The Great Education Debate

If you’ve been reading Campfire Stories, then you already know how I feel – as an educator and camp professional who has literally thousands of anecdotal stories – that summer camp is not discretionary. But don’t take my word for it: there is outcomes research that comes to the same conclusion. Opportunities for growth and development exist in natural settings that promote experiential learning, improve social skills and physical fitness, teach children to take calculated risks in a safe environment, and expand the creative mind.

We’ve known about the value of a camp experience for more than 100 years, but today we are at a critical crossroads because education reform has become a hot button topic of conversation among those who think that lengthening the school day and/or the school year can ameliorate academic achievement lags.

I’ve already written an essay (local copy) about why that hypothesis is faulty. Peg Smith, the CEO of the American Camp Association, echoes: “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 possibilities.”

Camp is, in fact, the quintessential experiential classroom. It is an extension of traditional education, a component of learning that addresses a different set of “R’s” from Academia’s classic “Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic.” At camp, children learn about Respect, Responsibility, Resourcefulness, and Resilience. Youth development research is quite clear on this topic: children cannot become successful adults without these competencies, regardless of the amount of textbook learning they have acquired.

There are three identified components to positive youth development. Children need to be productive, to feel connected, and to be able to navigate on their own.

The education reform discussion often focuses on summer learning loss which has been documented among children who do not engage in educational activities during the summer. But camp IS an educational activity, and so it not only enhances a child’s social education but also prevents the median loss of two to three months of grade equivalency for those who are not in a learning environment.
Here’s my call to action: Be a part of the conversation and advocate for camp as a vital component of education reform. We need to educate Education Secretary Arne Duncan and decision-makers across the country about the value of a camp experience. We have to dispel myths about year-round education taking place only in schools. Seize every opportunity you can find to inform the discussion.

For starters, log on to and follow the prompts to share your concerns with your local media. There you will find a template letter to the editor, which you can edit to be specific to your family. You can open the advocacy tool and type in your zip code, thereby selecting all the media contacts in your vicinity.

As Peg underscores, “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.” She goes on to point out that a camp experience allows everyone, not just the “A” student, to thrive.

I’ll take that notion one step further. At camp, everyone gets all “A’s” – athletics, arts, aquatics, and adventure are the vehicles through which children learn life skills and hone their abilities to invent themselves. That’s where success is measured.

The experiential classroom: No grades. No permanent records. All “A’s.”