North

Five days of risk and reward at Yellowknife Dangerous Camp

Building weapons, lighting fires, using power tools — it sounds like the perfect disaster for a bunch of children out in the N.W.T. wilderness — but parents, and now adults, are signing up for a unique opportunity in Yellowknife: Dangerous Camp.

'With a little bit of risk comes some consequence to decision making,' says camp organizer

Two ex-British military officers launched a week-long kids camp earlier this month in Yellowknife, in an attempt to teach practical and personal skills out in the real world. The kids spent an entire day building a raft, which had to get across the lake to a nearby island. (Submitted by Frans Barnard)

Building weapons, lighting fires, using power tools — it sounds like the perfect disaster for a bunch of children out in the Northwest Territories wilderness — but parents, and now adults, are signing up for a unique opportunity in Yellowknife: Dangerous Camp.

Two ex-British military officers launched a week-long kids camp earlier this month, in an attempt to teach practical and personal skills out in the real world (well, except for the zombie attacks). And this weekend the first Dangerous Day for Adults will get grown-ups teaming up to test their problem solving skills.

Dangerous camps are the antithesis of helicopter parenting. They're a far cry from mostly indoor "babysitter" day camps, which one Yellowknife parent likened to prison. Dangerous Camp promotes independence.

Frans Barnard says the original idea was to get young kids exposed to danger with little support from adults.

Graham Mathieson and Frans Barnard launched a week-long kids camp earlier this month, in an attempt to teach practical and personal skills out in the real world. They're both former British military officers. (Submitted by Frans Barnard)

"With a little bit of risk comes some consequence to decision making," says Barnard.

"The ability to problem solve, the ability to make decisions, the ability to work well with other people in fluid situations are going to be critical skills."

Barnard and his friend Graham Mathieson know about danger and risk. Together, they run training and crisis support for humanitarian organizations in conflict zones. Barnard moved to Yellowknife about five years ago from Kenya. He's worked in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Yemen.

"We looked at kids and thought what a wonderful opportunity for us to do something far lighter than we normally do, but also to see how kids responded," Barnard says.

Kids in the Dangerous Camp constructing their raft. (Submitted by Frans Barnard)

Five children, ranging in age from 10 to 13, took part in the five-day camp. What they got was a "full-on experience," Barnard says.

The camp was divided into hard skills, like lighting a fire without matches, building a shelter, raft and weapons — to fight those zombies, of course — and soft skills, like conflict resolution and building confidence.

"A lot of the skills that we as adults go and take courses to learn, these kids were learning through actually doing fun activities," Barnard says.

'Real' summer camp

The Dangerous Camp is a fusion of ideas, Barnard says, such as the unschooling method, which advocates activities as a means for learning, and the philosophy around free-range kids, which encourages independence and little parental supervision.

Julie Ross signed her 10-year-old son Jakob up for the camp in hopes that he would gain confidence and independence.

"I don't think we give children that. We drive them everywhere and we walk them everywhere, and I think they're missing that these days," Ross says.

At Dangerous Camp, the five campers took part in a rope exercise, designed to build confidence. (Submitted by Frans Barnard)

The camp also appealed to her because it looked "real." She remembers her days as a camp counsellor, when the campers were outside all day every day, rain or shine. Ross says you don't see those types of summer camps in Yellowknife.

"It just looked like a great opportunity of what camp should be, promoting a skillset that we think is valuable and important," Ross says.

She thinks the changes in Jakob will be subtle and they'll see them over time.

"He's not going to talk about, 'oh, we did this problem solving thing.' He's talking about the zombie attack and the tools they were making and how they were fending things off."

'Kids are actually getting along better'

For Jennifer Chiasson, signing up her three young sons for Dangerous Camp has been a game changer.

"However they did it, it was like magic, but the kids are actually getting along better than ever," she laughs.

"It actually improved their relationship."

From potato cannons to power tools, Chiasson says the boys wouldn't have had that experience in their own backyard.

"Had I been there, I probably would've been like, 'oh my God, they'll get hurt, they can't do that.'"

Chiasson says Barnard and Mathieson also encouraged the children to reach consensus in decision making, and that's made a difference in the way her sons are communicating.

"They really seem to have taught them how to work through their problems," she says.

"One of my sons in particular, who is a very nervous and anxious child, definitely the confidence that he has now is evident."

Building a fort to protect the campers from a zombie invasion. (Submitted by Frans Barnard)

Next up: Dangerous Day for Adults

Chiasson says she and her husband were "super jealous" of their boys' experience, so they readily signed up for this weekend's Dangerous Day for Adults.

"I'm very nervous of it," she laughs.

"I'm not entirely sure what I've just signed myself up for. I'm not sure whether to be scared or excited."

Working together: the campers coming up with the design for their raft. (Submitted by Frans Barnard)

Barnard expects about 10 adults to take part in Saturday's mission. He and Mathieson will use their training techniques in team building and problem solving in high-stress environments.

He says the adults should be prepared to get wet, sweaty and dirty. He hopes they'll take what they learn and pass it on to their colleagues and neighbours.

"They are going to be faced with a number of challenges. The challenges won't be life or death, but there may be a fine bottle of wine involved in some of the challenges."

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