From Peg - September 2010

by Peg Smith, CEO, American Camp Association

Every day I feel I am reading another article that pontificates about the importance of education and how we need to create year-round education. Don't misunderstand, education throughout the year is imperative; however, I am not sure I always agree with proposals on how we "get there." And, when we talk about summer learning loss, what have we lost and what have we gained? Or, what did we have an opportunity to gain if we just had the chance to have the experience?

When my oldest son Dillon was in the fourth grade, he had good test scores but I didn't feel he was really learning — figuring out how to learn. He was great at passing the test and complying with educational expectations. Now that he is a young adult, he realizes that understanding how to learn is critical — and it is a competence he did not acquire during his formal school experience. Often he has to use the characteristics and attributes learned from his time at camp to help. That's why, when I hear the cacophony of voices talking about education, I wonder if anyone is thinking about the learner.

A number of years ago, I was having a conversation with the principals from Social Capital Partnerships, Inc. who work on cause marketing efforts. They had been researching ACA and the camp community and kept asking, "But what makes the camp experience unique? Many youth development programs talk about the environment, health and wellness, leadership, and experiential education — what makes you any different?" I finally blurted out, "The camp experience is unique in its intensity and density." What I meant was that the experience has intensity in its extreme degree of strength, force, and feeling that it has on one as an individual and as a group. That brings me to the issue of density — the per unit volume of participants sharing the intense experience adds impact.

Today, as I consider our research and listen to camp professionals, or read their Facebook postings, I realize that camp, with its intensity and density, creates learners. What is a formal education system without participants who know how to learn? Formal education without learners, in my opinion, is nothing but a test score.

Recently in our public policy efforts, ACA has been working on a piece of legislation called the Promoting SUCCESS (Students Using the Camp Community for Enrichment, Strength, and Success) Act. One of the concepts explored in this legislation is how camps create learners: "While some learning occurs in formal school-based settings, learning involves acquiring behaviors, skills, values, and understandings that are not always traditionally academic in nature."

The camp experience complements formal education in one of the most important ways: building and developing true learners. And it is these kids who have "learned how to learn" — the ones who approach challenges and opportunities with a positive attitude, have aspirations, and see all of life's possibilities — who score well in school and life.

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