The perfect balance between structure and play

Menaul School’s campus may look quiet and serene to passersby, but behind those gates there is a world of activity going on! Summer Camp, or “Panther Camp”, is in full swing. The delighted voices of 1st through 6th grade students bring energy and cheer to the auditorium in Donaldson Hall, as the students start their warm ups in the morning. 

“Macaroni and Cheese!” calls Ms. Baca, Panther Camp Director. 

“Everybody Freeze!” is the animated response from the children. 

And then silence, as Ms. Baca gives instructions. 

Every morning the students dance through their morning warm up to get themselves amped and ready to go for a full day of camp. They’ve tried Zumba, as well as followed along to “Just Dance,” mimicking the dance movements of a character on the big screen. Their delight and focus makes us feel as if Donaldson Hall is filled with bright light every morning—at least, speaking as a staff member walking through the hall, it makes us older folks feel energized too! 

Panther Camp is special to us. For example, a beloved teacher who retired in 2021 was a big part of starting the camp years ago. When she speaks about what the camp means to her, she tears up a little. She intended it to be a well-rounded day camp where kids could play and, well, be kids. 

Summer Camp Structure

No overly planned schedules with electives to choose. In other words, summer camp students are not sitting in desks learning how to be rocket scientists or coders. This camp, on the surface, may look like pure unstructured fun. But don’t be fooled. 

The summer camp structure is intentional, based on common sense, as well as research into what kids need in order to thrive. Above all, they need to learn new things. The students at Panther Camp do learn—hands on learning that is enjoyable and rewarding to them. Art projects, baking, and more. 

Each week the campers wrap up by writing what they most loved about camp. Once camper wrote: 

“[My favorite thing about camp was] making jellow (sic) aquariums and making friends. Another thing I liked was doing art with Ms. Alissa. I also liked making cupcakes and the first day. I also liked being with my friends. Another thing I liked was the Dion’s field trip.” 

So, she liked, basically, “everything”! 

The students create a presentation to share with their parents in the auditorium at week’s end, sharing their joy for camp and what they learned. This week, students made chef hats and learned from our school chefs who are always happy to teach our campers. As an international boarding school, we are fortunate to have highly qualified trained chefs on staff, ready to make tasty lunches year-round. 

Out in the Park

I came across Ms. Baca toward the end of the day, in a shaded park near Teacher’s Hall. A water slide and a pool were set up on the lush green grass, where kids were playing and splashing, keeping cool. Another group of kids played catch, and yet another was playing a game with a camp counselor while sitting on the grass under a big elm tree. Laughter and giggles filled the park. 

First, one little boy came up to Ms. Baca asking for a Band-Aid, as he had skinned his knee in the grass. Then, as she applied it, three girls grouped around him, concerned, talking him through the process and trying to make him feel better. Triage was done, and he was back to running around with glee. 

A girl who had been helping him, opened up her cupped hands. I hadn’t noticed that she was carrying a small beetle in her hands, cooing and talking to it, marveling at it, and then closing her hands to keep it safe. 

Not only do the campers get to explore in the beauty of the green, tree-covered parks on the Menaul School campus. 

Ms. Baca says, “These kids have kind hearts. For example, a student joined us today who didn’t have a towel, and another camper immediately stepped in wanting to share.” The typical Menaul student cares about other kids, so this is a great thing to hear. The kids get to practice being kind, modelled to them by their counselors. 

Yes, these kids get plenty of free play during the day, but a lot is going on as they play. 

The older kids in Hart Park played a nerf baseball game, with counselors cheering them on and keeping them honest. As a boy stepped to the “plate”, a chorus of voices called out, “You can do it Rakesh! You can do it!” as he gave his best swing nearly knocking himself off his feet. 

“Like Ducklings Following Closely”

As Ms. Baca gathered the younger ones together to head back to home base in the Media Center, one little boy who had been playing on his own, continued splashing in puddles on the sidewalk, seeing how high he could make the splashes with his Crocs. For a few minutes he had been mesmerized, splashing in the puddle, exploring, enjoying what he was doing. But it was time to get ready for presentations, so off they went, like ducklings following closely in a line behind Ms. Baca. 

Menaul School: An Oasis in the Desert

Students learn how to keep personal space and be in their own bubble, something that takes continuous reminders as the day wears on, particularly for the younger students. They are just—so exuberant! “Put a bubble in your mouth!” says Ms. Baca, meaning it’s time to listen. We may live in a desert, but in this green oasis, we’re thinking about water, having just finished splashing with glee. Even our metaphors remind us of water. 

Ms. Baca says the students are “really excited” to come to camp each week. Therefore, it makes sense that at least half are return campers with new students joining the camp each year. As a return camper herself (having started as a camp counselor, when she was a Menaul student) Ms. Baca says that she loves seeing the students grow from year to year. The connections the camp staff has with the children is priceless. 

The camp is nearly full—intentionally small, capping each week at 40 campers. It’s easy for the staff to get to know every kid. 

Counselors in Training

The parallel summer program, Counselors in Training (for middle school-aged children), prepares students to think like leaders, and requires them to help the younger campers with activities. They made solar ovens, baking chocolate chip cookies. They made “armpit fudge” (sounds gross, looks fun), and ice-cream in a bag. 

However, sometimes the CITs try to introduce their own rules or steps, which usually makes the project not turn out as well as it was supposed to. Ms. Cummins asks them what they would do differently—touching on an important Menaul life skill, “how to learn from failure”. Students learn that it is ok to fail but take the time to consider what went wrong and what you would do differently next time. 

What is so special about these summer camps? Do a quick search for “the benefits of unstructured play time for kids”. 

We observe this every summer, and intentionally keep the camp balanced in structure and play time. An article from NPR states that play activates the entire neocortex. Why is that important? This development helps students negotiate social interactions. The world is a complex place – and this is productive play time.

Join Us at Camp!

Want to learn more about Panther Camp, Counselors in Training, or other summer camp offerings? Check out the information on our website, or reach out to us at and we will connect you with staff. 

Parents interested in regular admission to Menaul School, know that the fall application opens on September 1st. If you have a 5th grade student, fall is the time to start setting up a student shadow day and checking out the school. 

Thanks to Christina Baca for the awesome Panther Camp photos!

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