Camp and 21st Century Skills: Oxymoron or Ideal?

Posted: February 23, 2012

“To be playful and serious at the same time is possible, and it defines the ideal mental condition.”

— John Dewey, How We Think

It seems that everywhere I turn I find someone discussing 21st Century skills.  The discussions sound important and serious, and the skills they describe are often mysterious and misunderstood. For instance, I worry that for some parents, if you were to say that the camp experience provides 21st Century skills, it would sound like an oxymoron. These two concepts sharing the same space may, for some, defy traditional logic and be reduced to the simplicity of an either/or choice.

Decades ago many parents viewed childcare as a basic function - having no educational or developmental value. When research surfaced supporting early childhood development, it helped us understand the critical stages of childhood, and how they are sustained and facilitated by a child’s most important work – play.

As present-day parents, we clamor to get positive, legitimate early childhood experiences for our children, knowing that early intervention and programming will only help their future success. We help young people make mental connections between what they are hearing, seeing, feeling, experiencing, and reading.  We know that the dynamic processes we provide develop attention, knowledge, and helps young people make sense of what otherwise may seem abstract and unrelated.  We understand that these days, generative experiences help young people develop concepts, interpretations, and even applications for new ways of thinking, being, and working.

Today, both as a parent and a professional, I have had to identify what the pertinent 21st Century skills are, and how that impacts and influences my work with children and youth, today.

There has been much written about this subject, but I feel that there are three primary C’s: Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Creativity. At first, one could challenge that we have always needed people who had these competencies in order to be a successful nation. However, I do appreciate the fact that today’s world is different — it is global, fast-paced, and continuously undergoing change at an unprecedented rate. Within that context, the 3 C’s are increasingly important. Without a doubt, we need citizens who think in optimal ways — producing original concepts, processes, and changes that will enhance a future beyond what we have experienced in the last century.

We need those same individuals to be able to work with others to discover shared goals, to develop ways of shared work and living, and to cultivate a global vision for the greater good while honoring America’s heritage of individualism. All of this will require an innate ability to transcend the comforts of what has been traditional and risk originality.

As I gain a greater appreciation and understanding of these crucial 21st Century skills, I have to ask how the camp community embraces, supports, and facilitates the acquisition of such skills. I believe we need to witness a transformation in our educational systems if we hope to be successful. There are certain precursors that need to be in place to grow a new generation of leaders. Skills like curiosity — one’s drive to know, sense of wonder, and ability to stand in awe — needs to be embraced and not squashed by premature demands for compliance. Imagination must be protected and encouraged. The desire to investigate, inquire, question, and study will need to be valued, both at work and home. These precursors will be critical to our future success as individuals, communities, and a country. And, they can all be found in a quality camp experience.

I believe there might be a fourth C – courage. There is a tsunami of fear about proper education and increased academics that is causing us to consider keeping our young people in academic institutions for extended periods of time. As adults, we need the intellectual and moral courage to ensure our efforts to support the growth and development of our young people includes comprehensive systems that facilitate innovation and challenge.  It will take these C’s to ensure that outcome is achieved. I believe that it will also take a fifth C – it will take camp.

So, are the camp experience and 21st Century skills an oxymoron? Is it an either/or choice? No. There is a great deal of research that validates the educational, social, and emotional impacts of a positive camp experience — impacts that address the precursors needed as well as the 21st Century skills required for success.

The camp experience is an essential opportunity for young people in the comprehensive system of society that is charged with the care, development, and education of positive, productive citizens. The camp experience is a viable, generative process that recognizes the individual, sees the value of small groups, creates community, and teaches lessons that are transferable to the 21st Century global community. All of this is happening in a natural learning environment supported by research and camp professionals. No, it is not an oxymoron. But if we are not careful, it is camp’s profound simplicity — the easiness of the experience — that may cause it to be missed.

With nearly three decades of experience working with children, youth, and families, Peg L. Smith is the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association® (ACA).  


21st Century skills

What bothers me about 21st century skills in as much as they have been used to define these global and important skills, they have also been used to put kids in a box. You say, "Skills.... need to be embraced and not squashed by premature demands for compliance." And yet in many ways, the adoption of this drive towards "21st century skills" in the school system has led to just that... "demands for compliance."

For example, I have a child who is brilliant...but not so good on the 21st century skill of collaboration. He can collaborate with other children at his own level, but there are few. Schools and camps - always big on team activities - have been trying to cram this concept of collaboration down his and my throat for 8 years. In the meantime, he is not alone. What happens to the kids who fall through those cracks? Where are the camps for the kids who maybe aren't in the 90%? We've had to skip out on a lot of camping experiences because of this. It's the drive for my own camp blog (, where I've had to track down the unusual, out-of-ordinary, off the beaten track my search to find suitable camps for him and kids like him. Mostly, I find them in the STEM camps, where many of these kids seem to be drawn.

I know this sounds critical. I don't mean it to be. I hope to make people think about these catch all, cliche du jour categories and phrases that maybe don't fit all the kids at the camp. And maybe it doesn't have to. Maybe those kids have just as much to offer in gifts and talents and 21st century other skills if we are willing to seek the skills the kids have and embrace them and not "squash them by premature demands for compliance.