My study floor is covered with reams of paper, sticky notes, and printed out “schedules.” One sheet has the buddy list – who gets to be whose buddy is a big deal. Another shows where everyone is sleeping -mainly floors and a closet! And did I mention a very long grocery list?
Yes, it’s time for our ninth annual “Cousin Camp.” This year we’ll have all 21 grandchildren (including quads) together from Friday until Monday night. They range in age from 4-18. Please pray for us!
You have to be 4 years old to attend “Camp” and parents are not allowed. Elizabeth and Eric Garner, a young couple from our church, are returning for their 2nd year as “staff.” We are thrilled they wanted to come back as John and I cannot lifeguard 21 kids in the pond! And we need some fun, energetic, young people to help us. They don’t give out!
Over the nine years we’ve made mistakes, had a blast, and learned some things. Here are a few:
There are three essentials: digital clocks, water bottles labeled with names, and shoe tubs!
We’ve always had a 7 o’clock rule. Each bedroom has a simple clock and the kids cannot come out of their rooms until it says 7:00am (we draw a seven for the ones who can’t read). One young child exclaimed, “Mom, the best thing about Camp was the 7 o’clock thing!”
When the kids arrive they receive a simple bucket with a few snacks, but most crucial are the flashlight and water bottle. (Note: We buy inexpensive water bottles with attached lids, and names go on everything.) The first thing we do is to show the kids how to go into a specified bathroom, use a stool to reach the sink, turn on the water, and fill their own bottle. We tell them anytime they are thirsty they can get their own water in this sink. This keeps all 21 of them from asking us for water at the same time and from crowding around the kitchen sink! The little ones are proud they can do it by themselves! Water bottles are stored in a large bucket.
After years of tripping over and losing shoes, I put plastic bins by the door. One is marked for ages 9 and under and the second for those over 9. As kids go in and out of the house they throw their shoes in the bins!
Here are a few other things we’ve learned over the years:
Plan and organize well, but be ready to throw out any part of the plan!
Each year we do some things differently based on the ages and numbers of the kids. We also try to insert one new thing every year however we’ve discovered that the kids like doing the same things year after year and often ask, “When are we going to…?”
Mornings include a Bible study. John and I will lead the first one, Eric and Elizabeth the second day and Callie and Will, our 2 eldest grandchildren, the 3rd morning. Twenty minutes is just about right. The kids all have journals with a picture of themselves glued to the cover. With the help of the older cousins, they write verses or draw pictures in them about our study. These journals live at the farm so they can add to them year after year. We horseback ride in the mornings and usually have another activity like swimming or fishing in the pond or berry picking. Lunch is mostly sandwiches in an assembly line. (Note: We keep food simple. And we do not give choices. That would be way too crazy. Camp is not about the food.) There’s a rest hour for everyone after lunch and often little ones fall asleep. Afternoon activities include: a scavenger hunt, playing in the creek, or a dance party. I collect scrap wood and have a supply of hammers and nails. One thousand pop sickle sticks and lots of glue inspire unusual creativity. My daughter in law, Alysia, is the “Craft Queen” so she plans 2-3 crafts, gets the supplies for me and her girls lead the craft time.
One of everyone’s favorite things is our “buddy system.” The older kids are assigned to be a buddy for each younger camper. They help them dress, find lost things, clean up, read at bedtime, and do whatever we ask. A big surprise has been how much the older ones like this! Way before camp I am asked, “Ghee, whose buddy do I get to be at camp this year?”
Everyone wants to be a big buddy.
We also have chores. Camp clean up in the morning and then at the end of most days. But I have had to completely lay aside my dreams of a clean house. It will not be clean during camp. I do not clean before camp either. It would be trashed within the first 10 minutes. Kids will wear dirty clothes and not get baths every day. And things will get broken. But I tell myself there are other more important things going on here.
We post a Camper’s Daily Schedule. (We have a more detailed one for leaders.) Some kids thrive on knowing what’s next so this reduces a number of questions.
This year for the first time we have divided everyone into 2 teams – yellows and blues. We have yellow and blue bandannas for each team. Each team will have a Varsity and Jr. Varsity division. One of the first things the teams will do is choose their name and write a funny song or dance. These teams are not so much for competition as for co-operation and this helps us divide into smaller groups for activities.
Callie, our oldest loves to cook so she plans and teaches a cooking class for the others. Our grandson, Will, is learning to be a good horseman so he assists in the riding lessons. Isabel and Sylvia love crafts so they help with the crafts. Tobin and Jack are rabid ping pong players so they will organize a tournament. I’m learning to ask God to show me each grandchild’s passion and play to their strengths by involving them in teaching the younger ones. I also ask their parents’ advice in this. We are intentional in separating siblings and matching cousins. Our goal is to build strong friendships and most of the cousins do not live near one another. We want to sow seeds for lifelong friendships.
Each year during camp we have a “bad manners – good manners” skit. The older cousins act out a bad way to greet someone – hang your head, mumble, etc. and a good way – look them in the eye, reach out your hand, say your name. The kids get creative and we roar in laughter. Each cousin has to do it right to “pass.” It is a fun way to teach manners.
Our last night of camp we have a candle light ceremony in which we initiate the new campers into the B.O.C. (Band of Cousins). We give them a pottery cross and we teach them our pledge: “As cousins we pledge to serve the Lord and to take care of each other always.” The cross represents God’s love for us and our love for each other. John anoints each new camper with oil and prays for him or her. Of course the little ones don’t take it all in but as they hear this repeated each year with future cousins we hope it will sink in.
Factor in free time
Although we have a pretty full schedule we do put “Free Play” on the schedule. It’s easy for kids to expect to be entertained all the time but this isn’t healthy. We are too tired and they need to create their own play! So we have a list posted of: “Things to do by myself or with someone else. “ (None of these need an adult.) Included are: read, climb trees, color, play bocce, look at photo albums, get a cup and collect worms and bugs, build a fort in the woods, create a scavenger hunt, do puzzles, write a song, draw with chalk, play soccer, or corn hole, etc.
When a child doesn’t know what to do in free time or says, “I’m bored” we send them to the list. And we encourage them to add to it! It’s now up to 53 things. We don’t have any electronic devices at camp. We want them to focus on each other instead. Kids don’t need a lot of fancy stuff to have fun. In fact simplicity can be a blessing. It provides the opportunity to foster creativity together.
As we approached this year’s Cousin Camp we enlist friends to pray for us – for safety for all (we’d rather not visit the ER!), for patience and endurance, and for lots of laughter. We know we’ll get impatient, exhausted, frustrated, and at times feel like we were failing as grandparents. But the good news is that God knows our weaknesses and He can redeem our mistakes! Over the years, we’ve noticed how the young kids rise to the occasion. They behave better for us than for their parents. (My Mom used to say the same thing!). They aren’t perfect. Neither are their grandparents. We’ll probably have to separate siblings and send several to “time out.” We’ll have opportunities to say, “I’m sorry and will you forgive me.”
The joy of seeing cousins bond with one another makes this our favorite week of our year. However, don’t call us the week after; John and I will be in bed!