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Camp Education: More Essential than Ever

By Tom Rosenberg | Published: May 29, 2018

American camps have been an important context for experiential learning for over 150 years. The organized camp movement began as a solution to societal problems in the face of an increasingly urbanized and industrial world. Even in the early days, the focus was on teaching self-reliance, character, resilience, independence, and leadership. It was a brave new educational movement led by teachers who took their school classroom outside. Pioneering camp educators understood that physical vigor and positive risk-taking through primitive living experiences in wilderness settings were important teen developmental opportunities that resulted in greater self-esteem and confidence. These early camps offered geography, geology, botany, natural history, ornithology, and more.

A group photo of campers from the 1920s.

Over the years, American camps thrived and were increasingly recognized as important youth development experiences. In 1922, former Harvard University President Charles William Eliot declared in an address: “The organized summer camp is the most important step in education that America has given the world.” The next 50 years were a period of growth and opportunity in American camping. Hundreds of books were written about camp methodologies and program qualities: safety and risk management; structured programs and skill development vs. time for unstructured creative free play, individualized choices, and deeper learning; centralized camp programs vs. decentralized programs organized around ages and stages of development; and competitive camp programs vs. completely uncompetitive communities where everyone wins.

Today, camp is a growing field. The American Camp Association supports more than 3,000 camps and over 12,000 camp professionals serving 14 million youth and adults in a wide variety of programs and modalities. In 2018, camps offer a relevant context for developing and practicing important in-person social skills. In 2015, the Pew Research Center’s study on Teens, Technology, and Friendships noted that just 25 percent of teens spend time with friends (outside of school) on a daily basis and noted a significant trend towards friendships forming digitally online with only 20 percent of online friends becoming regular in-person friendships. Psychologists and social scientists continue to be alarmed by the dramatic increase in screen time for children and youth, noting that all of this additional screen time seems to be resulting in less in-person social interaction and that this trend seems connected to increased loneliness, depression and self-injurious behavior. In 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration conducted a national survey on drug use and health that revealed that 50 percent more teens in 2015 (versus 2011) demonstrated clinically diagnosable depression.

How will Generation Z children learn and practice fundamental social emotional learning skills in the midst of these societal changes? Where will young people be offered opportunities to regularly practice positive risk taking and emotional growth? I believe that regular camp educational experiences offer wonderful solutions to these challenges.

Backpacking Campers on mountain peak

Camps offer a uniquely untethered human-centered experience where children and teens welcome the opportunity to digitally detox and focus entirely on in-person relationships in immersive, social, and psychologically safe communities. More than 90 percent of American Camp Association-accredited camps offer camp experiences that are completely devoid of distraction from mobile devices and personal computers.

Camps are robust, everyday learning ecosystems that motivate young people to persevere and become more resilient. In these inclusive, child-centered communities, core social-emotional learning skills are practiced on a daily basis.

Recently, I have been studying information from strategic foresight experts at KnowledgeWorks who are projecting a human-centered economy in 2040, when work will be grounded in relating: collaborative, team-driven, collegial, and inclusive. It is projected that highly compensated work will shift to fields that leverage human emotions, uniquely human capacities, relationship cultivation, and creativity. Twenty-first century learning competencies such as collaborative problem solving, critical thinking skills and communication skills are expected to be essential.

To be successful in this forecasted data-driven future environment, young people will need to have developed a strong inner-self: self-aware, resilient, reflective, and empathetic. Their social-emotional skills will need to be well-honed so that they can intuitively sense, interpret, and communicate information about other people and the world around them. In this fast-paced, dynamic, and ambiguous work environment, workers will need to be practiced collaborative decision-makers who have developed executive functions and resilient mental emotional and social capacities. Within these forecasts, there are considerable implications around opportunities in K–12 education to teach and integrate skills-based social emotional curriculum.

I believe that there continue to be wonderful opportunities for camps and other out-of-school-time programs to partner with K–12 education providers to provide integrated experiential learning and project-based learning programs. Today, much like 150 years ago, educators are seeking to create inspiring, undistracted, experiential learning camp programs in the natural world to better prepare our children, teens, and young adults for the human-centered creative opportunities that are ahead of them. What an exciting and innovative time for camp professionals!

About the Author

A headshot of Tom Rosenberg

Tom Rosenberg is President/CEO of the American Camp Association.  For over three decades he has had a distinguished career in the camp profession and a long resume of service to the field of American Camp.  Tom, his wife Pam Sugarman, and their son Daniel live in Atlanta, Georgia.

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