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The Magic of Residential Programs for Children

Note- When I say 'Residential Program' or ‘Summer Camp’ in this post, I do not refer to any kind of summer camp (though I believe that most such camps- whether on sports, music or whatever, have great value). I refer to the kind of residential camps offered by organizations like Northwestern CTD, Johns Hopkins CTY and GenWise which have the following features- i) a significant component of academic enrichment i.e. courses on engineering, forensic science, international relations etc., that are not constrained by the school curriculum ii) students who are passionate about learning and choose to attend such a program out of their own interest; often these students are advanced learners and have to meet certain criteria to be admitted into the program iii) students being in a residential environment for 2-3 weeks and engaging in several activities outside of the ‘academic enrichment’ class- sports, art, hands-on work etc.

My initiation into summer residential camps for gifted children

Since 2015, I have been involved with designing and delivering 2-3 week long summer residential camps for young children, mostly in the 13-15 age band. Though I had visited similar camps run by Duke TIP a couple of times prior to 2015, I did not realize the extent to which such programs touch children till I got into running such programs myself. As a visitor, I could see how a great learning experience in the classroom energized children, but I was yet to see the effect the totality of the program had on the whole child.

When Duke TIP pulled out of India in 2015, I was invited by Ei to launch the ‘ASSET Summer Programme’ along similar lines. In order to understand what happens in such programs, I spent hours with Pankhuri Nigam, who had managed the residential experience multiple times at Duke TIP and Johns Hopkins CTY programs, both in India and in the US. I also interviewed 2 children who had attended Duke TIP programs and both remembered their experiences with great fondness. The girl, Yamini Prashanth from Chennai, had attended a course on genetics and declared to me that she had made up her mind to pursue the field (she was just 14 that time). She showed me some fantastic comics she had made on the subject as part of her coursework; she also shared how she was in regular touch with her summer program batchmates and all the fun stuff did they did in the program outside of the class. Interestingly, Yamini is doing an undergrad program on biology and genetics today at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and is on the Dean’s list!

Work of Yamini Prashanth in a 2014 Summer Program. She is currently a UG student at NTU Singapore

What summer camps have meant to children and parents

While I was inspired by the accounts of the 2 children I met, I was not prepared for the overwhelmingly positive response from nearly every child and parent who attended my first camp in 2016 (the first ASSET Summer Programme). And I have experienced this kind of overwhelming response in all the 5 summer programmes I have been involved in post that first experience. A large percentage of students come back for more such programs after experiencing one camp.

What kind of things move children and parents? It depends. The things people share are often what we do not expect, or at least things we aim for consciously. Consider some examples-

1. A mother, Ramya, was struck by how her shy and cautious son started speaking much more after coming back from a 3-week camp. She was also pleasantly surprised to note how her son was also bolder in trying out new things and less concerned about failure (like trying to repair the electric iron at home for instance).

2. The mother of a girl who attended the open day on the last day of a camp was moved to tears when she saw her daughter explaining things to visitors with great enthusiasm. We understood from the mother that the child would hardly every speak in school because her thoughts were not appreciated. This was a surprise to us because the child had participated actively in classroom discussions from the start of our camp.

3. A boy, Ryth, in a course on the physics of light, said this

“I love how there are no boundaries to what we can discuss on the subject in class. When students are curious about something which was not a planned part of the course, the instructor teaches us these things and explores these with us. If we ask such things in school, we are told that ‘it is out of the syllabus’ or that ‘we will learn this in a higher grade’. When I get such responses, I feel like I am in the middle of a very interesting detective novel, am dying to know what happens next, but find that the remaining pages are glued together and I cannot satisfy my curiosity.”

4. A girl shared how having to organize the schedule for sharing the bathroom and toilet with her roommates and planning the clothes she would wear each day and ensuring that these were clean and ironed on time were big learnings for her.

5. A boy shared that he learnt a lot from his room-mate who lived in a residential school. For example, how to fold one’s shirt and trousers and place them under the mattress so they were decently ‘ironed’, even though one had forgotten to give one’s clothes for ironing.

Watch students sharing their experience of a summer program in this short film-

Talking to children and parents over the years, I have come to realize that children pick up what they need from the environment most at that time (and this could be different at different times- the same child picks up one thing in 2017 and another in 2018). And our job is to create an environment that offers a wide enough ‘buffet’ from which they pick up what they need. By chance I came across a quote by John Holt that made our task clearer to us-

“Each new thing they learn makes them aware of other new things to be learned. Their curiosity grows by what it feeds on. Our task is to keep it well supplied with food. … Keeping their curiosity “well supplied with food” doesn’t mean feeding them, or telling them what they have to feed themselves. It means putting within their reach the widest possible variety and quantity of good food—like taking them to a supermarket with no junk food in it (if we can imagine such a thing).” - John Holt, How Children Learn

The Recipe for this 'Magic Potion'

Why do I use the word 'magic' here? Let me explain. Here is a bunch of 13-15 year olds who have come to an unfamiliar place (many of them staying away from home and family for such a long period for the first time). Some of them bid teary goodbyes to their parents. For the next couple of weeks, they need to share rooms with strangers, are not allowed to use their devices most of the time and have to attend 'classes' during their vacations in which they are challenged to a level well beyond what they are used to in school. Yet the very same children are reluctant to leave the camp on the last day when their parents come to meet them. They hug their Residential Counsellors and Teaching Assistants and cry when they have to leave. Is this not some kind of magic. Why does this happen? Here's what I think-

1. Everybody in the program is a passionate 'volunteer. Students choose to come to the program- not because their parents tell them to go or because they have to. The program staff- course mentors, residential counsellors, teaching assistants are all 'volunteers' too in a sense. Yes- they get paid to work in the program, but that is not their primary motivation. They treasure the opportunity to work with young children, they love learning themselves and give up vacations to be in such a camp. The residential counsellors especially, work 16-18 hours a day- these are typically very young people 19-24 years old who could be chilling out and having fun, but they make a choice to be at this camp. Full-time employees at companies like IBM and Accenture take leave to be mentors at the camp. In a line, these volunteers are passionate learners who feed off each others' energies.

2. There is nourishment for the mind, body and the heart. The program diet is balanced. It recognises that each of us has different aspects of our selves and tries to provide nourishment for each facet. Thus it is 'All in a Day's Work/ Play' to deal with advanced math, build a chair with your hands, dabble in art and music, dance. play games or sit silently watching a tree.

3. There is 'voice' and there is 'choice'. I have spoken about the buffet analogy above. There is enough variety of experiences in the program for each child to 'pick up' those relevant to her. There is also great respect for the child's voice- their ideas and thoughts, and what they want to do. I recall a child asking in an 'evening adda', 'Why can't I focus on playing video games and become a twitch gamer? ...some of them make millions'. We had a long serious conversation on this.

4. Learning is pursued for its own sake. There are no grades and tests in the program- though feedback is provided. The process and efforts to learn something are priorities and we don't care that much about the 'correct answer'. If parents ask us if the program will help children get an admission to a good college, we respond that that's not the objective of the program (even though many parents approach us 2-3 years later for recommendations at the time of college admissions, which we are happy to give). When learning is pursued for its own sake, intrinsic motivation surfaces.

5. The environment is one of care, connection and concern. Before children arrive, a lot of preparation has already happened. The residential counsellor is aware of each child's medical history and food allergies. The staff is trained on what to expect- homesickness, bullying, anxiety about not being the 'brightest kid in class' etc. When a child arrives at the camp, there are welcoming messages for each child- adorning the door to their room and their beds. The staff is highly sensitive to what's happening with children- is somebody feeling lonely? not eating well? has a cough/ cold/ fever? They take turns at night to check if a child developed fever in the middle of the night. Residential counsellors do a 'huddle' every night with their group of 10-12 children and everyone shares about the exciting things they have done, what they would like to do, their fears and concerns. The whole space is one large, lively family with the residential counsellors playing the role of 'cool' and caring elder siblings and the mentors playing the role of parent figures.

When students feel this connection, they forget that they have been separated from their families (and their devices!). One of the most common parent complaints after day 3/4 in the camp is 'my child is not calling me.... please ask him to call!'

We have also put down here what kind of benefits such programs offer and include some more points about the 'ingredients' of the program that help.

The next residential program from GenWise is between Dec 18-20, 2021 at Bengaluru and the details are available here.


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