In 2020 when sleep-away and day camps were canceled, Los Angeles-based parenting coach and educator Oona Hanson and her husband Paul found themselves facing a long summer sheltering in place with their daughter, Gwendolyn, 17, and son, Harris, 12.
The Hansons had joked for years that their kids could use "Common Sense Camp" to learn some of life's more basic but necessary skills. So they decided to make it a DIY reality.
"Summer camp has always been this great opportunity for our kids to realize what they could do without us — and for us to realize what they can do without us," she told TODAY Parents. "There's so much self-discovery and self-esteem that happens in that space."
Using author Catherine Newman's book "How to Be a Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Skills to Learn Before You've Grown Up" as sort of camp manual, the family planned eight themed weeks, each one focusing on a different set of life skills. Themes include "Kitchen Confidence," "Safety and Emergency Preparedness," "Laundry and Cleaning," and less physical lessons like "Anti-Racism" and "Social Skills."
"How to Be a Person" uses short, step-by-step, illustrated instructions to teach everything from how to sort laundry to how to plunge a toilet or how to make an apology.
"I chose to use this book as a guideline because it's written and illustrated with charm and joy and infused with humor and empathy," said Hanson. "It's not an adult talking down to kids; it's an adult inviting kids into the world and explaining how you function in daily life."
Although they can't recreate everything about camp at home, the Hansons realized they could use a camp-like structure to give their kids a similar sense of independence and competency.
At first, her children were a little wary of the concept, said Hanson. "I think they were afraid it would be just more school." The family structured Common Sense Camp so there is time for an activity in the morning, then another in the afternoon or evening.
For the week focused on "Kitchen Confidence," for example, Hanson asked her son to find the chapter in the book that covered cooking and to read through it first before they discussed what he wanted to learn. "He's excited to learn how to boil the perfect egg now," she said.
Her husband, a "terrific cook," has taken over most of the week's lessons, Hanson said. "Today they were discussing knife skills and learning the difference between a mince, a dice, and a chop."
The kids then have a chance to reinforce and practice what they have learned daily. "It's not like you teach a skill once and then you're done," said Hanson.
Shaping these life lessons through the lens of "camp" helps the whole family focus, said Hanson, and gives them the structure to stick to their goals.
"It always seems like we're going to get around to teaching them these things 'someday,'" she said. "There's that fantasy that before they go to college, they're going to learn these thousand skills that actually take time to learn and practice. Right now, we have the time it never seems we have to do it."
When they're not learning how to boil and egg or read a map, the Hansons' kids have a chance to engage in typical camp fun like making s'mores and friendship bracelets.
They even made camp T-shirts.
But though she is excited for her kids to confidently make their own meals and do their own laundry, Hanson said the benefits of Common Sense Camp go far beyond domestic skills.
"Being able to do something you couldn't do before — that is self-esteem," she said. "Being someone who knows how to do things builds the social-emotional skills and the resilience that are even more important than the actual list of skills that we're trying to teach."
And though they are physically distanced from their friends and family right now, Hanson said the meaning and future joy of what her children are learning this summer will last a lifetime.
"'We are telling them, 'You might be the person in your shared apartment who knows how to make everyone breakfast. You might be the person who, when you hear a questionable joke, speaks up and says to another white person, 'I am not comfortable with that. Why did you say that?'" she said.
"I'm OK if the kids are rolling their eyes at us now now if later they can look back and say, 'I'm so glad I know how to make pancakes for 12 people.' That will bring so much joy and connection."
This story was originally published in June 2020.