Camp Kinderland is not an ordinary summer camp, although much of what we do are ordinary summer camp things. What makes Kinderland distinctive is its history of progressive politics and its heritage of secular Jewish traditions and its legacy of promoting social activism. These are our foundations. Yet over time, we have changed and changed again, working out how best to balance our heritage with our present goals.
Camp Kinderland was established in 1923 by Jewish union activists in New York, who wanted to provide a summer escape from the city for working class families. The founders of Kinderland believed that Jewish culture includes a responsibility to social justice. The camp program focused on the labor movement, and other progressive causes. Over the years, we have honored and celebrated the International Brigades in Spain, anti-fascist efforts in the World War II era, economic reform and the civil rights and anti-war movements, among others. Since Kinderland has been around for over three-quarters of a century, camp and campers have been active participants in the history and events that have shaped who we are today.
Every few years, someone writes an article about Kinderland in a nationally read publication. They write about our campers’ murals depicting social and political movements. They write about how we sing classic union songs, Yiddish folksongs and songs of the civil rights movement. They write about how the bunks are named after Paul Robeson and Joe Hill, Anne Frank and Harriet Tubman. Evolving generations of campers and staff embrace a far broader and more diverse spectrum of issues and ideas that are expressed in the cultural program—including struggles for women’s and gay rights, and environmental justice—and a more multicultural outlook. We see ourselves as the caretakers of the ideals that Kinderland was built on, maintaining a community that does what it can to work for social justice around the world. We honor our Jewish roots: we integrate Yiddish into camp life; we learn Eastern European folkdances and songs; we set aside time every summer to commemorate the Holocaust, remembering victims and honoring those who offered resistance. We also recognize and teach that our roots are entwined with many other struggles, cultures, heroes and fighters. We see our own struggles in those of other peoples and we honor their fight as our own. Our principles are universal in nature, capable of influencing and being influenced by other sources and it is this belief that drives Kinderland today.
What they don’t write about is that most of the summer, the campers are making crafts, swimming, playing sports, scratching mosquito bites, and neglecting to write home. Kinderland is first and foremost a summer camp, and while we pride ourselves on our heritage, we don’t lose sight of the community we’re serving. There’s a difference between a summer camp and a school, and we go to great lengths to avoid being the latter. Our job is to inspire; to raise awareness and introduce new ideas. So our cultural program is integrated into our regular activities.
During our Olympics – in grand summer camp tradition – the entire camp forms teams which compete in a series of games and events, while wearing team colors and screaming team chants. But at Kinderland, we name the teams after people, countries or movements that we admire. One year’s teams included A. Philip Randolph, Chico Mendes and Ida B. Wells. Another year, under the theme of “Speak Truth to Power,” the teams included the Israeli Refusnik movement and the McCarthy-era Hollywood Ten. Each team writes chants and songs that incorporate information about their namesake. They produce elaborate murals and put together a cultural presentation that is performed as part of the closing ceremonies. Campers learn in ways that challenge them to be creative, emotional and active in the learning process.
Children are able to draw on numerous sources and reinvent themselves. They are capable of effortlessly integrating what would otherwise seem like contradictory impulses, such as progressive ideology and consumer culture. Rather than view this as “just a phase,” we think of it as a period of growth, where children are trying to come to terms with issues that affect them both directly and tangentially.
We see our job as introducing our campers to new ideas and beliefs that they may not otherwise be exposed to in their everyday lives. We promote an agenda of progressive values; most important, we try to maintain an environment that supports these values. We emphasize cooperation and community; we promote democratic participation and a humane and caring standard of how to treat one another, in and out of camp. And we try to show our campers that by working for social justice, they are part of a greater struggle, in a larger historical context, and a member of a community that supports and encourages their activism.
Kinderland’s sports program is designed to bring out, in campers of all skills levels, the best qualities of athletic activities: having fun, trying their best and increasing their capabilities as they participate with their friends on the fields of play. We play soccer, basketball, softball, ultimate Frisbee, and other sports. While we always respect the integrity of the game and recognize that kids have various levels of skills, our program stresses the importance of playing the game for the fun of it. Boys and girls play together and one of our goals is for those who may not be as skilled as others to feel encouraged to participate and try their best. Our sports staff works with campers to increase their skill level and learn how to be part of the team. We often have guest specialists in particular sports – recent visitors have taught ultimate Frisbee, soccer, and cricket—and during choice periods and our Peace Olympics, children who like to play a little harder get the chance to let loose. Our sports fields are in close proximity to the campers’ bunks, and campers often find a few staff members happy to supervise, and organize their own games and challenge matches during free time.
The Kathe Kollwitz Arts & Crafts Studio is always an exciting and cool place to be at Camp. Cool literally because its low hillside location lets the breezes flow through. Exciting because there’s always something happening there. Arts and Crafts (A&C)offers specific projects in a wide range of media: drawing, painting, printing, stenciling; sewing, knitting, crochet; beading and bead looming; weaving, collage, decoupage, mosaics, murals, silk-screening, popsicle stick and other sculptures; wirework, basketry, quilt making, wood working and more.
The Arts and Crafts Studio also houses our ceramics program, offering wheelwork and hand building with a variety of clays and glazes. We mostly use an electric kiln to fire our pottery but we have also used alternative firing methods such as pit and Raku firing. Pottery is a well-loved part of the program.
A&C also integrates special camp decoration projects with the cultural theme of the summer or with Camp Kinderland’s cultural program in general. Some examples include our many Olympics murals expressing concepts peace and justice; a bunk names installation project, our Wall of Democracy (outside the Kathe Kollwitz Studio), and the Aleph-Bais tiles in the dining room.
There are opportunities for unlimited creativity from campers and staff alike. We view A&C developmentally, each camper coming in at their own interest and skill level. From their own starting points campers are encouraged to participate, explore, and grow. Sometimes this may entail a simple group project like making a birthday card for a bunkmate. Other times it may be an individual project like designing and weaving a bead-loomed bracelet. Staff can help out with the design process as well as with material selection. Some of the finished products are meant to be taken home by individual campers; but many are group projects that, in their expression of communal design and creative effort, become lasting, and often stunning, icons representing Kinderland’s history, values, and ideals.
Our music program reflects the values that mean so much to our campers and staff–working to make the world a more peaceful and just place. Campers come together to sing folk songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Holly Near, Phil Ochs, Malvina Reynolds, Tom Paxton as well as the many uncredited songs so prevalent in the folk music tradition. Campers love to sing at music sessions as they enjoy the spirit and excitement of singing songs from the union movement, the civil rights movement and other songs from progressive history and current struggles for social justice. In addition, our music program features songs from our camp’s progressive secular Yiddish roots, with campers having the opportunity to sing in Yiddish. The words to one such song sum up the philosophy behind our music program: “Zingen far sholem, boyen a morgn on has oon on noit, sing for peace, build a world without hate and without need.”
During our Peace Olympics and other celebrations campers often get together to write original songs. Campers and staff also bring instruments to camp and gather in spontaneous groups at our evening town meeting, Campwide Share, to play for the most appreciative and participatory audience anywhere, the Camp Kinderland community. And, Kinderland has welcomed guest performers Pete Seeger, Charlie King and Karen Brandow, the Wholesale Klezmer Band, Gerry Tenney, and many others.
In Camp Kinderland’s long history, dance has been a mainstay and a primary defining feature of Kinderland, and the Kinderland Folk Dance Program is as much the heart and breath of camp’s culture as any aspect of camper activities. Many generations of campers have taken with them International folk dances:Troika, Karabushka, Pata Pata, Alleneilul; Israeli folk dances like Niggun Atik, Mayim, Israeli Disco, Hora Agadati; and much-loved American line dances including Sweet Gypsy Rose, Fever, and Montego Bay.
During the seven years that children can be with us, 25-30 folk dances are taught. The dance curriculum is built by adding dances that increase in level of difficulty over the years as campers move from Inters to 2nd Year CIT’s.
The beauty and community-building aspects of dance are probably most obvious at our camp-wide dance evenings that take place each session, and at which the vast majority of campers and staff come together to dance up a storm—some more and some less graceful, but all with the freedom and joy that makes dance such a unique art form and experience.
To supplement our folkdance curriculum, Camp Kinderland has welcomed many guests to teach special skills: salsa dancers, square dance callers, African dance specialists and Hip Hop; and our own campers and staff choreograph original pieces for our celebrations and special events.
One of the most wonderful aspects of a summer at Kinderland is that children get out from behind their computer screens, video games, MP3 players and TV sets and get involved with each other. Nowhere is that more joyfully expressed than through theater. Traditionally, the oldest groups launch two major productions each season in our beautiful Paul Robeson Playhouse—the 14s at the end of the four week session, (recently Dr. Seuss, Monty Python) and the CITs at the end of the summer (Newsies!, Urinetown, The Cradle Will Rock). But drama is also on the daily program, with a specialist leading campers though drama games, improv sessions, and skit writing—sometimes in the playhouse, or often out under the trees or on our lakeside outdoor platform. In all of our special celebrations, from the Olympics to Holocaust Commemoration to Bunk Name events (see culture) original dramatic presentations, written by campers and staff, are an integral part of the fun and learning. And at our nightly gathering, “Campwide Share”, skits and comedy routines are a regular feature.
At Kinderland, we work hard to make our waterfront a fun, safe environment for kids to learn to swim. Most groups swim twice a day; instructional swim in the morning sessions and general, or “free” swim in the afternoons. We also have evening swims on very warm nights, often in combination with campfires or beach parties and singalongs. Our waterfront area accommodates inexperienced swimmers in shallow water enclosed by our dock, and more experienced swimmers, who can venture into the intermediate area or swim out to the rafts in the deep water of the lake. All campers have the regular opportunity to test into the next level of competence and move from shallow to intermediate, or intermediate to deep water swimming. Several canoes allow campers to explore the further reaches of the lake; we also have rowboats and paddleboats that campers may sign out under supervision. Confident swimmers are occasionally given the option of taking a lake swim (beyond the swim area) when accompanied by staff. . Our lake is completely surrounded by our own property, and no outside boats or swimmers have access. It is a beautiful, placid, and private setting.
Each summer our waterfront is staffed by at least three Red Cross certified lifeguards, who are on duty whenever children are in the water. Bunk staff are also present when their campers are at the waterfront. A carefully monitored swim number/sign-in system assists us in keeping track of who is in the water at all times. The children become so identified with their swim numbers that those same numbers are used to take headcounts during safety drills and trips. All staff are engaged in the process of teaching fundamentals so that children become familiar with basic strokes and swim technique. By the end of the summer, all of our children are more comfortable, and more competent, in the swim environment.
Our waterfront is also the site of many nature activities that explore the environment around the lake. Our epic Olympic Swim Meet occupies a half-day of the Peace Olympics schedule, and the lakefront is transformed into a mass of cheering, color clad team members watching, and participating in, the events. Traditionally the entire camp gathers at the lake for our early morning Hiroshima/Nagasaki commemoration, to sing peace songs in the mist, place flowers and candles in the water, and pledge to work for a world free of war and militarism.
Adventure means many things at Camp Kinderland—especially the opportunity to try new things and travel to new environments. With 300 acres of our own forest to explore, we don’t have to go very far in search of the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Depending on our specialty staff, some summers our program focuses more on campcraft and low impact camping, other summers on nature and environmental exploration. During every summer, campers explore the trails and pathways that surround Camp Kinderland with people who know the details, not only of the local topography, but also its history and legends. Our camp manager, Dennis, and members of his staff, often take campers on walks through our property and point out the stone walls, the artifacts, the streams and bridges and boundaries that are the still visible signs of places that existed long before Camp Kinderland arrived on the scene. Campers have also cleared and marked paths through the woods, and built campsites for themselves and others to enjoy during cookouts, campfires, and overnights.
Our Low Ropes Course is located in a lovely and somewhat secluded wooded area just off the living areas of Camp Kinderland. Consisting of a variety of Low Ropes Elements, the ropes course offers both group and individual challenges and growth opportunities not available in other aspects of the Kinderland program. The 8 elements are composed of a series of cables, ropes, and obstacles strung between trees, 12-18″ above the ground, and with a soft bedding of wood chips. Navigating the elements calls on flexibility, strength, problem-solving abilities, team cooperation and leadership skills. Our Ropes Specialist supervises a thoughtful and careful learning process; through trying and sometimes failing and trying again, participants have the opportunity to confront issues like the fear of falling, the fear of failure, and the fear of losing control, and regularly find that they are more capable of physical challenges than they would have imagined. Risk is managed by the Ropes Specialist, who teaches and directs group members to assume critical spotting roles. The positive outcomes are clear and consistent across age groups: team and group problem solving, the building of trust, and the breaking down of barriers through games, ice-breakers, and plain old silliness.
Every camper in every age group looks forward to trips out of camp, and we make sure we take advantage of the incredible resources of both the local New England area and the further reaches of various summer trip destinations. We are frequent visitors to our local dairy farm/ice-cream parlor and pick-your-own blueberry patch. Thanks to the generosity of the Puffin Foundation we are regulars at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Center and the famed concert pavillion at Tanglewood. On rainy days we get to the local movie theaters and bowling alleys; we visit the famous indoor Thorne’s market at Northampton and take the whole camp to a local amusement park. We join the Hiroshima Day Vigil in Winsted, CT., and go tubing on the Farmington River. Our CITs take special two-day Appalachian Trail training hikes to hone their camping skills. And, every summer each group from ages 12 – 16 schedules overnight trips to destinations like Vermont, Lake George, Cape Cod, Maine, and Montreal, traveling by coach bus and sleeping in state parks, making memories to last a lifetime.