The Great Education Debate: camp has a place in childhood development

| 31 Jan 2019 | 11:40

By Peg L. Smith

Education reform is big news right now. The push for a nationwide move to year-round school is gaining steam, and the rhetoric is increasing. The issue at the forefront of this debate is summer learning loss. Yes, gone is the sunny disposition with regard to “the lazy days of summer.”

And, in truth, there may be reason to be concerned. According to the Center for Summer Learning, all young people experience learning loss when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer months. But, is confining our children to classrooms year round destined to become part of the official definition of education? And, is that really the best course of action? Or will that “inside the box (or classroom)” thinking cause more detriment to childhood development than good? Is the question one of education, or should we not reframe the issue around how children learn?

It's just possible that our children are beginning to lag behind other nations in academic achievement because we are focusing on the wrong things. Teaching children to pass standardized tests doesn't necessarily teach them to think for themselves. Education is about more than teaching answers; it's about equipping our kids with the ability to develop the art of seeing the possibilities.

Perhaps the answer lies beyond the classroom in much more natural, developmental settings that promote experiential learning, improve social skills and physical fitness, teach kids to take calculated risks in a safe environment and expand the creative mind. With the current trend in our education system, we are leaving little room for innovation. What's more, institutionalizing children endangers the ages and stages of childhood development and threatens the maturation process that produces healthy, productive adults.

So, how do we solve the problem of summer learning loss without jeopardizing the well-being and future success of our children and our country? Don't we indeed want child-centric systems that understand growth and development in order to raise healthy, productive contributing adults? We need to develop “learning environments.” Childhood is not passive; it isn't meant to happen inside a box, and children are natural learners if appropriate environments are provided. Summer camp certainly fits into that equation. In fact, camp is a solution to many of the gaps in our current education system. It teaches values such as self-esteem, teamwork, and caring, areas where traditional schools sometimes cause more detriment than good. And it allows everyone, not just the “A” student and the athlete, to thrive and enjoy the process of learning. Dr. Stephen Fine, academic and camp owner, whose 2005 Ph.D. thesis examined residential summer camp as a unique learning experience, said, “Kids who find it difficult to learn in another setting will often succeed at camp.”

Relegating our children to year-round school would be tantamount to a jail sentence. Who says learning shouldn't be fun? As adults, we often equate play with being frivolous and without value, but fun is no four-letter word. It is learning in action.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said, “Play is essential to development as it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” Play, being absolutely critical to optimal childhood development, has even been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.

If we insist on “warehousing” our children in year-round school and taking away more of this developmentally appropriate time, they will literally have no childhood left, because their play time, their creative time, has been steadily eroding since the '80s, and in the home stretch of the first decade of the 21st century, many seem singularly focused on claiming the rest in the name of standardized test preparation.

It was innovative thinkers who made this country great. Where would we be without the creative minds of individuals like former President Bill Clinton, 60 Minutes journalist/host Mike Wallace, and composer Stephen Sondheim, all of whom went to camp? And what would you wager that none of them ever said, “It was the act of answering multiple choice test questions that got me where I am today?”

There are thousands of summer camps across this country, and each one of them is a piece of the solution to summer learning loss. Kids learn at camp. They learn life skills that will last long after the lessons learned in traditional schools have faded into a hodge-podge of disjointed dates and sketchy equations.

Peg L. Smith is the former CEO of the American Camping Association. She retired on January 1, 2015 after 16 years of service to the camp community.

Reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association. &Copy;2019, American Camping Association, Inc.