Child’s Play is A Serious Business

  Written by Josette Hendrix


Summer is all about children, family and community. It’s early July 1996, in a Whidbey Island backyard. Finally the rains have ceased, the sun is warm, and everything sparkles with shades of deep green. There is open grass to run in, a little shed with child-sized pot belly stove with real fire to cook on, a large army-surplus tent, a couple of picnic tables under the shade tarp, and lots of red, white and blue ribbons fluttering about. Bienvenus au camp Français! announces the sign at the head of the driveway, as a dozen children, aged six to ten, come walking up with their parents to begin a week long day camp- in French.

Inspired by my own years at an international youth summer camp, I wanted to share the idyllic joys of that experience with local children, and what better way to begin than with the cultural traditions of France? “Picnic,” after all, is a French word. Summertime joi de vivire, connecting to nature, building friendships in intimate groups, playing games, reading in the shade, crafting beautiful things, putting on a skit with handmade costumes- these are quintessential French family activities which we recreated during our first camp years.
French Camp for us was a family tradition we always counted on. The children would receive their “Passport” into their chosen French speaking country and away they’d sail. They were enthralled with the green grass, the little kitchen, the picnics and the field trips. My daughter even marched in the Maxwelton Parade, sick but dressed like a French lass. French Camp gave us a sense of world travel on our little island. These are treasured memories filled with joy and love. Fondly, Cherub Zimmermann.

In those days, our goals were simple: enjoy summer fun outside while absorbing some basics of French language along with the sunshine. With each iteration, the camps became more and more interesting and successful in achieving both these goals.

Each year, the camp theme allowed for the selection and weaving together of activities that leveraged learning into a richness of experience. During Chateaux et Chevaliers for example, colors could be learned while making stained glass windows for the cardboard castle, which then became the central prop for the play ‘Le Chat Botté’, a creative adaptation of “Puss in Boots” with six princesses and many animals.

Learning the basics of escrime (fencing) complete with full regalia, was not only exciting but an unforgettable way to learn counting, politeness, and other specialized vocabulary. French children’s songs and games provided another avenue to learning and fun. Putting it all together with elaborate costumes in the make-believe of a piece of theater to be presented to parents at the end of the week had the children eagerly memorizing their lines.

“Reilly really enjoyed the camp and I was impressed by how much they learned. He said that maybe a bit less singing would be good, but then, for the next several weeks, we were both singing “Le Pont d’Avignon”. I latter discovered the historical significance of that Bridge and told him about it.” Pat, French Camp dad.

The themes continued to evolve through Le Cirque du Soleil, Pirates des Caraibes , Le Zoo, La Ferme de Grandmère and so many more over the 20 years we’ve been offering Le Camp Français. By 2000 we had added a Spanish Camp and a Japanese camp. We found venues all over the island, in ever-increasing collaborative ventures, even creating our own movies “EL Zorro,” and “Les Voyageurs”

Principles and methodologies remained the same: immerse children in cultural learning and fun in a beautiful outdoor setting. In 2003 we had our first Chinese Camp.

Being situated on Whidbey Island had it’s own advantages and disadvantages. While community resources and natural environment were ideal, experienced, native-speaking teachers were hard to find for a one-week engagement. Gathering a committed group of 10 to 12 families, which would be the minimum enrollment in order to achieve a financially sustainable program of this quality, was also quite impossible sometimes.

But we persisted. We tried other things as a way to enlarge the program offerings and build more recognition: after-school language clubs, before-school programs, and special events, such as bilingual puppet shows or “Christmas Around the World” festivals.

And we were also growing up!

We became more and more passionate about translating our “child’s play” into the serious business of generating intercultural understanding.
In 2007, we filed for and received nonprofit status. We were already operating with a policy that allowed camp attendance to any child, regardless of the family’s ability to pay tuition; now we could seek broader support to sustain our programs.
In our ever more complex world, flexibility in thinking and empathy may be the two most crucial skills we can nurture in our children. These skills cannot be learned from textbooks nor somehow injected into them; they are built slowly and through experience. Learning another language and exposure to other cultural ways, are some of the most powerful tools for cognitive development at any age – but especially in the young child -opening new pathways of connections in the brain. The children become more flexible in their analysis and their critical thinking. ( excerpt from Why Learn Another Language, March 1999, by Josette Hendrix)

We expanded our programs to meet the needs of middle school and high school students who wanted to learn other languages than those offered at the school – Japanese, German, Chinese, as well as higher levels of French. We developed a process to work with school administration to be able to offer school credit. Weekend language & cultural Immersions were a natural development always utilizing the core principles of activity based learning that young and old alike could benefit by. Our Travelers Language Cafes and The Language of Food became signature programs offered throughout Seattle area.

Throughout all these years of learning and discovery, one simple truth continues to shine thorough: communicating across cultures is necessary to a healthy and sustainable world. We know that good human relations and responsible community living can best be learned by personal experience at an early age.

We see that strife among people of different national, racial, and religious backgrounds stems from fear of the unknown. We believe that this fear and ignorance can be overcome by bringing people, especially young people, together across differing backgrounds, and giving them the opportunity to play, learn, and work together. It is our firm conviction that such experiences provide the necessary skills for understanding, as well as the independent thinking, self-reliance, and sense of responsibility needed by each individual to live in and contribute to a world that grows steadily smaller and increasingly interdependent.

With the Global Cultures Experience, we believe that the global dimension provides a powerful focal point; bringing passion and relevance to students, teachers, administrators and everyone in the community, because it is real, genuinely important and urgent.