“Wait…where’s the detention hall?”
Lots of people visit Appel Farm, to take a camp tour during the year or to visit during the summer. As you can imagine, they’re usually pretty impressed. They love our programs, our activities, our spirit of collaboration and community and personal growth and non-competitive fun, and our beautiful rural south Jersey campus. But every now and then, one of them wants to know, where do the bad kids go?
The simple answer is that we don’t have a detention hall, and we don’t need one, because we don’t have any “bad kids.” At Appel Farm we don’t think there’s such a thing as a “bad kid.” (For more on this see the blog post I wrote back in December.) We don’t do detention or punishment—no one “gets in trouble” at Appel Farm. Our mission statement says “artistic talent is innate and waiting to be developed in every person,” and after 55 years we can say pretty confidently that every single young person is generous, open-hearted, and above all good.
But what happens when good young artists make mistakes? A camp parent once asked my old bunk head Jeremy this question. His response was priceless: “We have a talk! Sometimes we have a serious talk.” This may sound flip, but it’s anything but. Imagine a situation where a close friend, someone we respect and value (let’s call him “Ben”), does something wrong. What would we do? Would we yell at Ben, punish him, or order him around? Probably not. Much more likely, like Jeremy says, we would sit down and talk. We would be clear that we had a problem with what Ben did, but we would also ask a lot of questions and find out what Ben was thinking and why he did what he did. Eventually, we would come together and figure out a solution that makes sense to both of us.
This is exactly what we do at Appel Farm. This approach may feel intuitive—and in a way it is—but there’s also a lot of psychological research behind it. It’s called Collaborative Problem Solving (now renamed Collaborative & Productive Solutions by its founder Dr. Ross Greene, after a copyright dispute).
But wait, you might be thinking. If Collaborative Problem Solving works so well, why doesn’t everyone use it? Well, for one, not everyone knows about it. For two, it’s challenging. I train camp staff in Collaborative Problem Solving every summer, and for many of us adults it’s hard adjustment — from telling kids what to do, to asking lots of questions and collaborating with kids on crafting a solution. (Even if we’re pretty sure we have the right answer, Dr. Greene explains, they won’t accept it if we just tell it to them. We can help them find it, but they need to find it.) For three, it takes a lot of time. Sending a kid to detention is easy. Sitting down with a kid and engaging in a serious discussion is hard. When you’re responsible for 30 kids at a time, as in many schools, you just don’t have this time.
That’s the magic of the 1:3 ratio. At Appel Farm, we have one staff member for every three campers. The 1:3 ratio lets us get to know each of our kids really, really well. (We always know what’s happening with them, because we’re hanging out with them at meals, at performances, at the picnic tables during free time. We learn about issues quickly, and can usually fix them before they become problems. And when there is a problem, and some serious Collaborative Problem Solving is needed, there’s always a loving, caring staff member around who has the time to do it.