Homeschool Camps – Camps are possibly my favourite thing about home education

Annie Regan

I love the deep, lasting friendships that my kids make, the sense of community and inclusivity, getting to know other parents and kids, having lots of time to relax, exploring new places with friends, eating ice cream, going back to the same places and developing traditions, or going to new places and discovering new things – every camp we’ve been on has had some or all of those elements and has been an amazing experience. 

It took me a while to go to our first home ed camp. I’d heard about them, and occasionally people told me how great they were – that the kids spend all day with their friends, and they were great places to make strong friendships. I thought they sounded great, and also scary. I wasn’t used to going camping with the kids by myself, I didn’t know what the expectations would be in terms of everyone having to be involved in activities, I didn’t have good friends who went so I’d be out of my comfort zone, it wasn’t something the kids were asking to do. I was concerned that we’d get caught up in having to do activities that we didn’t want to do, or that we’d spend the whole time with no one talking to us. Each year though, I’d notice when the camps were on and think that we’d probably start going along at some stage… 

In early 2016, after having a camper trailer for a year and taking a few solo camping trips with the kids, I booked us into the Lorne camp. We knew a few people who were going and I figured a trip to the beach would be fun even if we didn’t hang out with the group. It was a three-night camp and we all loved it – we were hooked. Since then we’ve been to four or five camps a year and they are always a highlight of our time with other home educators. 

At our first camp, all of my worries were put to rest. There was no expectation for anyone to join any activity if they didn’t want to, which suited my more introverted kids. If someone had decided to go to the beach or go for a walk, they’d let other people know and we could join them if we wanted to, or do our own thing. There was also never any problem with having no one to talk to – people stopped by the tent to say hi, talked to us on the way to the showers, in the shower block, at the playground, at the beach. We quickly discovered that we could be as social as we wanted to, which suited all of us. My extroverted child was able to spend all day talking with other kids, and the others could retreat back to our tent for some quiet time when needed and then join the others when they were ready. We usually camp in our camper trailer, but most camps also have cabin, dorms or other indoor accommodation as well, so families don’t need to have camping equipment to come along.

Some camps are very informal. The location and dates are advertised, and everyone comes along and sets up in their accommodation of choice, and then spend the days as they please. There are often trips to the beach, walks into town, games in the field and so on which are organised on the spot and word sent around the camp letting people know what’s happening, and kids or adults can join in if they want to. Sometimes there are optional paid activities, either onsite or in the local area, for example, blacksmithing workshops, abseiling, canoeing, nature walks/talks. Other camps have activities scheduled for the camp days: movies, games, craft sessions, or activities on a theme such as Science Camp, with free time in between activities and possibly some day excursions to local attractions. Some camps encourage shared meal times, at others, everyone organises their own food and eats when and where suits them. There are also camps at historical venues such as Sovereign Hill, Kryal Castle, Pioneer Village – for these camps, everyone organises their own accommodation, and attends the venue during the day. There are usually organised activities that the kids can sign up for, although they are not compulsory and there is plenty of time to wander around at their own pace. 

Our family prefers informal camps, where everyone is staying in the same place, although we have been to other styles of camps and enjoyed them as well. With the more structured camps, many families do a unit study that year on the theme of the camp, so it ties in nicely with their everyday home education. However the camp is set up, there are some wonderful common benefits. 

The deep friendship aspect is one that I’d heard a lot about before we started going to camps, and is probably the thing I love most. The kids talk and play and explore, in different ways depending on their ages, and really get to know each other. They get to delve deeply into games and conversations and continue them the next day, and the next. Some of their activities get picked up from the previous camp or from the same location the year before, and they add to the tradition. They learn skills to navigate issues that come from spending extended periods of time together – if they get tired or hungry they can’t just go home, as they are with these people for another couple of days. They learn how to take a break when needed, how to balance everyone’s personalities and needs, and how to include everyone in such a diverse group. 

The friendships that are formed at camp seem to be the strongest bonds that my kids have. Many of their camp friends don’t live locally, so they keep in touch over the phone or social media, and we take the opportunity to explore more of Victoria and go and visit them when we can, or have them come to stay with us. The local friends, who we also see at camp, become more like family. 

Parents too get to spend a lot of time together and can get to know each other more deeply. Sitting outside around a campfire or playing games in someone’s cabin until late in the night helps to create a bond that we don’t always get to experience with other families. Walking around camp, there are always people to stop to chat to. My friends and I joke that going to the bathroom takes a minimum of 45 minutes because there are always so many conversations to have on the way there and back, and while you are there. 

At those early camps I attended, I was struck by how well the older kids looked after the younger ones. I remember a lot of older teens on a jumping pillow and someone’s four year old sibling wandered on. They immediately stopped the rough game they were playing and included the younger child. Another time some kids who knew each other well were having bike races. A girl on a smaller bike was watching and they asked if she wanted to join in. She was much slower and less confident but they waited patiently for her to get started, then all waited at the finish line to cheer her on. She was so happy to be included and they all seemed to really enjoy having her take part. I often see little kids hanging around with the older ones – being carried on their shoulders, joining in the game or sitting on someone’s lap watching what is going on. 

At our first camp my eldest was 11. She knew a couple of older teens from our local homeschool group, and they were happy for her to sit with them while the teenagers sat and talked in the evenings. She didn’t join in much and was just happy to be included in the older group. Now that she is a teen herself, I see her and her friends doing the same for younger kids – they are happy to have them around, there’s no sense of ‘you’re too young to sit with us’ and each year the groups shift slightly as everyone gets older. 

The teens tend to spend all of their time together and very little time with their family. Mine get up and grab some breakfast and I often only see them in passing for the rest of the day. They walk and talk and play games and it’s wonderful to watch these confident, happy young people. Sitting up late to talk with their friends is their favourite part of camp. They have learnt that it’s important to keep noise to a minimum when other people are camping nearby and it’s great to see them figure out ways to be with their friends while still being respectful of others. When my daughter was younger I wasn’t sure about her being away from the tent once I’d taken the younger kids to bed. We’ve dealt with this in different ways over the years and other families have other ideas too. Sometimes the deal was that she would check in once an hour, either by text or by coming back to the tent. Sometimes she and her friends have stayed in or near our campsite, or someone else’s campsite, so all the parents knew where the kids were, and it felt safe. There have been been buddy systems, where two kids can stay up as long as they are together, and they get each other back to their accommodation when it’s time to go to bed. Sometimes I ask her to be back at the tent by a certain time, although as she is getting older she’s usually able to manage her bedtime herself. The kids are also respectful of other teens’ curfews and support each other in getting back to camp when needed. 

Seeing the groups of teens at camp, when my kids were younger, was always reassuring to me. Observing how happy, independent and caring these home educated young people were helped me feel more confident that I was choosing something positive for my own kids. Now that two of my kids are teenagers themselves, I still get the same feeling from seeing the older teens together – even those who have officially finished their schooling sometimes come along with their younger siblings, and bring other, older friends, and they are amazing young adults. 

When the kids were younger I spent most of the camp with them, playing in the playground or on the beach, playing games at the tent, chatting to other parents while our kids played together. Usually there are kids of all ages at a camp so there is always someone to play with – even if your child needs you to be with them, it can usually be arranged so that there’s other kids and parents around too, and you can chat with the adults. As they’ve gotten older they’ve done more and more 

playing without needing me close by – sometimes I find myself at the tent by myself and can spend some quiet time reading a book or go for a walk by myself. Often I share child care with another parent where we take it in turns to look after all the children so we each get some time alone, and spend some of the time all together so we can hang out with each other as well. 

We’ve also met families at camps who were travelling from interstate or overseas. This means we have friends in SO many places, which is great for when we go travelling ourselves. I will also keep an eye out for upcoming home education camps when we are travelling interstate, as it would be a great way to make friends and get to know the local area. 

Early on I used to spend a lot of time thinking of healthy meals to cook while we were camping. Over time I’ve realised that it’s best to have food that can be grabbed easily by the kids as they come past with their friends. I cook food that is easy to prepare (lots of wraps, pasta and noodles), and the kids help themselves when they remember to come back for food. Some families cook a bunch of meals before they leave home and bring them along to heat up, which makes feeding everyone quick and easy. I also make sure I have a LOT of snacks available. I don’t worry if the food is not as nutritious as it might be at home, as the benefits they get from being with their friends and exploring the camp outweigh any worries about what they are eating. I often feed whoever is in my campsite when I’m cooking and my kids often eat at other campsites – everyone gets fed and it adds to the sense of community. 

Last year a friend and I organised our own camp and invited a group of friends. We had 13 families come to a very relaxed camp at a free camping area to the east of Healesville, and spent three days playing and relaxing near the river at Rubicon. We will be running this camp again this year just after Cup Day and will advertise it more widely throughout the home education community. We’d love to have more people come and share the experience. 

I always love watching the way the kids include each other no matter what their differences are. It doesn’t surprise me as much as it used to, but it always makes me feel happy. Families from all types of educational styles come together and none of the differences matter. Everyone is welcome and included and if you have been thinking of coming along to a home education camp I strongly encourage you to give it a try. 

Otherways 161 August 2019


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