By Andy “Soy” Moeschberger
In all probability the educationist of the year 2000 AD will look back upon us and wonder why we, the school people of 1938, failed to include the camp as an integral unit of our educational system.
– The Kappan Magazine, the official magazine of Phi Delta Kappa – 1938
If you ever have the opportunity to visit us at camp, you’ll have the opportunity to sing the GAC Song. While many people love the “wadda-ing” that takes place in the chorus, my favorite part comes in the final verse. We sing, “I sure did learn much more here than I ever did at school.”
My love of this line comes from my teaching before I came to work for Gold Arrow full time; I was a high school social science teacher for 14 years.
It may seem odd that a teacher would love a line about learning more at camp that we did at school. But I do, because camp and school operate symbiotically. While those of us in camping and education have known this anecdotally for many years, there is an increasing body of evidence that supports that belief with data.
Some of that research has been supported by the American Camping Association, and I was privileged to hear one of the leaders in the field, Lance W. Ozier Ed.D. speak on this at a recent conference. He has written on the history of camps and schools (you can read it here). In that article, Dr. Ozier lays out the reasons that camp blossomed in America after the Civil War. As people moved to the cities, adults began to worry that their children were losing touch with nature, and so they sent them to live in nature. How familiar does that refrain sound to us today?
And yet the challenges for young people are even greater now than they were then. The rise of computers, social media and cell phones have had as great a social impact as urbanization a hundred years ago. Today, camp serves not just as a way to reengage children with nature, but as a way to help them learn vital social skills in a systematic way. We are fortunate that one of our camp owners and directors, Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, has studied the impact of camp on building social skills. Her research shows that a significant majority of campers report having improved social skills because of camp. She believes that this is because camp counselors are specifically trained in helping campers to improve skills like making friends and listening to others.
It isn’t just Sunshine that has found these results. According to research conducted by the American Camp Association, campers and their parents report that campers have more social skills, higher self esteem, and more independence.When a child returns to school more comfortable socially, they have more confidence, and are more likely to sit up front, ask questions, ignore distractions and choose a seat near the front. When they do that, they are setting themselves up for more academic success.
But wait, there’s more! Camp also provides an opportunity for children to struggle in a safe and supporting environment. Sunshine has written about this as well. That post is about Growing Grit, a concept that has been moved into the public discussion about education by Angela Duckworth’s research. We think that grit is so important we made it our theme for an entire summer! But there is increasing research that shows how struggling actually changes the way the brain grows. This research in neuroplasticity shows that the brain grows much more when it is engaged in something difficult. So every time a camper tries to waterski another time, or climbs the rock wall, their brains are growing!
(Interestingly, that same research shows that the brain also grows more and stronger synapses, in mice at least, when they are allowed to roam openly in nature.)
None of this is news to people who send their kids to camp, or those of us who work at camp. We can see anecdotally that kids are more confident and more “alive” after camp. But this research simply confirms what so many educational researchers knew in the early 1900s: going to camp when you’re not in school will help your education.
Visit Sunshine Parenting for more of Sunshine’s articles about the benefits of summer camp, children’s social skills, and parenting.
#1 Improve Interpersonal Skills & Form Close Friendships
“In a … study of 515 senior executives, emotional intelligence was a better predictor of success than either relevant previous experience or high IQ.” -Forbes, “Look for Employees with High EQ over IQ”
Interacting effectively with other people is one of the most important skills teens learn at camp. In the unplugged, noncompetitive camp culture, teens build up their “emotional intelligence” (EQ), their face-to-face communication and relationship skills. Why are these interpersonal skills so important? Because 21st-century employers need people who can communicate, collaborate, and cooperate with others.
If you are debating whether your teen can miss a few weeks of SAT prep or a summer academic program, know that the 2200 SAT score will never outweigh the important communication and relationship skills he or she will develop at camp. Whether on a backpacking trip, cheering each other through a ropes course, or chatting around the campfire, the interpersonal skills teens build are the same ones they’ll need to be successful adults in families, communities, and companies.
#2 Take Safe Risks and Challenge
Teens thrive on risk. Thanks to recent findings (described in Age of Opportunity and Brainstorm) about the unique attributes of the teen brain, we now understand the reason for the “mortality bump” for 17-year-old boys. They do stupid, daring things not because they aren’t aware of the dangers, but because—to them—the reward of leaping from a rocky cliff or speeding along a curvy mountain road seems to far outweigh the risk.
A teen at camp has the opportunity to take many safe, controlled risks. Climbing to new heights on a rock wall or ropes course, jumping the wake of a boat on a wake board, or reaching the peak of a 10,000-foot summit are all healthy risks teens take at camp. Plus, being in a controlled camp environment frees teens from exposure to health risks like alcohol and drug use.
#3 Experience Character Growth and Develop Life Skills
“A profound gap exists between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need for success in their communities and workplaces.” –Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Schools aren’t doing a very good job teaching kids grit, perseverance, and leadership. But that’s not their job. Rather, schools are VERY busy teaching the core curriculum and assessing how well our kids know it. No school has time to see how “gritty” a kid is, but at camp, the “grit-meter” is always running, and it’s personal character—not a report card or an athletic achievement—that rises to the top.
Teens also develop other important life skills at camp, including independence, responsibility, and decision-making. Teens grow considerably in an environment away from their parents where they are forced to live on their own and find their own resources.
#4 Meet Positive Role Models
Watch or listen to a popular music video, reality TV show, or sports event, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find positive young adults teens can emulate. But walk into any well-run summer camp and you’ll be surrounded by wholesome, outdoorsy young people who like being around others and doing fun activities. Camp offers teens the opportunity to be among young adults who are positive role models and to form close relationships with them. Most camp counselors are hard-working college students who want to serve others. They are friendly, personable, and are just the kind of young adults you want your teen to become.
#5 Discover Their Best Self
We live in a world where teens—often by their own parents—are steered towards success via the SAT, the college admissions grind, a “good” major, and a high-salary job. Look around at many adults, however, and see where that path got them. Yet, we still expose our kids to the same gauntlet.
Perhaps college education is the best option for most young people, but I’ve met many who are halfway done (or all the way done) and still don’t know who they are or what they are passionate about. Camp experiences offer teens the chance to step back from the treadmill of academics, competitive sports, and their sleep-deprived, over-scheduled existence, and instead think about what’s important to them. Many campers become less self-absorbed after spending a few weeks at camp, learning to train their focus on others. They also discover new hobbies and avenues to pursue in education and their future careers.
Each summer, tens of thousands of teens leave their phones and car keys at home and head to summer camp as campers, counselors in training, or counselors. Many teens who have never been to camp cannot relate to how a teenager could make such crazy personal sacrifices. And yet, teens are the age group that fills most quickly at many camps. Because, perhaps more than any other time during youth, camp offers the respite, recreation, and renewal to help teens thrive. Teens who have already been to camp know this and want to come back, year after year.