What Schools Can Learn From Summer Camps

When I was in sixth grade I was fortunate enough to attend a four-week summer camp on a lake in New Hampshire. My cabin was called the “Ritz,” which suggests to me that the camp was fairly cushy and yet trying to be ironic since we were assigned one army grade wool blanket and no bathrobe. What I loved about the camp was that it was not for specialists. So many summer camps today cater to athletes, SAT takers, artists, poets, hikers, etc. These are great camps and offer wonderful opportunities. My only concern is that if we view young people as specialists we lose the magic that I experienced every day when I left the comforts of the “Ritz” and headed out on one of the many trails through the woods leading to a plethora of different activities. Each day I would choose two or three different activities and I never worried about whether I was good at something—the camp had created a culture of trying things for the first time. I learned how to sail, make a ping pong paddle out of wood, canoe, play tennis, tie knots, make gingerbread cake over a fire, water ski, shoot an arrow from a bow, make a metal hook using a forge (the same one where Mr. Johnson works every summer), and make up endless games on rainy days with nothing more than a tennis ball or a jackknife. Every day I felt fulfilled, exhausted, confident, and happy (I am sure there were bad days but I am too old and nostalgic to remember them).

Sailing practice on Dublin Lake.

Sailing practice on Dublin Lake.

The question I have is, what can schools learn from summer camps? How can we keep the sense of adventure, the exploration, the joy of discovery, the feeling of accomplishment that comes from experimenting and trying new things? How can we avoid the tendency to label kids as athletes, artists, woodworkers or scholars? Sometimes we put so much pressure on students to achieve mastery at something or to find their passion that we take away their willingness to take risks or just do something for the sake of doing something. I believe that happy students have many interests and often have mindsets where they are willing to take on new challenges with enthusiasm.

The wood shop.

The wood shop.

I hope that schools can maintain cultures that allow young people to be young and continue exploring who they are and what interests them. I have witnessed many students in schools identifying as one thing in their secondary school applications and then identifying as something very different upon graduation. The basketball player who is headed to the NBA in their mind who graduates from school obsessed with writing and reading poetry. The student who swears they will never break a sweat in high school who goes on to be a division one rower in college. A young person’s identity is important to them and we can help them reduce their anxiety around their identity by showing them that their interests can grow and change throughout life.

Chemistry Lab.

Chemistry Lab.

This culture of exploration only works when faculty take on the role of camp counselors. The camp counselor in charge of the woodshop is not building their career off of the exploits of their best woodworkers, their aim is to teach the student the skills needed to safely enjoy crafting things out of trees. Adults cannot be possessive, we must leave our own needs behind and allow our “star” athlete, student or artist to leave our team, troop, or classroom to pursue new interests. We must celebrate their courage and spirit in these moments.

If you are not falling you are not trying…

If you are not falling you are not trying…

What about college, one might ask? People are noticing that selective colleges are not always interested in nice, well-rounded students with strong grades. They want young people with “sharp edges,” students who excel in music, sports, or are near the end of a three-year science experiment conducted with the local university. Personally, I would argue that it is easier to develop a “sharp edge” in high school than in earlier years, especially if your high school has a culture that encourages growth. The problem occurs then when we shut off the creative outlet, the sense of discovery, and the period of exploration when kids are too young. When young people are recruited to high schools as one thing there is pressure to remain good at that one thing—often at the expense of trying different things.

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Sometimes I wish I could go back to the “Ritz” and take whatever path into the woods grabbed my attention that day. Since I cannot do that I want to work with a team of teachers/counsellors who will inspire, support, and challenge young people to continue searching, playing, and exploring…