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.”

“Rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much,” says Alfie Kohn, a leading figure in progressive education. The author and lecturer is an advocate of unconditional love when it comes to parenting – and so am I. In the current educational environment, moms and dads are often given tips in “conditional parenting,” a style rooted in the notion that we give affection when children are good and withhold it when they are not, on the assumption that positive reinforcement teaches children to do the right thing.

The problem with this approach of “love withdrawal” is that it does not promote moral development, because children learn to respond to what we want, but they don’t especially find out for themselves what is right and why it is right. Research confirms that this sort of compliance comes at a steep price: In a survey by Edward Deci, Avi Assor, and Guy Roth, 100 college students were asked if the love they received from their parents correlated with their success in school, their athletic achievement, and their consideration of others. The respondents tended to resent and dislike their parents, and they also felt a “strong internal pressure” rather than a “real sense of choice.”

“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions,”
Kohn clarifies. That is the premise upon which camp communities across the country are created. Camp is the best demonstration of moral order and democracy, because the community is intentionally sculpted to enable children to practice growing up – by making their own good choices in a safe, healthy, and planned environment.

The bonus, of course, is that their parents aren’t there to pull any marionette strings, so kids learn to depend upon their own good judgment – with the coaching and positive role-modeling of their counselors.

Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Not because someone is watching and might catch you if you do the wrong thing. Not because your parents told you they would buy you a present. Not because your parents told you they would not buy you a present. Not because your friends put pressure on you.

I like “Supernanny” Jo Frost (and she certainly is a “child-saver” for dysfunctional families!), but her presupposition that the best rewards are attention, praise, and love don’t do much for instilling values that will guide children through the rest of their lives – when their parents are no longer there to turn the love off when the behavior is bad. A college student is not going to benefit much from an isolating discipline technique such as a “time out”; nor will “positive reinforcement” from a distance provide the guiding motivation for making a good choice.

The best results, rather, are obtained from unconditional acceptance with a goal to raise caring, competent, strong adults who are independent, self-disciplined, and resilient. How do they achieve this moral development? By having lots and lots of opportunities to cultivate their own set of values, which in turn become their own ethical platform for good decision-making. It’s empowering and life-affirming.

Another study at the University of Rochester examined the behavior of ninth graders, both when giving more approval when children did what parents wanted and giving less when they did not. The studies found that both positive and negative conditional parenting were harmful. While the former approach sometimes yielded the byproduct of children succeeding at working harder on academic tasks, the cost was unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.”

“What these and other studies tell us, if we’re able to hear the news, is that praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong,” opines Kohn.

The data derives that unconditional parenting is the way to go! However, there is an essential accompanying component to this parenting style:

It’s called Autonomy Support, and it goes like this: explain reasons for request, maximize opportunities for your child to participate in making good decisions, be encouraging without manipulation, and actively imagine how things look from your child’s point of view.

Camp, of course, is one great place to start, because there is a clear and fair set of rules by which every member of the community abides. Within the boundaries of emotional and physical safety that are part of the infrastructure of camp, kids get to make good choices and be accountable for their decisions. They develop the 3 R’s of summer learning: responsibility, respect, and resilience.

The skills of principled decision-making are much more effective than time-outs, positive reinforcements, or bribes. It’s with an internal moral compass that our children will find their own way in this world as adults – long after we are not beside them to tell them what to do.

Make it a mantra: “Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

[Campfire] Stories to Read Together
“You Are My I Love You” by Maryann Cusimano
“Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch
“Mama, Do You Love Me” by Barbara Joose
“The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein
“Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” by Dr. Seuss

Of all people, it was Bono of musical fame in a New York Times op-ed who set off the light bulb for me. As he posited, in his piece, that America is not just a country but an idea – “a great opportunity for all and responsibility to your fellow man” – it occurred to me that camp is not just a place but an idea, a vista for building hope, independence and resilience.

It seems to me (and anecdotal evidence bears it out) that many people (those who have not themselves had a camp experience or whose children have not) simply don’t know what opportunities for personal greatness fall by the wayside because they or their children haven’t passed through the gates of camp on their way to adulthood. While the American Camp Association has mobilized its almost 3,000 members to ensure a “20/20 Vision,” the words do not automatically translate into accomplishment. The shorthand conversation for us professionals is that we pledge to do everything we can so that 20 million children will have had a camp experience by the Year 2020. Achieving that goal would mean that double the number of young people would attend camp.

And if, indeed, those words were to signal action, then there will be an additional 10 million children whose social education grows along with their academic learning, resulting in children who become more respectful, more responsible, and more resilient – because that is the syllabus of the camp experience, regardless of the grade or age of the camper.

When Mary Travers, the Mary of Peter, Paul & Mary, died recently, I was reminded of the galvanizing force the trio had in effecting positive social change decades ago. Whether it was “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “If I Had a Hammer,” the message was clear – and their voices rang out with conviction, leveraging a groundswell of support for their ideals.

Perhaps it’s time for Peter (of Peter, Paul & Mary) Yarrow’s catalyst song and theme for his world-wide anti-bullying campaign (Operation Respect), “Don’t Laugh at Me,” to become the next anthem for the current generation. And if enough children get to go to camp in the next 10 years, there could be a sea change to civility, tolerance, and acceptance much as America has the potential, according to President Obama, for a “global plan [to] set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time.”

“Rebrand. Restart. Reboot.” Bono talks about the Millenium Goals, a global set of commitments made nine years ago, to halve extreme poverty by 2015. “In dangerous, clangorous times, the idea of America rings like a bell,” Bono suggests.

Instead of thinking that improving national math scores will lead us out of murky times, or that adding days and/or hours to the school calendar will provide the missing cues to eradicate the world’s overwhelming issues (poverty, war, climate change, economic instability….), let’s take a new look at the camp experience and attach a different lens — camp’s importance as an essential component of a child’s education:

Because it is only at camp — where children are unencumbered by walls, filters, and grades — that they can leave their comfort zones and take healthy risks to invent and re-invent themselves; where they can learn their role as belonging and contributing members of society; and where they can bounce back from adversity in a nurturing environment in which adults are trained to “catch them when they fall” in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

Research underscores camp’s three pillars of hope: intimacy with nature, authentic human connections, and human-powered activities.

The world is ready to embrace a new idealogy – one of collaboration and collegiality and transparency – regardless of political affiliation or personal propensity. Pundits generally agree that is why the Nobel Peace Prize was bestowed upon America’s primary representative, the President of the United States.

Carpe diem! So many life lessons will be learned at camp – let’s make sure every child passing through childhood on the road to adulthood in these next 10 pivotal years benefits from a camp experience – it’s the best demonstration of moral order and democracy.

Camp: It’s good for life!

“Hyperactive children and those with attention-deficit disorders can now queue-jump at theme parks because they cannot cope with the stress of waiting,” reports the United Kingdom’s Times Online. I’m not sure who came up with that strategy, but teachers and counselors roundly criticize the system, pointing out that it undermines their efforts to encourage patience. I agree emphatically with these professionals: all children, regardless of “a diagnosis,” must learn to wait their turn!

Delaying gratification is one of the life skills that each of us must master on our journey to adulthood; and if we happen to have ADHD, all the more reason to practice those proficiencies. Those “special wristbands” that enable a child to opt out of society by being excused from following the rules are boomerangs. Contrary to the UK’s Disability Discrimination Act which asserts that this policy avoids temper tantrums, I advocate for standing in line to develop tolerance.

I also suggest to parents of children who have a diagnosis on the spectrum that they find more, not fewer, opportunities to practice waiting. Camp is one of those rare environments, where all children thrive because there is a moral and democratic order to community living; there is a sense of wellbeing around predictability, rituals, and traditions; and there is an intentionality about coaching social skills.

In fact, the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois has shown that direct exposure to nature relieves the symptoms of attention deficit disorders. Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” also indicates that increased contact with nature can improve problem-solving, creativity, self-esteem, and self-discipline (i.e., waiting on line!).

Meanwhile, there is an ever-increasing number of children being diagnosed “because of growing awareness, ongoing strides in research, and improved diagnosis techniques,” according to Robbie Woliver, author of “Alphabet Kids.” In Britain, the Department of Health cites that one in 10 has at least one clinical disorder. Especially with this surge in identification, we must be careful not to let the diagnosis become an excuse for behavior that otherwise could be managed.

Parents tell me all the time that certain negative behaviors in their children are present at home and absent at camp. That’s because there is a high bar of accountability at camp: the ADHD or Asperger’s child learns to conform to expectations of positive behavior by observing those around him. This is hardly a criticism of caring parents who are willing to do anything to normalize their child’s growing up experiences, but rather a call to action to hold those same children to a standard to which they can aspire. In other words, they can – and should – wait in line at an amusement park!

One parent laments that others sometimes “think I’ve been out shopping for Daniel’s diagnosis because I’m either needy or neurotic.” These so-called “alphabet kids” (OCD, ODD, ASD, SD…) want – and deserve – responsibility to their own social education. To do otherwise is to send them the unspoken message that they cannot do it (whatever “it” is), that they are incapable in our eyes.

Alas, I am back to the subject of camp, where counselors are trained that children are people first and not labels. In fact, camp is a place where all children come to change the labels they have brought with them. At camp, their own actions show them that they can shed a “lazy” label for one of “perseverance.” Colin Troy, a special education teacher, opines that a label of a particular diagnosis becomes a “medical excuse for children’s behavior.” Woliver adds that sometimes the many “alphabet disorders can be so blurringly amorphous that they can blend into a kind of diagnostic soup.”

Here’s the silver lining with the increased identification of developmental disorders: they can be helpful signposts to specific interventions, says Troy. We need to make sure we use the information to help our children become upstanding citizens who are happy and successful adults – not to cut the lines at Disney World.

Swimming Free and Avoiding the Bait of Bullying

Bullying. After years and years of being tagged as developmental – an inescapable rite of passage of sorts – the word alone now is a rallying cry for parents everywhere who are steadfast in their quest to avert its emotionally devastating effects on their children. Don’t get me wrong – coaching children that bullying is not okay, whether you are the target, the bystander, or the bully should indeed be a galvanizing effort among strong positive adult leaders. We should go after every single incident, and we should loudly and clearly verbalize that the identified behavior is not okay. But we also have to give our children the tools to bounce back because it is virtually impossible for an intervening adult to be present every time an act of bullying might occur.

I am prompted to reflect on this topic after reading Lorraine Duffy Merkl’s “Complaint Box” piece on Camp Bullies in the New York Times. While she legitimately flags her concern that relational aggression is taking place, I think she may have leaped to a conclusion that the camp director was dismissing her when he replied that her daughter should “learn to ignore stuff.” It sounds like there was a counselor, who was trained in conflict resolution, to facilitate the intervention. Children also need opportunities to practice articulating and sorting out their issues. That’s the only way we can truly inoculate them against future verbal assaults.

Child and family therapist Bob Ditter opines, “Bullying is a lazy term. It tells us nothing about specific behavior – what a child is actually doing or saying – that is so hurtful. It is a kind of ‘one-size-fits-all’ label that offers no insight about the meaning or cause of the behavior.” He points out that children today are “extremely verbal” when unraveling issues related to “loyalty, popularity, favoritism or healthy ways to express anger.”

Here’s the hard part to hear: socially aggressive girls “often come from families with a highly competitive parent or older sibling who is also socially aggressive.” We need to model the right behaviors at home, provide appropriate consequences in a non-judgmental way to the offenders, teach our children to cope if they are victims, and definitely coach them not to be bystanders! Practice is imperative to acquire these skills, and children need to learn to navigate on their own through the whitewaters of growing-up stuff.

That’s where camp, of course, becomes an incredible opportunity, because trained, caring counselors can set the asset-building in motion with real-life incidents – but those friendship-enduring skills still must be reinforced and modeled at home, and from the earliest age.

One successful program is aptly named “Bullies to Buddies,” with multiple resources including a book and a game. Some good language that is helpful for reinforcing a tease-free stance:

  • “We don’t do that here.”
  • “That’s not okay.”
  • “How can we make this right?”
  • “What are your options?”

The American Camp Association partners with “Take a Stand,” an important program module designed by Dr. Joel Haber for camps to establish a culture that bullying is inexcusable; it includes both staff training and parenting components.

One of the best children’s book I know is “Simon’s Hook” by Karen Burnett, a story about teases and put-downs with strategies for dealing with bullying – which also are the basic lessons for dealing with life. The story about Simon helps children realize, with a fishing analogy, that they have choices and can “swim free” of feeling helpless, trapped, or powerless.

And that is my overarching call to action: as parents, we cannot leave this job to teachers and counselors only – we need to partner with the professionals and reinforce this empowering coaching, because if our child winds up in a situation with less than optimal adult help, we want to make sure they can unhook themselves from the baited fishing line.

The greatest gifts we can give our children are the tools they need to believe in their own abilities to bounce back from life’s adversities.

Tuck-in Tips

  • Did you ever feel like you weren’t a “free fish” (like Simon) anymore?
  • What are some of the ways you could handle that situation, now that you have read “Simon’s Hook” and know some of Grandma Rose’s suggestions?
  • Let’s name five ways to avoid getting “caught” by teasing.

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