20/20 Toolbox: The Academic Edge: Connecting Camp with Education

Diane Tyrrell, CCD

For years, camp professionals have touted the idea that camp is “a classroom without walls.” While models of camps connecting with education — such as school field trips or teaching environmental education — have been around for years, more and more camps are adding programs with academic value and increasing outreach to camper participants.

A Traditional Camp Model with an Academic Edge

Camps connecting with academic education in today’s marketplace are doing so through creative and unique academic offerings, using operational models that create both educational benefit and business sustainability — all while staying true to their identity, mission, and values as a camp.

And not to be confused with school, these are indeed “real camps” — engaging campers through a traditional camp model, but with an academic edge. Camps offering academic enrichment are first and foremost youth development programs focused on developing the whole person, just as any other traditional camp. Today’s camps with educational offerings are keeping the youth development components of a traditional camp — community building, making friends, and life-skills learning — with the added value of enrichment beyond social development.

Diverse Models and Structures

The models of operation are as diverse as the campers attending: multi-day and multi-week, day and resident, private and nonprof it. In some programs, campers pay tuition; in some they do not. Some programs are year-round, some are only in the summer, and some serve different populations during the school year from the ones they serve in summer months.

Some camps have a very formal campschool relationship. For example: programs where school takes place at camp; the camp is owned and operated by a school district or college; the school district has made the camp a formal part of the year-round educational offerings; or the camp offers program activities that are tied to a specific school year curriculum. Some camps offering enrichment programs collate what they are doing to match the state’s learning standards; many camps do not.

Camps with and without relationships to schools are integrating the camp experience with academic offerings — including programming aligned with state education standards or focused on summer learning loss. Camps are offering a wide variety of academic enrichment — the following are just a few examples:

  • Tutoring in academic subjects, SAT preparation, kindergarten readiness, and leadership skills.
  • Teaching kids how to be more effective learners in the classroom when they return to school, including how to better learn when faced with an ineffective teacher.
  • How students can stay motivated in a class they find unappealing.

Some are specialty camps, offering enrichment activities in everything from video game design to creative writing, including a wide variety of offerings in STEM education — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — with subjects such as marine biology, veterinary sciences, motorsports sciences, and astronomy. Others are traditional camps that have enhanced their program offerings with enrichment activities. Again, the list of activities is extensive, including everything from physics and cupcake-cooking science to archeology and math taught while mixing paints in art.

While the models and structures are vastly different, the thing they all have in common is transforming the lives of youth through the camp experience.

Fiscal Viability

While some camps may be reluctant to engage in academic of ferings as they feel it goes against the “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks” freedom call of summer vacation, the camps that have embraced delivering education within the camp experience have found that adding academic value has also added fiscal value.

Camp operators agree that today’s parents are far more aware of summer learning than they were several years ago, and they feel much more strongly that if they spend money on camp, their child better get some kind of enrichment — especially in a down economy. Experienced camp parents are typically willing to spend more on camps that also include academic enrichment, as they feel their child is getting more from the experience — and they are getting more “bang for their buck.” Families who have never experienced camp often don’t have an understanding of the value of the camp experience, and as such, may think of camp as a “frivolous expense.” They do however have a clear understanding of the positive impacts of education on their child’s future — and will spend money to help their child succeed. It takes a whole lot less to convince parents that camp is worthwhile if they see there is academic value.

And, as some camps have continued to see stagnating or declining enrollments since the economic downslide of 2008, there has been a trend of increased enrollments in camps offering enrichment. Some camps even report being consistently at capacity . . . with waitlists.

Fiscal viability is not only in tuition income dollars. For camps that rely on outside funding sources, the ability to cite positive academic outcomes in proposals to prospective funders is a major help in landing donation dollars.

Camps offering enrichment programming have not only seen growth in the overall numbers of campers attending, but they have also seen more diversity in the campers they are serving. This includes youth from various cultural and ethnic groups and at-risk populations, who have not traditionally been served in the camp marketplace. These camps are also serving large numbers of campers where a traditional camp might not be a good fit.

While it is fairly obvious that camps offering academic enrichment are going to be attractive to the more “highly academic” child — especially around STEM subjects — today’s camps with enrichment programming are doing far more than serving only the “gifted” population. Some camps are attracting — or even specifically targeting — kids who have not had prior academic success in the traditional classroom setting.

Successful Programs

There are many reasons camps are finding success with kids who have not demonstrated prior academic proficiency or are “academically unmotivated.” One is that the teaching methods often vary significantly from the typical traditional classroom. Curricula in camp enrichment programs are delivered in fun, engaging, and interactive ways, often using problem solving and guided discovery methods so that all campers have learning success. Many camps offer activities that provide youth with hands-on access to advanced equipment and technology, and interactions with role models who are practicing professionals, such as scientists, engineers, and designers. These things motivate campers for when they return to the classroom in the fall, while also opening windows to career development. Further, the very nature of camp provides an accepting, open, supportive, and caring environment, where no one is passing or failing — and the academic pressure is off. For some kids, going to camp is the first time they are able to connect what they are taught in the school classroom with real-life learning; for many, it is the first time the material makes sense.

Teens are often attracted to the more specialized enrichment programs because they are exploring potential careers, building their academic resume for getting into college, wanting to be challenged in a specific area of interest, or looking to do something different than the “usual” traditional camp offerings.

Most camps don’t have the resources to have a space shuttle or an Apollo rocket sitting on the front lawn. However, adding academic enrichment does not have to be an expensive undertaking. In many cases, adding enrichment is a matter of enhancing what you are already doing and using camp activities differently and intentionally; not just taking a hike, but taking a hike with a purpose and an educational outcome. This might be teaching physics in one camp by canoeing and in another camp by dropping eggs off of the alpine tower. Making “kick-the-can ice cream” is no longer just a snack; it’s an opportunity to learn about the chemical reactions that occur during the ice cream making process.

Operators of camps offering academics and enrichment agree that there are several key points in finding success:

  1. Make sure that the activities are fun, exciting, and engaging — so much so that campers often have no clue they are learning.
  2. Make use of experiential learning and various teaching styles — such as problem solving and guided discovery methods — that encourage campers to explore, interact, ask questions, and learn through hands-on experience.
  3. Be intentional in adding education to the camp’s offerings — in design, delivery, and commitment.

For academic enrichment to work at camp, camp directors must be able to embrace a very different understanding of teaching and learning than students sitting quietly in straight rows of desks in a classroom setting. And, because traditional camps are not typically based on a formal educational model, and many camp professionals don’t come from an education background, camp directors may need to bring in some additional resources to help develop their enrichment offerings, such as hiring teachers, bringing in specialists, creating curriculum development teams, networking with other providers and agencies, partnering with schools, and learning to speak the “language” of education.

Depending on the camp’s relationship with formal education (or need for outside funding), directors may also need to develop an outcomes-based program and utilize outcomes measurement tools. These outcomes tools are tied to specific goals and objectives — they help measure changes in a camper’s learning. For camps where schools are bringing kids to the camp as part of an educational experience — such as a school field trip — directors may also need to teach educators and school administrators about the value of the experience in a way that justifies taking kids out of school and coming to their program.

Call to Action

Although schools and camps have historically played an often separate role in the education of youth in the United States, it may be just the right time for camps entering the academic enrichment arena. Camp as a movement has an important “place at the table” of education reform, as the economy continues to lag, public school budgets are strapped, and deep cuts to public education continue — resulting in furloughs, teacher layoffs, and school closings.

One cannot turn on the news these days without seeing a story about the education crisis in the United States — American students are falling behind their international counterparts, high school graduation rates are dropping, students are not prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, and reports of the dramatic consequences of an often flawed, if not failed, system. The economic challenges come in addition to an education system that is already in crisis. Currently, no state is safe from budget cuts to K-12 education. Some districts are moving to four-day school weeks, cutting critical services and programs for kids, or even closing schools. Secretary Duncan has testified before Congress that millions of public school children will be hurt by teacher layoffs, which will present ballooning class sizes and gutted academic programs. At the same time, schools are facing demands for better academic outcomes, and parents are expecting better results.

What Role Can Camps Play?

Did you happen to catch that part where Secretary Duncan said millions of camp-aged kids?

Talk about an opportunity to reach out and serve more kids in camps! While it is in no way suggested that camps should become schools in the traditional sense of the word, camps are uniquely positioned to make a positive contribution in education. We’re not going to solve the education crisis simply by giving kids more “seat time” in the same traditional classrooms.

For example, camps are already operating in summer and after-school hours, so they are already positioned to offer enrichment to youth during out-of-school time — which includes helping stem summer learning loss. Additionally, camps have tremendous capacity to be creative and flexible in both the content and delivery of a curriculum. They have the freedom to bend and flex to the skills, abilities, and needs of youth learners in a far different — and often more effective — way than most traditional education can. Many camps already utilize project-based, problem-solving, hands-on, and cooperative learning as teaching styles in their current programming — so in many cases, it’s a simple matter of enhancing content offerings. Camps are not tied to the same time constraints as the school day, and as masters of the “teachable moment,” they have the freedom to take advantage of opportunities for learning that traditional educators typically don’t have.

In the past, there may have been deterrents to camps entering the academic education arena, such as fears of losing the camp’s identity as a “real camp,” or getting lumped in with “being school.” This can be a challenging sticking point because much of what has been offered as “educational camps” in the past are really just schools that extended their academic year to the summer months and called it “camp.” The actual offerings of these “camps” are the same subjects, taught in the same manner, in the same classrooms as the regular school year. In these cases, the word “camp” is nothing more than a placeholder to differentiate between school in the summer months and the traditional school year. But as currently operating camps can attest to, it is possible to offer academic enrichment and still retain one’s identity as a camp.

By connecting with education, camps can be on the cutting edge of academic enrichment and educational reform. 

Many thanks to the camps that participated in the 20/20 Toolbox educational session, “The Camp-Education Connection,” at the 2011 ACA National Conference — Allison Fitzgerald, Emagination Computer Camps; Andy Pritikin, Liberty Lake Day Camp; Chicka Elloy, Supercamp; Greg Kovacs, C5 Youth Foundation of Southern California; Ross Turner, Guided Discoveries; and Tony Oyenarte, Camp Crystal Lake.

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, is a former member of the ACA 20/20 Taskforce and a former member of the ACA National Board of Directors. She is the volunteer series editor for the 20/20 Toolbox series, and also serves on the leadership council of ACA, Virginias. Diane is the director of Camp Motorsport — a residential summer camp specializing in racing and motorsports sciences education for youth. Contact the author at diane@campmotorsport.com.

Originally published in the 2012 January/February Camping Magazine.

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