Gotta Love This Camp

“Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” – Sir Ken Robinson

By Marcia Eldredge

Schools like Brewster Academy know that educating students to be successful in the 21st century requires ensuring students possess critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and creative skills as much as knowledge and content skills. And, while the Academy works thoughtfully to deliver such an intentional and robust curriculum during the academic year and during its own summer session, there is another group in the Brewster community that is working hard to empower kids for 21st century success.

Anyone who has spent time on the Brewster campus during the summer in the past decade may recall a group of spirited pre-teens who are known to break into cheers at lunch or a version of Mike d’Abo and Tony Macauley’s “Build Me Up Buttercup” on a walk across campus. They are neither shy nor quiet. They travel from one challenge to the next adorned in whatever colorful wardrobe the moment might call for. They have come for the challenge, for Camp Gottalikachallenge.

It’s one of the oldest creativity camps in the nation with activities designed to challenge campers to use technical, scientific, and inquiry-based skills to tackle challenges throughout the week-long camp. And they do it with gusto, enthusiasm, and at times, as loud as possible.

The website promises – “We provide a fast-paced adventure in problem solving. Our campers’ days are filled with hands-on learning, challenging activities with plenty of mental muscle-stretching games, and zany fun guaranteed to get their creative juices flowing!” – and it’s evident in every activity throughout the day.

The Gotta Camp grew out of New Hampshire Destination Imagination, or NH-DI, as it is known. Some schools across the state offer NH-DI as an extra-curricular activity at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Students work on challenges that take months to solve and can compete at the state level and even, if they are clever enough, at the annual global competition.

Former executive director of NH-DI, Jill Schoonmaker, is the director of The Gotta Camp at Brewster, which offers students ages 10-14 a chance to experience the types of challenges and problem solving offered through NH-DI but at a scaled back level.

Schoonmaker, who has a background in special education with a specialty in gifted students, writes all the curriculum for the camp but is quick to point out that there is not a correlation in being gifted and creativity. “We have varied personalities at camp. The kids are kind, supportive, inclusive, and willing to try new things,” she explained, adding with a laugh that they are middle-schoolers, not necessarily the age-group everyone is vying for. “They find a place here for themselves. They are always kept engaged.”

“The camp curriculum stretches kids in a different way and … there is a richness to it, whether it’s building a structure or solving an engineering problem or delivering 12 raw eggs from point A to point B over obstacles without cracking them,” added Helene Bickford, a recently retired school superintendent, who is the growth affiliate director for NH-DI.

The Highlight of Their Year
If you want to witness excellent facilitators in action, Camp Gottalikachallenge has plenty of them. Many of the counselors – most of whom are in their late teens or early twenties – are former campers who remember their own Gotta Camp days as the highlight of their year when they were younger. They are not here to answer the campers’ questions rather they are here to encourage the campers into asking their own questions to solve their Gotta problem.

“Facilitators don’t answer questions. It really needs to be their solution. It really needs to come from the campers,’ Schoonmaker explains. “It helps them rely on themselves to be more self sufficient, self reliant, it really encourages that team bonding and participation, and if they can’t see how to do it, someone else can. … It encourages that growth mindset. A failure is ‘well that didn’t work, how else can we do it.’”

She continued, “It’s not a failure it’s just not as elegant of a solution as something else might be.”

Gottalika Day
A Gotta Camp day starts with breakfast followed by a brief session of Getting in Gear for the day and of course the joke of the day. Then it’s off with a small group to work for a short time on the week’s Gotta Problem. One particular week’s challenge: Operation Food Delivery. Campers, skilled UFOlogists and engineers, had to devise a way to deliver food to starving aliens who had landed on a nearby island. The campers had to create a real system that would deliver the food from where they stood, across a 15-foot “ocean” to the island and the aliens.

Working in groups of about 10 campers with two facilitators, a silent brain-writing session ensues. Unlike a typical team brainstorming session, which often allows the dominant person(s) to dominate, this format allows all participates the chance to write and think first, then talk and discuss second. The campers appear to be pros, writing their ideas on Post-its and sticking them to a board for all to read, consider, and categorize.

The brainstorming is momentarily interrupted when the Queen (who looks a lot like Schoonmaker) enters to deliver a public service announcement on how to handle scissors. Not just any scissors but specialized cardboard cutters the “engineers” will likely use to assemble their food delivery systems. There is a demonstration while campers watch attentively and before the Queen exits she adds a royal reminder to handle the glue guns cautiously.

The work of the team coalesces. The problem solving begins. These campers are learning to manage a task over time; in this case five days. They have the beginning of a plan for their food delivery system. They eagerly ask if it’s time to visit Fort Knox.

Campers are required to collect and bring with them to camp a long list of items ranging from costumes and clothing to discarded toys and knick-knacks and typical household #1-7 recyclables. Some parents have been known to pull up with a truck bed of treasures. These are deposited and sorted in Fort Knox – in this case the Rogers Gymnatorium – which actually resembles a giant yard sale more than a fortified vault. The campers giddily peruse and collect the items that might meet their engineering specifications.

Afternoon are spent in land or water sports or a specialty session, such as stagecraft techniques, arts and crafts, unusual projects, and other offerings. Evenings might include a talent show, a group challenge, or a campfire. “We mix kids all day. We mix genders; we mix ages; they work together; it’s their happy place.” Schoonmacher says.

After a long day of mental muscle stretching, collaborating, games, laughing, singing, and enjoying new friendships, the campers end the day with milk and cookies in the dining hall before retreating back to their dorms for some well deserved rest.

About 15 years ago, Camp Gotta resided at a New Hampshire camp but the creativity camp became so popular that it needed a second site and at the same time the camp’s activities required an important element that is not abundant everywhere: water – for experiments of course. With its half-mile of shoreline on Lake Winnipesaukee, Brewster Academy fit the need nicely. Each summer since, these inquisitive campers have found a campus community that has come to look forward to their contagious enthusiasm and spirited presence.

The two camp sessions run for six days and five nights with each session hosting about 60 campers aged 10 -14. The counselor ratio is 10-2. More Information.
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