What can schools learn from summer camp?
Thursday, August 31, 2017
This summer, my 9-year-old Cameron had a blast at Camp Carpenter in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he participated in a week-long overnight Cub Scout program with some of his friends from our local Cub Scout Pack.
Cameron's positive experience did not come as a surprise to my wife Erica and I. What boy his age wouldn't like a camp experience that prides itself on its ability to offer activities like archery, swimming, boating, arts and crafts, BB gun shooting sports, field sports and nature, combined with the added bonus of sleeping in tents with your friends surrounded by a beautiful lake?
What surprised us most was not that he had a good time, but at what he identified as the positive experiences from his time at the camp. Describing it in a way that you would expect from a 9-year-old boy, Cameron valued most the time he had to explore new ideas, new activities and new experiences in a safe and supportive environment. As he put it, "We learned how to learn for ourselves, and it was fun."
There were no standardized tests. There were no formal lesson plans. There was, however, a focus on academics — reading, science and mathematics to be exact. There were focuses on inquiry, problem-solving and collaboration. There was time for self-reflection. There was time for interdisciplinary learning.
As with any good summer camp program that millions of American children participate in each summer, the experienced was personalized, and it was both meaningful and relevant for all. It is unfortunate that all children don't have the opportunity to participate in summer camp, but perhaps there are ways for schools to bring the best of summer camp into the programming that is available for all children.
Getting Smart's Jeff Wetzler explored this idea in a recent blog, "What REALLY Motivates Learners: Lessons From Science and Summer." Reflecting on his own experiences as a camper and then camp counselor, he wrote, "As with many camps that rely on young, inexperienced staff, the instruction was fine — but not the secret sauce. Rather, I believe the main reason my fellow campers and I were able to learn so much was that we were wildly motivated to show up year after year, to put in effort, to take chances, challenge ourselves and to persist over and over again, even when we stumbled."
He went on to write, "Clearly, schools and camps have somewhat different objectives (and different formal accountability pressures, which matters), but they both have the potential to foster deep learning, and increasingly the areas of focus overlap. So what is it that schools can learn from the best camps about how to wildly motivate kids?"
Here is what he came up with:
- Give learners agency to choose learning topics and methods that have inherent value to them.
- Help learners grow their sense of self-efficacy by publicly recognizing when they strive hard through authentic, mastery-based progressions.
- Get out of their way — trust learners to have unstructured time and to use it in ways that support their learning.
- Deliberately nurture a sense of belonging and positivity.
This is not a new idea. In a New York Times parenting blog back in 2012, author Barbara Rowley attributed the success of the summer camp experience to its ability to provide a fun and happy experience for all involved. She wrote, "For schools to be more like camp — to be more fun — our education establishment has to put emphasis on hiring positive-minded staff and preaching the importance of exuding happiness in the classroom as well as making the necessary changes in the work environment that will make their happiness genuine."
The American Camp Association's Audrey Monke, in an article on this same topic, wrote: "My dream is for my kids to attend a school they love as much as they love camp. But for that to happen, schools need to have a different culture and focus." She identified three ways that schools could do this:
- Focus on relationships, team building and goal setting.
- Foster social skills.
- Practice hands-on, active learning by doing.
- Promote a positive culture.
Schools could learn quite a bit from this by simply getting back to the basics — building relationships, providing opportunities for choice and voice, and recognizing that at the end of the day, the most effective thing a school can do to promote learning is to engage children by meeting them where they are. If summer camps can do it, so can schools.
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