Wanted: Curious and adventurous kids

(Edmonton) Jonah Dunch, 14, describes himself as a contemplative kid. That’s why the idea of attending the University of Alberta’s Eurekamp! summer camp, where he would question some of his fundamental beliefs, was appealing to him.

“I was really excited about this camp. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to expand the horizons of my mind. And gain new insights and topics and things,” he said.

He enrolled in Ideas Safari—one of three week-long camps—where “we go around the campus every day on a safari and every day we have a different focus, and each time we get a tour of ideas,” he said.

During one such tour, campers were presented a set of images and a grid that was divided into “good” or “bad” and “representative” or “unrepresentative.”

“We were tasked with placing the pictures on the grid, whether they were good messages, bad messages, or unrepresentative of reality or not,” he said. “After we decided individually where those photos would go, we came back together as a group and examined the grid and then discussed the various placements.”

It was at this stage that the objective of the exercise became clear.

“One photo was of a billboard that says all religions are fairy tales. That led to a lot of controversy, as you can imagine. It also led to a discussion of relativism versus objectivism, whether religion is a matter of fact or opinion,” said Dunch.

“At first, some people said the statement should go in the middle of the two columns, because no one could agree on it. We had done the same thing with other photos that were representative in some ways and unrepresentative in other ways; but with religion, it’s a matter of fact, it’s not either-or,” he said.

“There can’t be a God and not be a God simultaneously. So eventually we decided to create a mystery square outside the grid that was either-or, not both. That’s what was done with that photo eventually. That was quite an interesting discussion.”

Another exercise involved magazines, glue and paper. Campers were asked to cut out photos and words and categorize them as either beautiful or unbeautiful.

“After that we did some reflection about what we’d done, such as what is beauty,” Dunch said. “The human form is beautiful, but the question is whether it’s still beautiful when presented in a bad context, in a negative context.

“I’m really unsure about that right now. I need some time to mull it over.”

Dunch is one of 170 kids musing over a broad scope of questions, from death to the value of art. John Simpson, a U of A philosophy professor who leads the camp, says giving children a space where they can contemplate such questions without much direction is one thing that distinguishes Eurekamp! from others worldwide.

“We’re the only camp like this right now in the world. There are lots of camps, like in Ivy League colleges, where students would be instructed in various things,” Simpson says. “Eurekamp! is not so much about instruction, it’s more about exploring. It distinguishes itself from others by creating these spaces for these reflective discussions amongst the children. They chose the questions, they own them.”

Among this year’s contingent of campers—more than double last year’s—is Elise Yoo, a fifth-grader from New York who is visiting Edmonton. The 10-year-old, registered in the Masterminds camp, says the activities have taught her “the importance of looking at the big picture in life.” Otherwise, she says, “You’d understand that in life everything is all about you, what you want and what you’re going to get. And you’d never think about other people.”

Yoo says being at the camp has also helped her learn something about Canada. “The people are different; they’re much friendlier and nicer in Canada than in New York. And they’re like, happier, they smile a whole lot more often than people in New York.”

Another camper, seven-year-old Annabelle Barklund, enrolled in the Enchanted Arts program instead of spending the summer at the swimming pool because, “For one thing, my dad does not like water,” she said. “I like arts and I really like this camp because there were lots of stories and arts.” Showing off a hand puppet she made at the camp and named after her dog, Kala, the third-grader says an important lesson she learned at camp this summer is “to be kind and respect others.”

Simpson says it’s never too early for kids to learn the lessons that volunteer counsellors—some from as far away as Australia—try to facilitate at Eurekamp!, through which the university is helping to nurture future leaders.

“It’s a great piece of outreach. In terms of providing value for life, we want to help set in place some lifelong learning,” he says. “One of the roles we have in some sense is to be the keeper or the finder of truths, insofar as we can know them, and to share them. And doing exactly that is a good role as a public citizen.

“We just have to remember that we’re not so sure what the truth is all the time. And so asking these questions—and exploring them—is our public service.”

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