By Tessa Raebeck
“Pablo Picasso says,” Christopher Engel shouts, before aggressively flapping his arms and quacking like a duck. The crowd of some 250 kids gathered around him begins quacking too, perhaps to the dismay of the late Pablo Picasso.
For Mr. Engel, director of Community Programs at the Ross School in East Hampton, which includes the Summer Camp @Ross, now in its seventh year, doing ridiculous things is a means to set the stage for children to feel comfortable in their own skin.
“We try to make it imaginative and fun,” Mr. Engel said Tuesday, July 1, adding that the goal is to “make everyone feel good about who they are [and to] empower them to try and do things.”
Campers start their day by walking underneath a giant rainbow canopy, held by their counselors outside the entrance to the Wellness Center at Ross’s Upper Campus. Music blasts and the counselors dance with an energy you don’t often see among those under 25 at 8:30 a.m.
After dancing their way through the rainbow, campers go inside to check in with their counselors and hang out. Most of them chat excitedly, a little girl shows off her magic tricks to tennis program director Peggy Stankevich and another girl can’t seem to stop doing cartwheels.
One particularly tall counselor, Gari Blackett, a basketball coach at the camp who is associated with the New York Knicks organization, holds a basketball up while some 10 boys jump at him.
At the campwide meeting each morning, assistant camp director Nick Behrens shoots a basketball backward over his head, aiming for the hoop at the other end of the gym. According to campers, he makes the difficult trick shot a lot, but today is not his day.
Backward basketball, although fun and somewhat ridiculous, has a serious intent behind it, Mr. Engel said. It is about empowering kids to try and do things and to feel comfortable being a little silly.
Campers can personalize their experience to pursue their own interests in sports, science, the outdoors and the arts. There are over 25 camp majors, including Junior Crime Investigators, Fashion Design, Filmmaking, Photography and Gymnastics. During the eight-week program, campers choose minors and majors. They go to their majors for the bulk of the day in the morning then regroup at lunch and do minors in the afternoon.
On Tuesday, Mr. Engel asks campers whether they think Jon Mulhern teaches tap dancing—as Mr. Mulhern does a little jig—or culinary—Mr. Mulhern pats his belly—or if he leads the Inventor’s Workshop. The tap dancing jig gives him away as the Inventor’s Workshop director.
Mr. Mulhern and counselors fashion a bridge made entirely of Popsicle sticks, hot glue and string in between two tables. A weight is hanging from the makeshift bridge. A volunteer from the mass of campers comes forward to hang on the weight and, somehow, it holds him, then another camper, a junior counselor and eventually counselor Lily-Anne Merat.
Inventor’s Workshop is one of the programs offered at the Innovation Lab, Ross’s science, math, engineering, media and technology academy. Jr. Crime Investigators, a new major in which campers are challenged to become detectives for the summer, learning forensics analysis skills like fingerprinting and ink chromatography, as well as collecting crime scene evidence and interviewing and interrogating suspects, is also offered at the lab, as are Stop-Motion Animation, Naturalist Explorers and Robotics.
Inside the lab Tuesday, Summer Term students are trying to replicate the pieces of a Mr. Potato Head on a 3D printer. The three boys work with instructor Creighton Wirick and Dr. Dave Morgan, dean of science at the Ross School and director of the Innovation Lab. One of them has refashioned Rio de Janeiro’s famed statue “Christ the Redeemer” from his home country Brazil.
Campers can supplement time in the lab with outdoor activities like basketball, golf and rugby. On Tuesday, the multisport and dodge ball majors combined on the fields, with kids aged 6 to 14 competing. One would think the advantage went to the preteens, but counselor Bailey Arens insists the 6-year-olds are a threat, as they are prone to “sneak up on you,” he said.
From horseback riding to sneaking up on bigger kids to pelt them with dodge balls, the intent at Summer Camp @Ross is to help campers do what feels best. Or, as Mr. Engel said, “If you’re smart, make the sound of a dog—Pablo Picasso says woof.”