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Leading by Example

A few summers ago a group of older campers approached me. They had created a new game—Empires—and wanted to play it for evening program. I sat down with them and we talked over the rules and how they wanted their game to look and feel. Empires is based on two classic Camp Lookout programs: Capture the Flag and Conquest. The campers envisioned five teams, each representing a different historical empire, such as Rome or Persia. Teams have a leader, usually a counselor, and a king that the group selects. Each team hides a colorful ball in its home-base. If a team can capture another team’s ball and defeat its king by pulling both flags from her or his waistband (think flag-football), they conquer that team and absorb its members into their own.

I was drawn to Empires’ elegance. We wouldn’t need boundary lines because each player would have a flag that could be pulled anywhere. And the game wouldn’t end simply because one team was captured. Other teams could join together or draw the dominant team into their fold. After some fine-tuning, we pitched the idea to Jack, the program director. He, like me, was impressed with the game’s design and the work the older campers had invested in it. We scheduled an evening program to debut Empires.

When campers invent a game, I often give them the chance either to play or moderate. Both options demonstrate ownership: campers will play because they want to share in the excitement of what they created; or they will oversee a game to ensure it goes well for other campers. Empires’ creators insisted on playing. And their ownership over the game was obvious. When we rang the bell to start evening program, it was the game’s inventors who explained the rules and took questions. If an issue came up, the group would consult each other and clarify the point for the entire camp. I saw this happen during the game too. Empires’ creators took it upon themselves to mediate disputes. Importantly, their goal was to make the game consistent and enjoyable for every player—not to secure this or that team’s victory. When the game ended, the creators solicited comments from fellow campers on how to improve Empires for the future. In other words, they acknowledged that their game might not be perfect the first time around and would benefit from everyone’s feedback.

Since 2013, it has become easier for Lookout campers to create and lead activities. Several camper-led programs stood out to me this past summer: a whimsical Finding Nemo scavenger hunt; a strategy game based off Dota 2 (a popular computer game); a spontaneous, all-camp game of Capture the Flag; a Clue-themed murder mystery/mock trial; and Olympics day, where campers cooked international food and created their own countries.

It’s not always easy to involve campers in programming. For example, a nine-year-old might have a fantastic idea for a martial arts training activity, but little experience in teaching her skills to others. Or an older camper might develop a complex running-around game that’s difficult to explain to our youngest campers. Counselors can often bridge these gaps, working with campers to turn their ideas and enthusiasm into real-life programs. As role-models, we encourage campers to lead for themselves.

This approach speaks broadly to Camp Lookout’s philosophy. We allow campers to step into the role of creators, rather than just choosers. When young adults have a stake in their own experience—be it games, meals, trips, or free time—they dream up the unexpected. More important, campers gravitate towards recognizing that life is about creating things with others. They learn to build interactions based on mutual respect, so their fun isn’t had at someone else’s expense.

Empires is a powerful example of what can happen when campers create and run their own programs. Not only are camper-led programs new and exciting, they are catalysts for teaching young adults to be leaders. This type of leadership isn’t built on winning. It comes from the responsibility of letting everyone in on the fun.

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