Where We Educate Our Hearts: Bringing Kids Together at Camp RUF in Bhutan

Guest Contributor: Tim Huang

At the end of last year, I was invited to volunteer as a founding facilitator for Camp Rural-Urban Friendship (RUF). This annual 10-day civic education youth camp brings together over 100 underserved youth from rural and urban Bhutan in bonding, co-learning, and co-creation.

Bhutan has a growing rural-urban divide and a rapid rate of rural-urban migration. The camp addresses an opportunity gap by holding educational experiences in a remote region of Bhutan like Dagana. Rural youth rarely get substantial winter opportunities for continued education, and urban youth from Thimphu can see that rural areas are places of meaningful learning. This camp also builds mutual understanding across differences while developing life-long friendships for a more unified Bhutan.

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Each day of the 10 day program is framed by a guiding prompt (based on Wiggins and McTighe’s Backwards Design theory of curriculum development). Every evening, campers sit together in the hall, watch a photo slideshow of the day, and reflect on the prompt after a day’s worth of activities. They meditate, journal, share their learnings from the day with a charo (friend), and then share with all the campers if they chose to.

Very powerful learning occurs through this continual process of experiential engagement, self-discovery, contemplation, and reflection. Here is a brief overview of each day’s prompt and activities so you can get a sense of how this camp accomplished this:

DAY 1: This Is The Way We Welcome. The campers hike to the camp site and meet their rural counterparts. This day is full of fun icebreakers, a bonfire, and other introductory activities.

DAY 2: How Special Can My New Friend Be? Cooperative learning activities address being a good friend and developing strong relationships. Some of these activities include a gift exchange with your charo, forming our “family” units, and creating group norms and identities.

DAY 3: How Beautiful Can A Life Be When I Learn To Appreciate Self and Others? This day is dedicated to empowering campers to appreciate their own and others’ multiple intelligences and their various ways of being smart in this beautiful life. Activities include a nature and agricultural scavenger hunt, math logic puzzle, human knot, “once upon a time…” storytelling activity, and maintain the musical rhythm game.

DAY 4: How Happy Can I Be After Helping Someone in Need? The campers spend an action-packed day outside of the camp site engaged in a service-learning project. Last year they helped Ap Phuntsho, a local farmer who requested support in dismantling his old house and building a new one.

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DAY 5: Can I Dance Like My Friend? On this fun day campers discussed culture and created their own dance choreography to a variety of Bhutanese, Tibetan, Hindi, Nepali, and western songs and performed them during a high-energy culminating concert.

DAY 6: What Is The Beauty of Being a Farmer? Campers have a unique opportunity to experience rural hospitality and learn directly from different village families about their daily tasks, their indigenous knowledge, and their ecofriendly lifestyles. This re-frames rural areas and the natural environment as places of learning and growth.

DAY 7: How Can I Be The Change I Wish to See in the World? This day is dedicated to guiding and empowering the campers through the Design for Change process. The youth themselves take on an “I CAN, We CAN” attitude of feeling problems (i.e. pollution and trash overflow), imagining solutions (i.e. “buy local” campaign), doing some action steps, and sharing their results.

DAY 8: What is Education? Campers engaged in reflecting, thinking critically about, and creating their own ways of expressing what they personally believe “education” is to them. There is a strong relation to the lessons they learned throughout the camp as the foundation of that synthesis.

DAY 9: How Can I Gratify This Village? On this fun culminating day the campers hosted a festival filled with games, food, showcase performances, lessons learned, and more for the villagers who were so kind to host us during our stay.

DAY 10: This Is The Way We Bid Farewell As a fitting conclusion for a camp that changed all of our lives campers had a traditional village send-off. There was a painful departure, endless tears, joyous reunions with family, and ultimately, a deep gratitude for the entire experience.

 photo 3Camp RUF’s motto is “where we educate our hearts.” Throughout the camp, I re-learned that learning and human connection are not separate – they blossom synergistically and organically.

Through cultural and experiential learning like sharing the same food, living under the same roof and exchanging indigenous knowledge, learning and connection blossom together from our most important shared human values: empathy, teamwork, trust, humor, and compassion.

Even more, so many of the most powerful learning moments happened when we least expected them to – in the evenings before bed in the rural school classrooms that we called our dormitories, during our several hour WALK (Witness, Accept, Love, Know Thyself) to and from the camp site, in our forays outside of the camp site to serve or learn with local villagers.

In between our sessions youth became friends over laughter, food, music, and invented games and sports, and in the evening reflection sessions when youth pondered and shared from the heart.

There were extraordinary actions. Two girls from urban Thimphu had so much fun that they refused to leave their rural host family’s home. A young boy comforted a tearful fellow camper who grew up without her father by sharing vulnerably about his childhood without his father.

The youth co-created the learning experience and reminded us to be compassionate and empathetic, open-minded and curious, honest and appreciative – the very values that grounded Camp RUF in its vision.

Camp RUF is really a living laboratory for trying something different in education, just as Bhutan, with its philosophy of Gross National Happiness, is a laboratory for trying something different with development.

It’s about trusting in the process of figuring things out together in that space of the unknown, learning to connect across our differences, exploring what makes us more human, and building a more just and sustainable planet.

I truly feel that Camp RUF will serve as a model for education that is empowering, equitable, and heart-felt. And I hope that the friendships we formed and the lessons we learned in that friendship will in turn create a more unified and compassionate world!

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For more information or to support our initiative, please visit our website: www.rufbhutan.org or www.facebook.com/campruf



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