While our nation is engaged in a conversation about education reform, I thought this was the right time to highlight what is right with America’s education: camp! In that spirit, I wrote an op ed to remind policy-makers that we need to celebrate the camp experience, especially against the backdrop of those who think that a longer school year will elevate us from our #24 position in the world in math skills. One thing I know for sure: children who go to camp rank #1 in confidence.

In no way is this intended as a political commentary, but rather as an endorsement of the camp experience as a valuable component of a child’s total education.

Here is the piece I wrote to media outlets across the country in my role as past president of the American Camp Association and advocate for the camp experience:

President Obama has endorsed a longer school year as part of the solution to America’s floundering educational system. I respectfully request that he reconsider that stance, and look no further than to his own daughter, Malia, who spent some of those precious summer weeks at overnight camp last summer.

As a longtime camp professional, who has literally thousands of anecdotal stories to affirm the value of camp’s experiential learning environment, I’d like to ask the President to reflect on his daughter’s growth after having spent out-of-school time at camp. Would those thirty days have been better passed at school, preparing for more tests; or in camp, a virtual classroom without walls, practicing for life’s circumstances?

Where did she learn authentic lessons in compassion, cooperation, critical thinking, decision-making, resilience, and responsibility?

We don’t need to teach more answers. Rather, our conversation about education reform needs to consider the whole child — the art of camp, with its social education, is a vital complementary component to the science of school’s lessons. We need to find programs to promote youth development through the camp experience; we need to make camp available to more children, not more school for all.

Children need to be productive, to feel connected, and to learn to navigate on their own. The answers will follow.

Thousands of my colleagues across the nation will attest to the power of camp. No grades. No permanent records. Just authentic connections to the real world. Play is the work of childhood; it’s how children invent and re-invent themselves, find their place in the universe, and learn what they are good at and where they need to practice. Life is the quintessential test tomorrow’s leaders need to pass.

The American Camp Association’s outcomes research confirms that ten measured social constructs enhance the platform for learning: self-esteem, independence, leadership, friendship skills, social comfort, peer relationships, courage, environmental awareness, values (ethics), and spirituality.

President Obama, I’m sure that you and Mrs. Obama have seen exponential growth in Malia since last summer in these skill sets — a direct result of living in a community with shared values and real-life, unfiltered experiences close to nature.

School and camp are the yin and yang of education, interconnected parts that together advance bona fide academic achievement.

Marla Coleman
New York
Past President, American Camp Association

A recent article, “Can You Hear Me Now? Not if You’re at Summer Camp,” quotes a mom saying that she would pay extra for a tech-restricted camp experience! She explains that the first time she took her son to camp, he was on his iPod Touch the entire car ride, but the second time they made the drive, he didn’t even bring it in the car.

In that article, American Camp Association CEO Peg Smith explains, “Basically, summer camp is still considered an unplugged environment.” And that’s a really good thing, especially when you realize that, except for the precious weeks at camp, kids are plugged into some sort of solitary media environment for hours and hours each day.

In this era of immediate feedback and high communication, I acknowledge that it’s very difficult for a parent to change gears and feel comfortable not having that tether. Children today are accustomed to our running interference for them – because we can!

Here’s the good news, though: Not only do you not need to rescue your camper, you shouldn’t! And you definitely should not tell your camper to bring a cell phone “just in case.…” (assuming that is the camp’s policy, which it is for 70 percent of them). The unspoken message there is that she can’t be safe unless a parent is there to solve the problem. (Are you planning to be her roommate in college?! Or move in when he gets married?!)

One of the greatest things camp does for kids, besides giving them the time of their lives, is the opportunity to learn to navigate on their own – recognizing that they can depend on themselves to fix a problem they are encountering at the moment; to use their own voice.

What better place to practice growing up than at camp – where it’s virtually impossible to make a bad choice, where counselors are trained to coach and support their campers, where an emotionally and physically safe community has been created?

I urge you: don’t miss this window of opportunity. Where else can a child truly get away from it all and learn to stand on his own feet – and build a stronger brain of her own?

It’s really interesting, but just the other day I realized how nice that feeling is. Throughout the summer while camp is in session, I tell my friends not to call me on my cell phone because I never use it, even when I am in the office; and I never gave that comment much thought until now. It has dawned on me that I, too, unplug during camp – and it is freeing!

Hey, I read that even Malia Obama is allowed only one phone call from camp!

Here is my no-nonsense, cut-to-the-core take on how parents should view online photos from camp this summer! First, though, I want to frame the issue.

The subject of homesickness is quite mainstream – the so-called affliction is almost a rite of passage. We expect kids to miss home – if not their parents, then their pillow or their pet. But kidsickness is a whole different story! That “ailment” is rarely given its due, because it affects adults who are expected to be able to temper their emotions.

The reality is that kidsickness – parents pining for their children – is as much as an adjustment, if not more. In both cases, the “missing” is a steppingstone to independence. Think about it: in our society, parents and children are tethered by technology – cell phones, texts, e-mails, and tweets. (I’ve heard it called an electronic umbilical cord!)

That said, here is some simple advice for both kids and adults:

  • Know that the feeling is normal
  • Frame the separation in terms of time (they’ll be home soon!)
  • Keep busy

Sounds easy enough, but here’s the rub: anxiety is often heightened with the posting of daily photos because it keeps the tether connected. While the intent is to give parents a one-way window into their children’s lives at camp, the upshot is that it often amplifies worry: “That’s not my child’s happy smile,” “Why is she wearing an ace bandage?” or “That’s the shirt he was wearing yesterday” are just a few of the typical red flags parents contemplate.

So allow me please to coach you on the fine art of viewing online camp photos. First and foremost, remember: if there were a problem at camp, you would hear about it! No news is good news. Next, think about all the photos you’ve seen of yourself over the years where the camera did not capture your most flattering countenance although you were having a great time!

And if your child does not cross the path of the photographer that day (or vice versa), keep in mind that she is probably too engaged or too busy to worry about finding the photographer (so please don’t bribe her before camp by offering a cash reward for each photo she appears in or pre-arrange hand signals with hidden messages!). And, know your own child – is she camera-shy while your friend’s daughter gravitates to the lens?)

Keep in mind the life lessons:

  • Know that separation is natural and necessary. Each new experience increases a child’s confidence and ability to navigate on his/her own.
  • You taught your child well; the lessons that you have instilled in him/her don’t disappear when you are apart.
  • Camp is also a time for parents to have a break – from homework help, carpools, playdates… the year-round “spinning plates in the air.”
  • Camp is also a time for kids to take a break from their parents! They won’t forget you!

If you need a visual, check out this cartoon by Terry and Patty LaBan. You might even want to tack it up on your bulletin board!

CampPhotos Cartoon

I knew it, even though I couldn’t prove it on my own. So, on behalf of parents everywhere, I’d like to thank the National Institutes of Health for its banner finding. It’s important news – children who have quality child care experiences do better academically in later years.

While this was a study of child care specifically, and not camp, it is an easy leap to see how a camp experience also enhances a child’s success – children have boundless opportunities to practice navigating on their own and to feel accountable for their decisions, under the supervision of trained, caring adults in an environment created exclusively for them.

Not only is the information from this research significant, but it removes a nagging burden of guilt from many moms and dads who sometimes are inclined to feel that they “have to” send their children to day care because they are working; the flip side of that notion is that they think it would be better if they could stay home with them. I sometimes become aware of a similar thought pattern when families are rejecting camp as the premier option for alternate summer learning and relaxation for their children when someone else brings up the topic of camp.

It goes something like this:

“Why would I send my child to camp when I can be home with him, and we can spend quality time together?”

My broad response is, “Because you alone, regardless of how many well-intentioned and dedicated hours per week you carve out, cannot create a working, belonging, contributing community in which you child gets to practice navigating on his own. (Did you see the article in the New York Times a few weeks ago titled “Antisocial Networking?” More on that topic very soon, but for now, I don’t want to digress!)

My supporting retort is passionately lengthy, so I’ll just list a few bullet points:

  • Children need to master skills that will help then become happy and successful adults; if parents are always there to “part the waters,” they will not have opportunities to learn from mistakes, take healthy risks, or realize that they are accountable for their own decisions.
  • Children need opportunities to interact with peers and improve their socialization skills, as well as to be part of a community with shared values and goals where they learn they are part of something bigger than themselves.
  • Children need to find out that other adults can provide good advice (after parents have vetted those people, of course!) and other perspectives for developing a strong personal value system.
  • Children and parents alike need to practice separating from each other so that children can build self-confidence and independence skills, and so that parents can have some needed “me time” to stay emotionally healthy and fulfilled.

If these aren’t compelling enough, there is more from the research. One of the headline discoveries, in fact, was that teenagers who did not have quality child care were more likely to act out and do poorly in school than their classmates.

All this news was validating of course, but here’s the kicker: new reports on children and nature reveal all kinds of benefits to them from first-hand experiences with nature - and even specifies camp as a natural provider of those opportunities.

Bottom line – parents can take a deep, relaxing breath when they place their child in the care of professionals who know how to coach, inspire, and motivate the best from their campers, underscored by the knowledge that every family member will thrive from that choice!

With every added piece of research that underscores its value, it is clearer than ever that camp boosts a child’s social and emotional health by providing the fourth “R” in their educational quiver: Relationships.

I am one of those people who has always questioned the wisdom in the theory that you should put on your own oxygen mask first in case of emergency when flying with children.

It’s a lot easier for me to sit back these days and understand the logic of that reasoning, now that my kids are grown and they are no longer dependent on me for survival. Of course it makes sense: how could I truly take care of them if I were gasping for air myself? To be honest, when we are in the throes of child-raising, we don’t look at it that way. Our fierce instincts to sit on the nest, no matter what, supersede our deep-seated knowledge that we cannot provide help if we ourselves are suffocating.

That’s probably why John Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work resonates with me. Anecdotal evidence, as well as research, point to the reality that if we are in a committed relationship, we need to work at being a good partner as much as we work at being a good parent.

In fact, I think these principles can save moms and dads the nosedive that can deprive them of the air needed to expand their own lungs to capacity, because they compel us to take care of ourselves emotionally, too. Consider these simple daily goals that Dr. Christine Carter of The Greater Good Science Center flags, based on Gottman’s plan for “five magic hours a week:”

  • 2 minutes every weekday morning
    Don’t leave the house without knowing what lies ahead for your partner
  • 20 minutes when you get home
    Decompress a little together before you plunge headlong into your evening routine. Listen actively to your partner, and be supportive. Think twice before you start offering advice at this time – the goal is to listen.
  • 5 minutes every day Find something you appreciate about your partner and tell him or her.
  • 5 minutes every day Give a little lovin’. Kiss, grab, hold, hug and otherwise touch your guy or gal. Here’s to hoping that it lasts more than five minutes!

My own observations, among thousands of camp families, confirms that caretaker adults who fan their own flames raise resilient children who are independent, happy, and successful. That means taking some time for the relationship that is the very container for a child’s growth. And it also means taking some “me” time.

If you need a visual, think about Maysie and Horton in Dr. Suess’ Horton Hatches the Egg. Yes, the moral of the story is to be responsible, even when it’s difficult; but the elephants also tell the tale that you have to be true to yourself.

In addition to fueling your own soul, you’ll be a positive role model for your children. It’s a win-win.

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” -Kahlil Gibran