How Does Overnight Camp Work?

Every week of camp is different. As a small camp we able t adapt to the needs of each group of kids and the needs of each unique project. While we are proud of this flexibility, there are some things that you can count on. Here is a bit of what camp looks like and what will happen every week.

Community Building - Be Safe, Be Excellent

Every week of camp starts with creating our community. We play games, do introductions, get to know each other and set our community guidelines. Co-creating our community guidelines is an essential piece of how we create space that is physically and emotionally safe. While they shift from week to week based on campers, certain types of ideas appear again and again. We summarize them in two categories; “Be Safe” and “Be Excellent.” Be Safe includes things like “Rule of 3” and “Tools are Like Big Dogs; approach cautiously and with respect”. Be Excellent often includes gems like “The Platinum Rule” and “You Didn’t Invent the Chair.”

Safety Training

Safety Training is where things get serious. At the start of camp every camper goes through three safety trainings; Drills, Miter Saw, and Building 101. Take a peek at our staff manual for a glimpse of how serious we take these trainings. Read more at “Safety is Essential” on the “What Makes Overnight Camp so Special Page”

You Can’t Do It Alone

We build big because it changes perspective. Once you’ve built a 20 ft structure that can hold the weight of the entire camp, you start to think of yourself differently. You start to see the built world around you for what it is. The world becomes malleable and you become an agent of change in that malleable world.

We build big because you can’t do it alone. At the heart of our pedagogy is teamwork. Our projects call on on you to lead, listen, advocate, compromise, but-heads and resolve conflict. Our projects are a microcosm of community and connection.

Every session of overnight camp is a new project. The staff crafts a prompt that balances constraints with creative freedom. The challenges are always both technical and artistic. For example, in 2017 our project was titled “Mind the Gap.” The constraints were simple;

  • Launch something through the air such that it can land gracefully and continue to roll (no wild throws).

  • For Middles, you must clear 5ft, and for uppers, 10ft.

  • The farther the better.

  • Lasty, what is flying through the air and why?

And that was it. The rest was for the kids and their collaborators on staff to design, implement, and problem solve. And the range of solutions was fantastic. One team made a giant 10ft tall toaster that shot “toast” to finish a sandwich. Another team made a straight-out-of-an-action-film flying car launch. Some of the teens took on the incredible technical challenge of making a Torsion Siege Engine-esk launch mechanism to send a cart through a “ring of fire.”

Learning from Mistakes (and time to make those mistakes)

When things go wrong, mess up, or just don’t work, we meet the mistakes with joy and curiosity. At any given moment it’s likely one of our campers or staff members is laughing boisterously and asking, “so what the heck just happened? Why didn’t that work the way we expected it to?”

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
— Samuel Beckett

At Project Ember it’s our goal to change mistakes from moments to give up, be disappointed or be frustrated into moments for celebration, curiosity and data collection. For us mistakes are where all the learning happens. If we aren’t making mistakes, we haven’t picked a sufficiently interesting problem.

Failure is an Exciting and Terrifying Option

Our projects are complex and open ended. Our staff have not pre-determined the solutions. The projects will only work if our campers make them work. The honesty with which staff can say “I don’t know if that will work, let’s try” often startles campers. Knowing that success rest squarely on their shoulders inspires engagement.

Try Harder Than Your Used To

In 2017, six campers and two collaborators woke up at 4am on the last day of camp to get to work. Their project had never once worked. Parents were coming in just six hours at 10am and this was their last chance to eek something functional out. Working by headlamp they tried more ideas. Made more mistakes. Got frustrated and kept going. Below is a short video of what their project looked like by the time the parents arrived.

It’s a clunky motto and its a core tenant. Every summer we ask the campers to try harder than they are used to. We challenge them to muster a little more sticktoitiveness then they have in the past. And you know what? They do.

Partly because our projects are interesting. Partly because creative agency is empowering and motivating. Partly because that’s just the culture we have here at camp. We’re not 100% sure how and why kids try so hard here, but we know they do.

Multi Age

Camp is divided into two camps; Uppers and Middles. Each camp is then divided into project teams for all brainstorming, design and building work. We hire staff who are specifically dedicated to working with and best serving each age group. Dividing up the ages like his allows us to keep projects engaging and appropriately challenging. It also allows campers to spend more time with their developmental peers making friends and bonding.

These groups are physically near each other, run on parallel schedules, use the same tools and have the same project themes. Uppers and Middles eat together, play games together, and spend beach day together. The reason for this is simple, multi age interaction is powerful for both age groups. Camp is full of moments where the Middles get to see how the older kids work, how they brainstorm and how they think. There are times where the Uppers get to mentor, share their insights and get excited about the work the younger kids are doing. Heck, sometimes staff gets to point out that the Middles are making more progress than teams in the uppers camp (which is always a motivating observation for the teenagers).

We believe our multi-age format is well balanced to create space for different age groups to have their needs met socially, intellectually and emotionally, while fostering multi-age friendships and mentorships.

Meals, Rest, and Play

Our schedule is deliberately punctuated with good food, moments to rest, and plenty of time to play. We believe that to work hard, try new things, and be creative one must be well fed, body and mind.

To feed the body our meals are delicious and can accommodate most dietary needs. We eat three meals a day and we have plenty of snacks on hand to keep calorie counts high and energy levels even.

To feed our mind we rest and play. Every day after lunch we rest, read or nap. We start and end most build sessions with games. Every evening is punctuated by gathering around the fire. On Thursdays we take the afternoon off to go play in the water, and we take the evening off to watch a movie. This gives us the energy and focus we need for the big friday push.

Fire Night, Spotlight, and Saying Nice Things

Almost every night we gather around a fire to talk, reflect and connect. Most nights we highlight 3 or 4 campers by putting them in the “spotlight.” This is a chance for campers to share their passions, tells stories, educate us on a topic, or share a skill. It’s a simple activity that always leads to powerful insights, good laughs, and community building.

On Friday night we close out the week on a high note by saying nice things to each other around the fire. We go around the circle and focus on each camper and staff member one by one, asking volunteers to say something nice about the person being highlighted. It’s a time for campers to feel seen, heard, appreciated and loved.

Demonstration and Deconstruction

At the end of the week we invite parents to come out and see our demonstration. We show off our projects and how they work (or should have worked). It’s a time to acknowledge hard work, honor effort, revel in success, and celebrate failures. We know camp is far away for some, but we implore parents who can make it to come pick up their campers and see the demonstrations. It’s one of the highlight moments of camp. For parents who can’t make it, we will be heavily documenting the demonstrations with photos and video.

It’s a huge part of our philosophy that what we build is temporary. What we build is about process. The point was to have built it, not to have it. To drive the point home, as soon as demonstration is complete, deconstruction begins and both campers and their adult guardians are encourage to join in and help. This is officially part of camp and we hope most campers and their adult guardians can stay for deconstruction.

week overview

  • Sunday: Welcome to Project Ember! Introductions + goal setting, expectations, evening hike + small groups, campfire
  • Monday: Welcome to the shop: tool training + an introductory mini-build challenge
  • Tuesday: Project Announcement - Initial design sessions and building
  • Wednesday: A day of steady progress
  • Thursday: Project time in the morning, beach-day in the afternoon, followed by movie night
  • Friday: Final full project day, closing campfire
  • Saturday: Demonstration! Deconstruction and Departure

A SAMPLE DAY AT OVERNIGHT

  • 7:00am - 7:30am - Wake up!  A little time provided for individual morning rituals
  • 7:30am - 8:30am - Breakfast
  • 8:30am - 9:00am - Large group circle, following by project groups meeting to officially start the day
  • 9:00am - 12:00am - Project Session A: Planning - executing - snacking - progress - mistakes - revisions - play breaks
  • 12:00am - 2:00pm - Lunch followed by a short siesta + game break
  • 2:00pm - 6:00pm - Project Session B
  • 6:00pm - 7:00pm - Dinner (often full of riddles, card games, etc)
  • 7:00pm - 8:00pm - Free play+build and/or shower time
  • 8:00pm - 9:00pm - Campfire + Small group meeting: A time for checking in on personal goals, successes and failures
  • 9:00 - 9:30pm - Winding down and getting ready for bed
  • 9:30 - 10:00pm - Quiet personal time for reading, meditating, drawing, falling asleep.
  • 10:00pm - Lights out and quite time.