Kids need adventure, but they need the simple things too
Kelsey Merritt coordinates the connections programs for kids and teens at WCK, including City Camp, Virtual Camp, and online Hangouts. She shares why it’s important to take calculated risks, value simple moments, and let children and families take the lead.
How has your background education and experience shaped your work?
I did my Bachelors in Therapeutic Recreation, which is all about improving people’s quality of life through leisure and recreation.. It’s about how the different domains of who they are play into how they want to engage. Everything that we do has meaning and purpose.
My passion sits in giving kids choice in how they engage, so that’s how I design the programming at WCK. I listen to what they want to do and then make it happen, giving them different options. We have solid goal-based opportunities for kids to engage in, so it’s purposeful play. But if they don’t want to do that, we have several other choices for them. We can utilize free play or open time so that it’s meaningful and purposeful to that child.
What are your biggest strengths in the role?
One of the most important things I bring to WCK, to our families, and to volunteers is that ability to try something and then adapt it to people’s needs.
When I’m planning a camp, I enter Kid World. They’re not coming into our world. I get onto a kid’s level and make what they want and think happen. Because of this, as long as an activity is safe, I’m not afraid to say, “I really wanna try this!”
Ultimately, what makes me strong in my role has always been other people sharing their experiences with me. I’m continually learning from families and kids about what they want and what matters to them, and learning from professional colleagues about best practices and what works well.
How do you make programming adventurous?
We take calculated risks. As long as everyone’s safe and we put thought into why we want to try it, we give it a go. It makes my job harder, but also way more exciting!
Some of the activities at camp might raise eyebrows, but they provide our kids with precious opportunities for excitement and managed, reasonable risk. These are kids who, by circumstance, have had many other choices and opportunities kept out of their grasp.
We definitely think first of the potential risks, but then we move onto how we can manage them. This past summer, WCK volunteer Dan came to me and said, “Hey Kels, I’ve made this generator that shoots bottle rockets 40 feet in the air – can we do it at camp?” I was like, “Ummmmm! That sounds like so much fun…let’s ask the school.”
There’s the added pressure of renting a facility and thinking, “Will they want us back if we do this?” I mean, it’s pop bottles! All you have to do is set the kids far back and use a long enough extension cable. Why not! So, we did it – it was such a cool activity and the kids loved it. There was so much more benefit to trying it. But Dan does tend to get a lot of “Ummmmms” from me!
How do calculated risks benefit the kids?
I told people at a recent conference that we had power tools and saws set up on the tables at camp, and that the kids were cutting their own blocks and drilling. People were like, “PARDON??” But Chuck, who we bring in for the woodworking, runs these programs in the community for Brownies and Scouts. When he comes in, he sets it up safely. He has the tape on the floor, the goggles, the earmuffs. And we let the parents know we’re going to be using power tools.
The kids love it. It gives them confidence, and they’re being taught how to use something in a safe way. They’re taught what could go wrong if you don’t listen.
That empowers them not to just pick something up and be like, “I’m just gonna play with this.” They think, “Chuck at camp explained to me that I need an adult and I need to do XYZ. I did it the safe way, so I could probably do it again in that same scenario.”
It’s not that taboo thing of “Don’t touch it!” It’s, “Well you can, but this is how to do it.”
What else matters when designing the programming?
It’s not always about what’s flashy. Sometimes getting it right means recognizing the value of the simple things.
For example, the kids have the best time playing on the playground. Some of them haven’t gotten to go to school and play on the playground, so all they want to do is that. So, we scrap whatever programming we had in place for them, because it’s not about our fancy ideas. It’s about what’s most meaningful to them.
How we define success also shapes how we do things. I could have six people registered for a Hangout session on a Monday and then no-one shows up. Even though they didn’t come, they knew we were there and that it’s not a bother that they didn’t show up, and that’s what matters. It could be that they didn’t feel well enough, or that they finally felt well enough to play outside. Our goals are, quite rightly, as complex as life is for our families.
Our families already encounter so many barriers. Some of them have had experiences where they paid for a week of camp somewhere and their child was sick that week, and they couldn’t get their money back. That is a huge financial hit for them.
Our programming has no cost and I can say, “Come next week instead,” “You can attend virtually,” or “Just come for the part of the day that works for you. We will meet you where you are at.” We design our programming to make all of that possible. For example, it’s not a big deal for kids to jump in halfway through a Hangout or to leave early.
The reason I have stayed on at WCK is that it’s all about families taking the lead. That’s how we run all of our programs across the organization. It's one of my core values and it’s core to WCK as well.
Anything exciting happening in 2023?
Oh yeah! I’m so stoked to be working with Taylor and Dominique, who are doing full-time internships with us for four months. As a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Practitioner, I can offer internships to students who are the right fit for WCK. It’s an opportunity for them to experience WCK and practice therapeutic recreation in a community-based setting. We get to share what we do, and I get to learn from them. Dominique and Taylor will help to plan our first ever Spring Break Camp. They provide fresh perspectives and help us to make sure we’re actually doing what we say we do. Watch this space for more info on Spring Break!
I’m also excited to start planning the 2023 summer camps. I’m part of a big group of people who have roles similar to mine, and we’ve talked about how the pandemic changed programming needs. Having intimate, relaxing, kid-driven things is really important, and that’s what we're going to focus on. We plan to pool resources, strip things down, and really focus on the basics. The big things are awesome, but it doesn’t have to be a big show. It’s the simple things that count.
If you want to learn more about our programs for kids & teens, reach out to Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +1 (604) 394-2029 ext. 2.