Camp people are getting excited about the idea of looking at a strong camp experience as educational and not just recreational or social. At a time when so many children in public schools are essentially being taught how to get good test scores, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there are big gaps in what children are being prepared for.
Working as I do with teachers in schools across the country I hear so often teachers lamenting about “the teacher I’ve had to become!” There is no time and no room in the “race to the top” for creative thinking or experiential learning. It has become so much “skill and drill.” While it is true that there will always be a fair amount of memorization and learning from reading, things like shop, woodworking, music, art and other experientially based learning forms have become increasingly scarce in public schools. Everyone is too busy boosting test scores.
Couple this emphasis on “top-down learning” with the fact that children engage in spontaneous, creative, exploratory play less and less, and you have a generation of children who think Nature is something you put on a t-shirt and who do not have the benefits creative play offers. As reported in the Michigan Public Television documentary from 2007, “Where Do the Children Play?” the radius of play for children in the United States has shrunk from about 1 mile to less than 550 feet in less than two decades. David Elkind tells us in an Op Ed piece for the New York Times that children have lost about 12 hours of free time since 1994 and you have children whose learning is increasingly less experiential. Given that they are spending ore and more time looking at a screen—the television, computer, electronic games, and that mobile computer in their hand masquerading as a cell phone—and you have children who have a huge vocabulary and know a lot of stuff, but who do less critical problem-solving, less creative thinking, less socializing and get less stimulation from working with their hands.
Camp, on the other hand (pun intended) is all about experience. It is not just that the activities are hands on, like in rocketry, jewelry making, pottery, art and so on; or that children get a lot of exercise in basketball, baseball, soccer and the like. It is the fact that at camp children have the opportunity to live in groups and solve group living problems; experience appropriate, real fear (from getting on a horse to going down a zip line); and learn from counselors who are generally one or two developmental steps ahead of them. You don’t have to memorize something that is already memorable, as so many things at camp are.
My point? Schools could learn a lot from camps about how to bring kids together, build community, learn from experience and include hands-on experiences in their curriculums. As a society we would do well to broaden the scope of what we mean when we talk about education. Camp is, in so many ways, educational, not just recreational. At camp children so critical thinking, work on tasks of emotional development (“growing up stuff”), learn social skills and generally strengthen their overall resilience and coping skills. Camp and school would be a great partnership in the education of the while child.