unnamed-2by Matthew Smith

“Notes on Camp” is one of my favorites episodes of the NPR show This American Life. That’s probably not surprising since I run a leadership camp for teens. Host Ira Glass explains the purpose of the program:

Today on our program, we try to bridge the gap between camp people and non-camp people. We try to understand: What is the cult-like, mystical connection some people feel with their summer camps?

He asks David, a popular camp counselor, a sophomore in college, and a former camper to explain:

“Camp … it’s just … it’s #1 with everything I do I guess. That’s like … camp is just … it’s … it’s kind of ridiculous but it’s, like, everything. It … it changes people’s lives. Like …  people base their life around camp. Like … I would not be who I am if it wasn’t for camp.”

Apparently, camp can be tough to explain.  Sometimes, people compare it to magic. But Scott Brody, veteran camp owner thinks “It is time to retire ‘the magic of camp.’”

Scott has been traveling the country for the past few years, driving home this message. “Calling it ‘magic’ devalues the importance of creating an intentional experience for children, and alienates parents who have never experienced camp.”

Ok; but then what is it? While there are all sorts of camps focusing on various fun activities and skills, what makes them special are the relationships and skills that campers acquire. They learn social emotional skills and character development.

Camp is social and emotional learning (SEL) and character development.

Put simply, SEL means developing interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Character adds performance and ethical values to the mix. Things like perseverance and integrity.

This. Is. Camp.

As readers of this blog know, Character.org designates “National Schools of Character”. Three hundred schools have received that designation since 1998. Through studying what works in these schools, Character.org has identified the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education.

The 11 Principles were designed for schools but they could just as easily apply to camps.

The problem is, those unaffiliated with camps do not think of camp as education. In March, we received new evidence of this. An important publication on SEL was released: Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning (Guilford Press).

Handbook is a collection of essays—600 pages of research. It provides an overview of SEL, and offers recommendations for moving forward.

In the first chapter (available here for free) we learn some very interesting stuff. Most interesting to me, though, was not something I read but something I didn’t read: anything about camp.

One part of Handbook even looks at SEL in specific settings. There’s one chapter on preschool, three on K-12, one on higher education, and five more after that.

But nothing on camp.

Why This Matters

This conversation matters because social and emotional learning and character education have far-reaching effects—yet too few of our students are developing these skills.

On May 27th, The Economist Intelligence Unit, a group affiliated with The Economist the magazine, released a report titled, “Driving the Skills Agenda: Preparing Students for the Future”.

The authors asked: “Are so-called 21st-century skills, such as leadership, digital literacy, problem solving and communication, complementing traditional skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic? And do they meet the needs of employers and society more widely?”

Here are the report’s first two findings:

  • Problem solving, team working and communication are the skills that are currently most in demand in the workplace.

  • Education systems are not providing enough of the skills that students and the workplace need. (p. 3)

The business community confirms what the research tells us—that SEL matters—and adds this: education systems are not getting it done on their own.

Moving Forward

So students need it. And camps have it. But parents don’t know it. They look for camps as child care or just fun activities for their kids.

But I encourage parents to search for camp based on what it achieves: “summer camp that boosts resilience,” “summer camp that increases interest in exploration,” etc.

Maybe we are years away from that, but in the meantime here is what you can do:

Prioritize camps that…

  1. Articulate their values and their philosophy

  2. Draw a line from that philosophy to their programs

  3. Measure outcomes

In other words, you can hold camps to a higher standard. We will meet it. We will surpass it. Social and emotional learning, and character education, is central to what we do. We just need a little help articulating it. A prompt from you will go a long way.

A quick note about measured outcomes: Research can be very intimidating. Last year the American Camp Association launched an initiative called Raise the Bar (RTB) to help camps figure this stuff out. RTB is a community of practice. Its mission is to use measured outcomes to (1) improve camp, (2) identify best practices, and (3) articulate the value of camp to a broader audience.

As I re-read the statement from David, the popular camp counselor, I know exactly what he’s trying to say; and it’s entirely appropriate for a 19-year-old to make a statement like that.

However, it is not an appropriate statement for us, the adults. We need to do more. It is our responsibility to truly understand the camper experience, and to articulate that experience using language and references that other people—those unaffiliated with camp—can appreciate.

And those parents and educators looking for good camps ought to look for those measured outcomes among all the fun skills and activities the young people will enjoy.

Matthew Smith runs a leadership camp for teens in Pennsylvania. He is co-leader of ACA Raise the Bar.