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Camp Lila: Behind The Garden Gate

It’s no secret we think Costa Mesa is a pretty magical place. There’s just something about this city – an energy, a scene, a gravitational pull – that inspires creativity, courage and independence. People want to be a part of it.

Or as today’s featured Costa Mesan, Katie Sherouse, more eloquently puts it: “Our vibe attracts our tribe.”

Sherouse is a lifelong resident and Founder / Creative Director of Camp Lila, a magical, garden-based, free-play art experience for the 10-and-under set. If Sherouse has her way, the next generation of “Tribe Costa Mesa” will certainly be the most artistic, free-thinking and joyfully experimental yet.

"And At The End Of The Day, Your Feet Should Be Dirty, Your Hair Messy And Your Eyes Sparkling." (Camp Lila, Costa Mesa)
Camp Lila Creative Director, Katie Sherouse, Has Created A Garden-Based, Magical Playscape of Art and Imagination In Costa Mesa
Mermaids In A Birdcage, Reggio Emilia Kids Camps And Classes at Camp Lila in Mesa del Mar, Costa Mesa
"Thousands of Candles Can Be Lit By A Single Candle, And The Life Of The Candle Will Not Be Shortened." (Camp Lila, Costa Mesa)
Photos: Brandy Young

Sherouse, a former preschool teacher, operates Camp Lila out of her Mesa del Mar home – having transformed her spacious, wraparound yard into a lush, secret garden full of nature, play props and sensory opportunities. The outcome of her ongoing efforts is more thoughtful, detailed and breathtaking than anything we could have expected.

One peek behind Camp Lila’s mermaid-flanked entry gate and it’s clear Sherouse is one visually-gifted lady. So how did she get started?

“We’ve been in this house for almost five years, but I’ve lived in Costa Mesa my whole life,” began Sherouse.

“I grew up right around the corner from here. I went to Costa Mesa High School and so did my husband. Then I studied Early Childhood Development here at Orange Coast College and went on to teach preschool after that.

“One summer, a few years ago, a family from my preschool asked if I could watch their kids during the summer. Maybe get a small group together to do a little summer camp? That sort of thing. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that could be fun!’

“Word got out and suddenly there was a total snowball effect, I had a lot of interest. I found myself getting completely swept up and inspired by the creative process of making something wonderful for the kids. It’s just grown and grown from there.

“So we unofficially started three years ago. But 2017 is the first official summer for Camp Lila. I’ve gone all-in.”

The name Lila (pronounced lee-lah) is a Hindu concept, which loosely translated from Sanskrit means “divine play” and alludes to the playful nature of the universe.

“I first heard the word doing one of those three-week meditations,” said Sherouse. “Basically, in Hinduism ‘lila’ is the divinity of creating through play. That’s totally what we do here. We just enjoy the freedom to create and express ourselves.”

Camp Lila is Based on the Reggio Emilia Approach Which is Rooted in Child-Directed, Experiential and Relationship-Driven Learning (Costa Mesa, California)
Paintbrushes, Roses and Black Cats at Camp Lila, Mesa del Mar, Costa Mesa
Paint and Play are the Hallmarks of Camp Lila in Mesa del Mar, Costa Mesa
Self-Expression Through Paint and Play are the Order of the Day – at Camp Lila, Costa Mesa
Girls Playing the 'Pop The Pig' Game at Camp Lila, Costa Mesa
Bouncing The Wiggles Out on the Trampoline at Camp Lila, Mesa del Mar in Costa Mesa
Girl in a Princess Crown playing with Dolls and a Dollhouse at Camp Lila, Mesa del Mar Costa Mesa
Photos: Brandy Young

Although the program is called Camp Lila, Sherouse is quick to point out they offers art classes and play opportunities all throughout the year.

“So we do enrichment art classes during the school year,” said Sherouse. “Then we’ll have four-hour-per-day art camps anytime Newport-Mesa is on break: spring break, summer break, ski week, Christmas break.”

The best way to find out what’s going on at Camp Lila is to follow them on Facebook, Instagram or visit www.camplila.com

“It’s so fun to see the kids grow and change. We have kids who have been with us from the beginning and now I’m starting to see the trickle of siblings coming through. I even have pregnant moms who are like, ‘I can’t wait until this one is potty-trained!’ It’s already become a real community.”

Sherouse grounds her camps and classes in the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. It’s a philosophy that highlights children as active participants in learning – underscores the significance of providing a rich, sensory, learning environment – and views teachers as creative collaborators in the learning process.

“My whole thing is about the freedom to express exactly what’s in my heart,” said Sherouse. “So I want to create space in the lives of kids to do the same. I am a big believer in the the Reggio Emilia philosophy that you just kind of follow the lead of the kids and see where it goes.

“There’s not much of a set curriculum so we can leave room in the day for going off on tangents. So if a child has the idea to make a volcano, I’m going to pull out baking soda and vinegar so we can build on that and make one that can erupt. Or if they want to make a batch of bubbles, awesome. Let’s figure out how to do a giant bubble around your whole body.

“It’s letting the kids start the journey and then taking that leap, together, to demonstrate what it looks like to build on their idea.”

Girls Pets a Desert Tortoise at Camp Lila, Costa Mesa
Free To Be You And Me: Unstructured Play, Guided Art Lessons – and Even Occasional Sing-a-longs – at Camp Lila, Costa Mesa
Music and Singing in the Garden at Camp Lila, Costa Mesa
Craftastic: Beads, Scissors and String at Camp Lila, Costa Mesa
Sensory Box Full of Sand, Seashells and Mermaids at Camp Lila Mesa del Mar, Costa Mesa
Photos: Brandy Young

We asked Sherouse if she’s always been creative, and she admits her artistic streak runs all the way back to her own childhood.

“I remember being three years old and a babysitter sent me to my room while my parents were out,” said Sherouse. “I got into the markers and drew a giant stick figure with a big ol’ happy face all over my wall. My sitter was really nervous but my parents came home and my mom said, ‘This is the most beautiful artwork you’ve ever done. I love it!’ So I always felt very encouraged to make art.

“But then, I have a very broad definition of ‘art.’ It can be anything you do on a daily basis if you show up with a spirit of openness and creativity. For me, art shows up in my gardening, surfing, dancing, painting, yoga.

“I think as long as you’re creating opportunities in your life to experiment, that’s art. It’s a sort of mindfulness that teaches us not to be afraid of failure. It shows us that mistakes are just an essential part of the learning process.”

Elements of Sherouse’s own visual self-expression reveal themselves all throughout Camp Lila – like the “play dirty” feathered logo co-created with her friend, Alexia of Kefi Creations – or the plethoria of mermaids, for example.

“I just have a thing for mermaids,” said Sherouse. “When I first met my husband it was at a Halloween party and I was dressed as a mermaid. Then a few years later, when my daughter was three, I wanted to paint her portrait. But I only knew how to paint torsos and hands – couldn’t figure out the legs – so I just threw a mermaid tail on it.

“I think it also has something to do with my love of surfing. There’s just something about mermaids for me. They’ve been a thread running through my life.”

Thank You, Katie Sherouse and Camp Lila, For Bringing Magic, Play (and Mermaids!) to Costa Mesa
Thank You, Katie Sherouse and Camp Lila, For Bringing Fun, Creativity, Art, Music and Free Play To Costa Mesa's Kids!
Photo: Brandy Young

So what is it about Costa Mesa that captivates a creative spirit like Sherouse? The “City of the Arts” energy, for one.

“My creativity feels really at home here,” said Sherouse. “There are a lot of artistic elements in Costa Mesa and that creativity just seems to attract more and more artists over time. The diversity here is a big deal, too. We’ve got a good cultural mix.

“Costa Mesa is also a very laid-back place. We’re close to the beach and we don’t suffer from that cookie-cutter thing happening in some parts of Orange County. So you’ve got freedom of expression with the houses and gardens in our neighborhoods. Paint your house whatever funky, fun color you want – it’s all good in Costa Mesa. I think that chilled-out energy tends to attract artistic people.

“I live my life in a creative way and I’m a local girl, through and through.” ♥

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About The Author

The Mesa Maven

The Mesa Maven is a writer, entrepreneur, community organizer and - most importantly - Costa Mesa Superfan!!! She's simply mad for this Mesa On The Coast and all the creative, independent, amazing, everyday things happening in our sunny backyard. The Maven lives with her husband, two kids and guinea pig...in Costa Mesa, of course!

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