At Camp DaKaNi, the pizza isn’t just pizza. It’s a teaching tool.
This summer, about 1,300 children signed up to roam the 33-acre site where things are rarely as they seem — from the rock wall to the archery range to the lunch food. But the kids don’t know that.
Located in Oklahoma City, Camp Fire Heart of Oklahoma’s Camp DaKaNi aims to help campers find themselves and learn life skills through activities disguised as fun.
The last summer day camp of the season begins Monday. About 200 children attend each of the summer day camp sessions, which last for four days and run from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., said camp director Penn Henthorn, known as Mr. Bearfoot.
Almost everything that happens in camp, from the structured activities to the children’s creative play time, is a teachable moment from which some life skill can be learned, Henthorn said.
When campers fish at the pond, they’re not just learning to fish; they’re learning patience. When they’re canoeing, they’re learning to listen and work as team.
When camp counselor Andrew Tucker, known as Mr. Pilot, was teaching a group of young campers to canoe, he gave them basic steering information and a mission: They had to paddle the canoe around the pond and under the bridge that sits in the middle, and they had to do it twice.
After receiving instructions, the first group got into the water, which is only about 3 feet deep, with life vests and paddles, and was off. They started out slowly, and their uncoordinated paddling made the boat go in circles, but they finally got into a rhythm and passed under the bridge for the first time.
Standing away from the pond near some shade trees was camp counselor Michael Thomas, known as Mr. Scottish.
“It’s weird how quickly they all kind of realize right and wrong,” he said.
Sitting near Thomas and waiting their turn were twins Steven and Dominik Morrison, 6. When the first group finished, Tucker called for the two, but Dominik didn’t want to canoe — and that’s fine too.
“We don’t push them to go to the absolute max. We push them to their own max, whatever they feel comfortable with,” Thomas said.
Dominik said his favorite camp activity was Ga-Ga, a game where campers face off in a wooden octagon filled with sand.
“There’s a bunch of people. But when everybody is going, all of the people come out, even one teacher,” Dominik said.
The game is a mixture of dodge ball and four square, and the object is to hit players below the waist with a ball, which players can only bounce once. Sometimes more than 40 children play at once, Henthorn said.
Lessons in disguise
Ga-Ga is a fairly new game at the camp, and while Henthorn knew the children would enjoy playing, he didn’t know how social it would be. It was another one of those life lessons in disguise. This time the children were learning how to interact with age groups of children they typically wouldn’t, Henthorn said.
“They start to know other kids outside of their group and learn and explore a little bit differently,” Henthorn said.
The game also helps teach the children inclusivity, which is a major part of Camp Fire’s mission, Henthorn said.
Camp Fire, which was once Camp Fire Girls, was once only open to girls. It is now open to all children, no matter race, gender, creed, religion, national origin, orientation, disability or economic status.
On the other side of the camp, in an area marked “Wetland Conservation Area,” five targets are set up for the children to learn archery. The range was relocated to the former wetlands area after flooding washed away the area’s topsoil, preventing it from holding water.
“So far, I’m the only kid that’s got a bull’s-eye,” said camper Liam Rahlfs, 9, as he waited for the rest of his group to finish the activity. Another child shot a bull’s-eye a few seconds later.
When children are learning archery, they are not only learning shooting techniques but also patience and how to make adjustments until you succeed — whether that is hitting the target or something else, Henthorn said.
Archery is “not a skill you’re going to use day in and day out. But the things you use to accomplish that goal, you’re going to use day in and day out,” Henthorn said.
And the pizza?
It’s made on a whole-grain tortilla with pizza sauce, low-fat cheese and pepperoni, making it a healthier option for the children. And they help prepare it.
“Kids don’t really recognize all that. Just making it yourself makes it taste better,” Henthorn said.
At a glance
The camp is accredited by the American Camp Association, meaning it must meet 300 standards that range from safety to program quality. For more information about those standards, go to acacamps.org.
The camp is open throughout the year for day camps and education programs, and it hosts a resident camp during the summer. A complete list of programs can be found on the website at campdakani.org.
The next camp session is Camp C.A.N.O.E., from July 21 to 25. It is open to children with autism.
To register for sessions or for more information, contact the camp at 254-2080 or email@example.com.
How to help
To donate funds to Camp Fire Heart of Oklahoma, go to their website at campdakani.org. Donations are used to pay for camp improvements, updated equipment and staff.