Middle schools and summer camps play different roles in society. Middle schools are a legally required step in a child's development meant to prepare them for college and career, while summer camps are often elective experiences focusing on a broad range of skills. Yet, for more than a century, summer camps have been praised for their ability to provide adolescents with a positive experience that encourages growth, independence, and personal development.
For many children, camp provides a rare space where they shed the anxiety and self-conscious nature of adolescence, and feel safe to take risks and try something new. In a study conducted from 2001-2004, the American Camp Association (2005) found that parents, camp staff, and children reported significant growth in four domains: positive identity, social skills, physical and thinking skills, and positive values and spirituality.
So the question is worth asking: What can traditional educators learn from the summer camp experience?
Students at Windsor Mountain International Summer Camp in Windsor, New Hampshire, were invited to participate in conversations about this topic. The mission of this co-educational summer camp is to "provide educational experiences that open minds, foster personal growth, and help students respond to cultural, social, and environmental challenges as responsible citizens of the world." The camp was founded in 1961 by Richard Herman, a teacher in the Boston Public Schools at the time, who envisioned a summer camp that fostered a spirit of peace and unity. Campers were eager to share characteristics middle schools could learn from their beloved summer camp.
The first suggestion:
Intentionally build community to increase a sense of belonging.
"School should be more like a family," explained a ninth grade girl, "At camp I know everyone and take classes with all ages." A ninth grade boy added, "Knowing everyone makes it easier to feel safe and focus on your work." This sense of family is intentionally built at Windsor Mountain through articulated values and intentional structure.
"The expectation at camp is that everybody should, at least to some extent, be friends and accept one another," explains Rachel Ekarib, a former camper and counselor. "The goal of creating an inclusive community is projected very early on, and the success builds on itself, meaning, once people start to feel a part of a community they work harder to maintain and support it."
The structure of Windsor Mountain is such that the entire camp community is together multiple times each day: during meals, morning meetings, and nightly all camp activities. These moments create shared experiences and traditions enjoyed by the entire community. Every summer camper eagerly returns to participate in traditions they have come to know and love that make their camp unique. Campers take part in multi-age classes, so students as young as 7 and as old as 15 are interacting with each other on a daily basis. "At camp we all get together all the time," explained a fourth grade girl, "At school it's only like that twice a year. We get to know other people here." This sense of community makes campers look forward to returning to the "camp bubble" every year.
The second suggestion:
Get to know your students, and let them get to know you.
A difference identified between camp and traditional school is the relationship between "students" and "teachers," and "campers" and "counselors." While at camp, the emphasis is not only on fostering lasting connections between campers, but connections between counselors and campers as well. A ninth grade girl observed that "as you get into middle school or high school, teachers seem to care less and less. We want to know the personalities of the teachers, have them be more open and social, there are just no opportunities to get to know your teachers." Another ninth grade girl suggested that activities such as "counselor trivia," a game where campers are given random facts about their counselors and attempt to match the fact to the person, would help students get to know their teachers better and build a stronger community.
The more casual relationship between camper and counselor also creates a culture in which campers respect and want to role model after their counselors. This is a role that counselors take seriously. Madison Graboyes, a former camper and counselor speculates that the difference between being a camp counselor and being a traditional teacher is a camp counselor's priorities. "We are there to make sure the kids learn, grow, and have fun experiences that will last them a lifetime. It isn't about making kids fit in a box at camp, it is about finding out what interests them, supporting them, and helping them to grow in the ways they want. We give them the support system and love who they want to be and help guide them along the way." The campers can sense this. "Teachers at school don't teach you morals," stated an eighth grade boy, "A teacher gives you information, but a counselor really teaches you a lesson." Even as young as third grade they sense a difference. "Counselors are more awesome," explains a third grade boy, "they don't yell at you."
A third suggestion:
Broaden the academic focus on schools.
Another difference identified between camp and traditional school is the classes available. "Teachers should have an open mind to different subjects, like life skills," explains a ninth grade girl. She goes on to suggest that initiative games, such as name games, trust activities, and team building challenges would help build a tighter community in schools. "We learn quality skills here," explains a fifth grade boy, "like getting along with everyone, being respectful, taking responsible risks." Campers also feel they learn a wide range of practical life lessons while at camp. For example, "I learned that basil and tomatoes together keep the bugs away," explains a fifth grade girl, "there should be a gardening class at school."
The more hands-on and interactive approach to camp is attractive to some campers as well. "At camp you get to walk around more—you have a lot of energy because you move a lot. At camp I'm excited, at school I'm bored," shares a fifth grade boy. "We should get more recesses," chimed in a fourth grade boy, "Even if it means more school, recess gives you exercise and energy."
A focus on learning for life, not on grades and scores.
The lack of grades and formality at camp also makes a difference in the comfort level of campers. "Camp is informal, look at how we are sitting right now!" observed a seventh grade girl, taking note that we were sitting in a circle outside, myself as the teacher sitting in the circle as well. She went on to explain that "teachers wonder why we don't understand things, but they just teach us out of a book, you don't get to feel it." She also chimed in later in the conversation, explaining that counselors "don't badger you at camp, you are allowed to not do things you are uncomfortable with. No one gives you a 'zero' at camp." By taking away the risk of failing, campers are more likely to take risks and try something new or continue something they may not be good at.
Early adolescence is a time of immense change, physically and emotionally. Children go from being concrete thinkers, to being capable of self-reflection and abstract thinking. The magnitude of these changes makes it even more essential for children to feel supported and encouraged during this pivotal time of development, and for educators to be searching for ways to best support young adolescents.
So, what could these summer camp inspired lessons look like in a traditional middle school?
- Intentionally building opportunities for your school to have an identity that all students feel part of. Have clearly identified and frequently mentioned core values. Encourage name games and icebreakers. Create and honor traditions and routines that students at the school feel part of. Build space for community building activities and field trips, for teams if not the whole school. Challenge staff to know as many student names as possible.
- Creating frequent opportunities for cross-graded experiences. For example, the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich, Massachusetts, reserves an hour and a half on Friday afternoons for their seminar program. Seminars are cross-graded academic classes including quantum physics, weaving, guitar, yoga, robotics, and more. These courses are available to all students as a commitment to teaching to the whole child and fostering a sense of whole school community.
- Focusing on social-emotional learning. Above and beyond academic progress, what life skills are students learning? Discuss this through explicitly teaching life skills, embedding reflections into the academic curriculum, and celebrating learning above and beyond a letter grade.
American Camp Association. (2005). Directions: Youth development outcomes of the camp experience
. Martinsville, IN: Author.
Hannah Kast teaches at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich, Massachusetts.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2019.