But you know, I’ve talked to a camp friend nearly every day for the past 50 years, well before cell phones and stuff. I wouldn’t say 50 years. Well maybe because I, you know, once we became technologically oriented and cell phone oriented, we talked to each other all the time. Right now we’re talking, we have a camp girls text chain where everybody texts. One of our friends is a yoga instructor, so she teaches mindfulness. So she’s doing really early Zoom sessions, which I haven’t joined because I’ve been doing other Zoom work. But even through history, we’ve supported each other through parents’ deaths, the unthinkable deaths of some children, brothers, cancer, divorce. We celebrated each other’s marriages, the birth of grandchildren. And right now, they make me laugh every single day. If I get on the phone or on a Zoom or on a FaceTime with somebody from Camp Agawak, I almost, as soon as I see their face, I just start laughing. I mean we have so many ridiculously adventurous, funny things that happened with us in the woods, whether we’re talking about a canoe trip where our canoe, our trip leader got lost or we ended up in Canada and we were supposed to be in Minnesota or you know, boys we met at its socials that some of my camp friends actually married. So I think humor is really important right now. Humor and hope and let me add humor to that list of qualities that you do gain at summer camp and they can carry you through a lifetime. I mean, that’s really why I wrote this book when I went back to camp at age 59 after not being there for 40 years, I realized that the person I am today, highly imperfect but very adventurous, really strong, athletic, funny. A lot of things that are very perseverant, ambitious. A lot of that stuff came from getting pushed into a cold lake in 60 degree weather. And you know, you’re an outdoors woman, hiking a trail in unthinkable conditions of cordaging a heavy wooden canoe in pouring rain, ducking my under a tree during a lightning storm. When you’re canoeing through the boundary waters in Canada, it’s just all that stuff. Sleeping with strangers in a rustic cabin. My sister and I started camp when I was eight and my sister was nine and our parents put us on an overnight train to Wisconsin and waved at us, no cell phones, no hovering over Instagram or camp photos. And then we went for eight weeks. We saw them at week four and talk about instilling independence. And may I add that’s one of the most important qualities in life, period, is the ability to be alone and not feel lonely.

Janet Jefferson (10:19):
How do you recommend parents cope with sending their kids off for long chunks of time? And I know that you were really lucky and were able to tag along for a bit when your boys went to the camp. But after reading your book I was like, Oh my gosh and as a young parent now, I want to send my girls to camp. They have to go because this is clearly so critical in the formation of strong women, strong humans. But thinking about letting my kids go for these big chunks of time, I’m thinking, Oh no, how do I do it? So do you have any pointers to on how your parents coped with you guys being gone for such a long time?

Iris Krasnow (10:58):
My parents loved it. My mother grew up in France and she had a lot of relatives there and every summer for those first four weeks and they sent my brother to camp too. They would go to Europe and, it’s nice to have an empty house and reconnect as a couple number one. Number two, I tagged along for seven years while my four boys went to Camp Raquette Lake in upstate New York. I worked there either all summer or part of the summer. I was just such a camper in my heart, Janet. By the way, I would have sent the boys to my camp, but my camp was a girls camp.But you know, I loved working at camps and I think that it’s apparent. It is hard and, and it’s hard that first year. And I recommend starting them early because if they have a great experience, it could be a camp and a camp family and friendships and traditions that they would return to year after year. And it would form the spine of their life like it has for me. So you know, one thing to think about is that through life we make sequential series of friends. So I had been lucky to live in Annapolis almost 30 years. And so we have some very old friends, but as a child, you know, many children don’t go to schools that are pre K through high school like many of our friends have. And so, you’d go to a preschool and then you go to another school and then you have those friends and then you go to a junior high and you have those friends and then you go to high school and you have those friends. Then you go to college and you have those friends in. Some of those college friends may last summer camp, you go to the same place, you have the same routine yet the same schedule. Sometimes you have the same counselors, you watch the same kids grow up and that form, that tradition, that continuity is not a sequential series of friends. It’s one whole life. And when I think about the book, some of my favorite parts that I’m not looking at it right now, so I can’t quote it directly, but Camp Agawak has formed this continual timeline in my life. You know, some of the people I love most in the world who passed away and my parents, but these friends are my history holders. When you lose loved ones, you feel like you’ve lost your history holders. Right? With these people, there’s just people who know everything, they know things about you that no one else knows. You know, my sister knows a lot about me. My brother knows a little less about me. And even though my sister and I shared bedroom, we didn’t go on canoe trips together. She was in the older cabin. So I would just say to parents, it depends on your kid. All right, let’s just be honest here, which I been all along. Some people hate camp. I mean, when I was looking for people to interview for this book, I would call people that I knew well and they’d say, Iris, I hated camp. I’m well, yeah, some people hated it. And they hated it for these reasons. So if you have a kid, although I think the kid that hangs at your apron and won’t go out of the house and wants to be mommy, mommy, mommy, all the time, that’s the kid that you should put on a bus to go into the woods because a lot of it is the parental fear. And what happens now at camp? Well, the good part is most camps accredited by the American Camp Association, which is thousands of camps, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls, there’s no technology allowed. So these girls who are so used to Instagram and posting each other on Facebook and spending two hours a night on social media, they don’t get that. So I think that’s a real plus for parents to realize that you’re disconnecting your children from these kind of superficial friends and you’re connecting them with FaceTime, true face time where you have to make your own decisions, if someone picks on you, you can’t call mommy to help you get out of this girl fight or boy fight, you have to work it out. So I would just say for parents to let go of their fears. And the other thing, what happens at camps now, if you send your kids to camp Janet, you are going to have the opportunity to see photos every single day. There’s a camp photographer that posts online everything. And so sometimes we’ll get calls from parents: I didn’t see Lily in any of the photographs or I saw Ruby. I saw Jane near the trampoline today, but she wasn’t smiling, is something wrong with Jane? So I think it’s too much even, but we’re afraid of a lot of things. I’m afraid for young parents sending their kids to school. Now kids do active shooter drills when you’re in the woods of Wisconsin or Maine or New Hampshire or Michigan or North Carolina, there’s so many great camps. It’s pretty safe. Well, let’s talk about the pink elephant for a minute, which you might’ve gotten ready to ask me. There is uncertainty right now on whether camps can open on time this summer, right? The American Camp Association, which is our umbrella organization, is watching, thinking, you know, preparing right now, it’s full speed ahead. Right now we’re planning for summer 2020. I’m getting my activity together. I run the writing activity. I resurrected the camp magazine and I run an activity called writing in the woods and the kids sit with yellow pads and pencils and pens and they actually write and we put together a magazine and we read their writing every Sunday night. I’m preparing, I’m preparing as if I will see those girls by June 19th. However, we all know that we are all in at the mercy of the moment right now and it would be the most crushing thing personally for me and for the rest of the campers if they couldn’t go to camp this summer. Now, Janet, if camp doesn’t happen, let’s do another podcast and we’ll do one on how to create summer camp in your home. There’s so many activities you can do at home, but we’re just planning on camp going forward.

Janet Jefferson (18:15):
It makes sense. You spoke a little bit about how many different kinds of camps are there are out there. Does the kind of camp matter? There are so many different theme camps. It’s something more generalist, a more powerful experience, or do you think by focusing on something specific that could really get kids excited and enthusiastic, even those kids who maybe might not want to go to camp?

Iris Krasnow (18:42):
That’s a great question because I went to the only camp that I’m really familiar with are the ones where you do everything and that’s why I think I liked the value of a liberal arts education that you’re not just tightly focused on one thing. However, I wouldn’t send my kid to a computer camp. Like if I had a really techie kid, which I do, I have a kid who, one of our sons is the senior software developer for a tech company, but he went to a camp where he learned how to play tennis and all this other stuff. I say, if you can get your kid in nature, out in the woods somewhere, even if it’s a specialty camp, that they’re going to have a well rounded experience. But the thing about kids today, now that mine are grown, kids by seventh and eighth grade are already studying for SATs and ACT. Taking them three and four times. And mothers are sobbing if they don’t get into the right nursery school or preschool. And by freshman year the kid is on a soccer team and a lacrosse team and a tennis team and getting tutored in math and the best kind of camp is a camp where you get to just chill, get to hang out, and you get to do a lot of different sports. And if you don’t want to swim one day, you don’t have to swim. And you can write if you want. You can perfect your hiking skills, you learn how to sleep in a tent and build a bear bag. Kids are so over-scheduled right now and they’re out posting each other on Facebook and the rise in childhood and teen depression is so high. And the good thing, we can talk about it now and the stigma is diminished. But do you send your kid to camp, send your kid to camp, right. I’ll get them out in the woods.

Janet Jefferson (20:57):
So you think that nature does need to be involved for this sort of transformative experience to happen?

Iris Krasnow (21:03):
I do. My chapter called Nature is one of my favorite. I mean, when you’re living in the woods amidst towering pine trees where the sky is blue most of the time and you’re swimming in an icy clean lake and you’re just surrounded by beauty, you really stop and grow and get nourished in such a deeper way. And a lot of camps attract a predominant population of city kids. So they’re from New York or they’re from Chicago or they’re from a other city. A lot of kids from Florida go to these East coast camps and the Midwestern camps. Camp Agawak is in Minocqua, Wisconsin. We now have campers from everywhere in the country, from California to Texas, Oklahoma. Everywhere. Even if you live in a beautiful environment, which we get to do in Annapolis, there’s something about getting up in the boonies, I mean, Minocqua, Wisconsin is tiny and pristine and strange and different. People are not talking about who’s going to be president, although I think they should a little bit more, but they’re talking about did you catch walleye today? And they wear cheese heads because you know, it’s the cheese capital. They were foam cheese heads out. It’s different nature. There’s a book called The Nature Fix that I recommend along with Camp Girls. But it’s really about not only the spiritual lift that nature gives you, it actually is healing and helpful for kids with ADHD. And obviously there’s camps for children who are physically challenged. I wanted to circle back, you asked, do I believe in specialty camps. There are camps for children who are physically challenged or challenged in other ways that brings out absolutely the best to be with people like them to, to feel normal in an environment where sometimes at school they may feel not normal. There’s nothing like summer camp and someone in the audience might be saying, Oh, it’s great to go to summer camp if you can afford it. Well, this is another change that’s happening happily in the summer camp world and that is most camps led by the American Camp Associations. So a lot of the myths is that only the wealthy people can afford these camps. There’s wonderful scholarship programs through the American Camp Association and through most traditional camps. The goal of the camping industry is that any kid who wants to go to camp should have that experience. There is ‘send a kid to camp funds.’ When I went to Camp Agawak in 1963, it was monochromatic. I would say right now there’s kids of all backgrounds and cultures and races and economic situations and it’s just a much more diverse community and that’s happening across the country. So it is the words diversity and inclusion become part of our educational rhythm of our academic pursuits. We hear the words diversity and inclusion every week, every day in our professional roles and camps becoming the same way. And it’s true. Like it should be. Tom Rosenberg, who’s the president of the American Camp Association actually comes to Capitol Hill and lobbies for Camp For All. Camp for all, wouldn’t that be nice. Camp for all. And the camp learning curve is so different than being in cased and enclosed in a classroom where it’s like sometimes staged and camp you’re learning from each other. I learned as much from my fellow campers as I did from my counselors. I had some great counselors. I had some counselors that I put frogs in their beds because they weren’t so great. I met a boy at a social when I was 15 who I’m still such good friends with. I met one of my best, best friends. I learned that when I was eight and she’s now 67. She’s the yoga instructor and she now works at camps. So some of my besties from the old days now work at camp with me.

Janet Jefferson (26:14):
Yeah, that’s great. I love that so much. Let me ask you one last question. After you completely sold me on camp, I feel like everyone needs to go to camp and we can just become better people by that experience. But how do you go about choosing a camp for your child? How did you choose the camp that your boys went to?

Iris Krasnow (26:35):
I think I sent the twins when they were six and Isaac was eight and Theo was 10. I think it was a little early, but I just started researching and there was no Google then but I just started researching the best camps on the East coast. There was a woman in Baltimore who specializes in finding camps for kids and she’s specializing in pairing children with the right camps. And I called her and she told me about three camps and I called one of them, the Raquette Lake owner, his name was Jerry. And he said, I’ll be in your area in two weeks. I’ll come to your house. He came to our house and he stayed for dinner and the kids left the table and I started talking to him about how much I loved summer camp and asked questions like do you have color Wars? Do you have horseback riding? Do you have this, this? And we talked for two hours and then the next morning he called at 7:00 AM and he said, Iris, this is Jerry. I said, Oh, it’s so great. You know, we really enjoyed the talk. I’m thinking about sending my boys to Raquette Lake. And he said, well, it’d be great to have your kids, but I want you, I want you to come and be the freshman group leader. You’d be in charge of 12 counselors, 35 boys. And, and that’s how I chose that camp.

Janet Jefferson (28:08):
Little did you know you were on a job interview at the time?

Iris Krasnow (28:12):
Little did I. And also camp is expensive. That camp certainly was and so we got a break. But if you don’t hire a camp consult, which I don’t think you really need, it’s so easy to go and Google camps for research. You know, maybe your children are really neat, more outdoorsy than artsy. And so you’d want to do a camp where there’s a lot of hiking. There’s craft, you know, there’s 10 building skills and fire making where it was, it’s really based more very outdoorsy. Maybe the kids sleep in more sophisticated tents than cabins. Maybe you don’t want your kids to go to uniform camp, which I thought was great because everybody dressed alike. I’m all for uniforms, especially in these competitive times. Maybe your kids really love soccer and lacrosse and maybe it’s a camp that has a lot of field games, but you know, I would say to anyone, send them to a camp where they’re going to do everything. Send them to a camp where they’re going to do everything from trampoline to tennis to a lot of swimming to archery. I know I loved archery. The first day I hit a bullseye at age 10 I still remember it. So you want well-rounded kids, right? You want to get them away from their screens. So I would just say, pick a camp you can afford and if you can’t afford the camp, there are scholarships available to send a kid to camp.

Janet Jefferson (29:49):
Definitely. Well, thank you so much Iris for talking to us today. We really do look forward to Camp Girls: Fireside Lessons on Friendship, Courage, and Loyalty coming out on April 7th.

Iris Krasnow (30:01):
It’s available on Amazon and everything else. And I hope to have conversations with anyone who wants to talk to me about camp. You can reach me on my website Iriskrasnow.com

Janet Jefferson (30:14):
We love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you enjoyed what you heard today, check out more at thirdfloorviews.com. I’m Janet Jefferson. This is Third Floor Views. Thank you for listening.


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