Evidence of Success
Based on program evaluation, research and feedback we receive from parents and guardians, we know that in addition to camp being a fun and safe experience for children, Starfish is also a place where kids grow. Based on collection of pre-camp and post-camp surveys over a number of years, we know that over the course of their session at Starfish, campers make extraordinary gains in everything from social skills to controlling outbursts to using coping skills. They also grow exponentially in their self-confidence and ability to follow directions. We're proud of the gains that kids make at camp - and we're sure you will be too!
The Starfish Way
The Starfish way is all about making Camp Starfish a safe, supportive place to "learn, grow and have fun." Everything at Starfish is specifically geared to meet the needs and abilities of each bunk, activity group, and individual child. Staff consistently seek innumerable ways to provide campers with positive reinforcement while helping them to recognize and articulate their strengths. At Starfish, we believe in "catching children being good" and capitalizing on those experiences as teachable moments, in addition to setting up therapeutic supports to help children during times when they are struggling.
The Starfish Way is based, amongst other things, on the ideas that:
- Children are able to do well when the environment is designed to enable success
- Regardless of their challenges, all children deserve to see themselves as valuable and valued individuals
- The role of adults in the camp environment is to help campers find and enjoy success
- Providing structured, nurturing and fun programs will allow children to grow in positive ways, and
- Engaging campers in a variety of well-structured traditional summer camp activities in a safe and predictable environment will allow them to build skills, self-confidence, self-esteem and self-direction.
We primarily implement the Starfish Way through the use of our unique Strategies, Tools and Keys.
The Strategies are a guiding group of principles that we use while working with the young people entrusted to our care. These simple, yet powerfully effective concepts form the basis of our behavior management philosophy, our daily structure and schedule, and the reason why we are able to set campers up for such great success. Upon first reading the Strategies, they appear deceptively simple. The key, and what makes Starfish such a unique place, is an entire group of people actively using these skills and ideas in their daily work with children. "Engage campers. Provide time. Allow campers to take space. Catch children being good..." Each of the almost 40 Strategies fall into one of the following categories: Strengthen Children's Self-Esteem, Empower Children, Demonstrate Compassion to Children, Create a Safe Environment, Communicate with Children Deliberately & Proactively, and Create a Positive Learning Environment.
The Tools are the values of Camp Starfish. They outline coping skills and personal intentions, and by teaching them, staff are able to help campers put behaviors and feelings into context. All camp rules are based on a tool, for example, and you will often hear staff using the tools to help calm escalated campers: "I think your painting looks great! You put so much effort into it and that really shows. Remember here we don't have to be the best...just try our best. Hey, I bet that would look great hanging up in the bunk next to your goals chart." There are both community tools (those values that affect interactions with others) and individual tools (those values which are based on internal coping mechanisms). Tools are integrated all over camp - from the Tool of the Day (which is used at each activity and acted out by the Tools Team at morning Gathering), to the Garden of Tools where campers can relax, smell the flowers, and just think for a while about the small signs around you.
The Keys are a set of social skills which we aim for every child to learn and work on during his/her time at camp, and then continue developing after camp. Difficulty relating to peers is one of the top factors that affect a child’s self-esteem and identity. While Starfish campers come to camp from wide variety of backgrounds with many different challenges that they face, one thing that most of them have in common is that they have a hard time making or keeping friends.The Keys include concepts such as using manners and positive interaction with others, approaching others in social acceptable ways, asking for permission rather than acting, sharing toys/materials, maintaining eye contact during introductions, and more. Our daily "Key of the Day" is presented by our camper-led Keys Club, which acts out the Key in a skit and then shows good ways to use the Key at camp. Staff diligently capitalize on teachable moments to show when social skills are "caught" in action.
In these ways and more, the Starfish Way makes camp a positive, safe place where campers are actively participating in things they enjoy. We help children learn what it means to be accountable for their choices through positive feedback and without embarrassment, enabling them make more productive choices in the future. The Starfish way is all about making Camp Starfish is a place to "learn, grow and have fun."
"Structure" is something we believe in very strongly at Camp Starfish, because we know children thrive on it! They need routines to help them feel safe in a stable, predictable environment. Plus, our campers learn through repetition. When the campers know what to expect, then they know what to do, and then they can do the right thing and enjoy success. Anxieties are minimized, and so are the resulting behaviors.
Although activities change from day to day, campers know that, for example, "swimming is always after 2nd activity" and the time that each activity starts and ends is the same each day. Transitions between places are forecasted multiple times - partway through the activity, again 10 minutes before clean-up, two minutes before clean-up, etc. Even though campers don't wear watches, this consistency helps considerably to calm anxiety and hyperactivity.
While campers feel supported and comforted by the structure, it is very intentionally integrated into our program such that camp still feels very much like "camp." Our basic structure is adjusted for each gender, age and camper group appropriately. Your child's counselors, supervised closely by administrators, will have an active role in setting the structure for their group. For example, while groups generally walk in a line together, a day camp group of five year olds might play red light green light to get to the next place or turn their line into a train and give each person a role (caboose, conductor, etc.), while a group of older campers may talk individually with counselors or chat with friends about the upcoming activity.
Outside activity areas, like Arts and Crafts, staff have a set structure to introduce the day's activity to each group. For our younger campers, they will lead a song, tell campers about the project of the day then "check for understanding" by asking each camper in turn to repeat an instruction they've just been given before they head inside to start. With older campers, they may ask for volunteers to remind everyone of the expectations instead. Other examples of structure include the way we open waterfront activities (campers line up with their swim counselor after sharing one of the rules they remember with the group), or how we sit camper-counselor-camper-counselor around the lunch table so everyone can be included in the conversation and have a helping hand nearby.
Structures are reviewed daily by group counselors and cabin staff, as well as by leadership staff, to ensure that they are continuously meeting the needs of the campers, and adjusted accordingly.
Making Real Friends
When making friends - or even making an introduction - doesn't come naturally, it's hard to want to make the effort. At Starfish, we train staff in the art of intentional friendship - a series of social practicalities and interaction experiences that help kids make and keep friends. Our goal isn't only to have campers connect with one another at camp, but help campers gain the skills that enable them to make friends at school and home. We often hear stories in the fall about campers connecting for sleepovers, birthdays, play dates, and more. Read what Vietta has to say about the connections she made at Starfish.
What we work on with campers
Over the course of the camp session, social skills improvements are generally seen in areas such as making eye contact during conversation, waiting ones turn in conversation, using appropriate manners, giving and being able to accept compliments, sharing the conversation with peers, starting conversation with peers (rather than just adults), modulating tone of voice, and giving others/asking for personal space from others. Often, because of the intensive focus on these items, campers make a school years' worth of progress on social-related IEP goals during their session at camp. For this reason, many school districts are able to include Camp Starfish in campers' IEPs as alternatives to summer school when academics are not the main focus of the IEP.
How we build social competence
We are intentional about making sure that social interaction and opportunities for social practice are part of each and every day. We don't have "social skills group" or an organized activity that "teaches" social skills. One of the benefits of camp is that the social activity is naturally in place, through participation in a shared-living community and involvement in activities. What we do is take advantage of all these opportunities and utilize them as teachable moments. Our staff point out the social cues that get missed, praise positive interactions, and call attention to the Key of the Day, which is a daily social skill that is being focused on. Staff also create bunk and activity group identities and themes which help campers feel connected to each other and fuel their desire to be part of the group. Counselors talk openly about being members of a team and how to make friends. Throughout the day, staff facilitate conversation between peers, help campers engage in conversation that may not be their preferred topic, and guide campers to see others' points of view. Practical application of these skills is literally everywhere at camp - from playing a board game and practicing taking turns or being a good sport, to roleplaying appropriate interactions during a mediated conversation after two campers have a disagreement. Perhaps most importantly, our staff role-model positive casual interactions with their peers, actively using the keys and modeling how to keep safe personal space and appropriately greet others (for example, high fives instead of running into people and hugging the breath out of them).
Although each child's program at Starfish is individualized and each child works on independent goals, our programs have a set of overarching goals that guide our activity offerings, program development and daily camp life. At a glance, these goals are:
1. Build self-confidence, self-awareness and self-esteem.
2. Decrease self-imposed limits and try new things.
3. Utilize individual daily living skills and develop healthy living habits.
4. Cultivate a “winners’ attitude.”
5. Develop ability to make good choices, formulate independent decisions and take responsibility for actions.
6. Develop new and augment current coping techniques that allow for increased emotional, social and behavioral coherence.
7. Expand appreciation for the outdoors, including physical activity and natural surroundings.
8. Enhance social competence and expand the desire for social interaction.
9. Show respect for the diversity of others and a desire to protect others from bullying or harassment.
10. Facilitate cooperation by working as a team and interacting positively in a community setting.
Each of these goals has related objectives that clarify the growth that we hope to see campers developing as they work on aspects of these goals. As an example, for Goal 8, "enhance social competence and expand the desire for social interaction," related outcomes include:
- Campers will be able to name at least two other campers with whom they have spent quality time interacting, and
- Campers will be able to verbalize to a staff member or parent the interests of two campers that are both similar to, and different from, their own (idenfying four interests in total).
By the time campers arrive at camp, our year-round staff and directors have already received a great deal of background information about goals campers are working on at home, in school, in therapy, and in various other areas. Using this information and one-on-one conversations with campers, counselors help each child create a set of goals they would like to work towards during the session. Of these goals, one usually surrounds a Starfish Tool, and one a Starfish Key. Campers are encouraged to set goals that are challenging, yet achievable with consistent effort. Typical goals for first-time campers may include things like "Meet 3 new people and get to know 3 things about them to share at bunk meeting." Incorporating the social Keys of introducing yourself, having a conversation, listening to others, and more, this seemingly simple goal takes a camper's focus off his/her own self and encourages interaction and inclusion in the camp community. For some campers, this goal might take just a few days - for others, a good part of the session. Other goals might be things like "speak respectfully to staff and bunkmates" or "follow directions of staff the first time."
Every day, before evening program, campers go over their goals individually with a cabin counselor.* Together, they discuss efforts and specific examples made during the day towards goals, and agree on what number of points should be awarded. Campers can also earn an extra point for participating respectfully in the conversation. Each goal chart of 3 goals includes a reward for its completion. Rewards are never food or prizes - rather, they take the form of "a special activity with a special staff member." Examples that are most often requested are sunset boating with an administrator who in previous summers was a camper's counselor or rest-hour swimming with a favorite lifeguard. In this way, campers see a powerful and tangible connection between effort and reward. Bunk groups also set goals (such as "get four 10's on inspection this week") to receive bunk rewards - like a canoe trip to Blueberry Island or breakfast in bed served by the staff.
*Please note that the daily process for camper goal review in our teen programs and Beachcombers may vary.