The Beginnings of Youth Development
The American Camp Association (ACA) is over 100 years old. In that context of age, youth development is a relatively young field of study. In 1998, the ACA National Board of Directors made an intentional decision to focus on its youth development expertise and subsequent benef it to society. ACA’s interest in youth development aligned with the nation’s attention to both the assets and deficits of its young people. Today, in my opinion, the field of youth development is just now emerging from its stage of adolescence. Youth development appears to be undergoing its own form of teen brain development — a networking and rewiring process resulting in maturation. ACA and the camp community are front and center in this deliberation. The stage has been set for our convergence with the broader field of youth development — the topology that has been shaped by similar emerging histories coming together to provide social good.
To understand the importance of youth development, we must understand and appreciate the concept of the whole child. Although there are distinct and unique ages and stages of development — human development — the common denominator is the human being, a single biological unit. Whatever we do as professionals, we must understand that our individual impact will be positively or negatively impacted by our ability to be a part of the larger system that is working to ensure our children and youth grow up to be productive, healthy citizens.
As a community, we have often set ourselves apart from the mainstream. We do so figuratively and literally. Many of our camps are “off the beaten path,” so to speak. Yet, our societal promise to enrich lives through the camp experience is without boundaries if children are to thrive. We, as a community, cannot view ourselves as a stand-alone solution. It is true that we certainly want to be seen as an essential experience for growing and developing children and youth, but we cannot be recognized as such if we are unable to articulate our value within the context of the larger system. We will not be “invited to the table” if we are not willing to listen and learn from others, even those who might appear to threaten our existence.
We can take our lesson from nature — a form of creative disorder. We view nature with honest awe and appreciation as well as respect. Nature is a macrosystem made up of microsystems. The same is true for the system impacting the lives of children and youth. It is the convergence of all the microsystems touching a young person’s life that impact success. The camp community serves as one of those viable microsystems.
Convergence with Societal Concerns
I view convergence as a form of jazz. Jazz has evolved over a span of time, always similar but dynamic, adopting many styles. As a movement, we have adapted to various societal environments while continuing to maintain a set of shared values. We have adjusted our focus — our youth development “style” — over the years. But the fact that we have a primary harmony that can blend with the larger choir remains unchanged.
In 1861, the camp community emerged from a society going through an industrialization phase that was moving children and families from rural areas to urban areas. As a result of the stresses on children and families, we focused on human development and reconnecting children to the outdoors. Over time, recreation also became a predominate focus in our community. As we have navigated through the decades and society has continued to change, we have started to concentrate finally on standards, and in recent years, have directed our attention specifically to youth development within the broader context of human development. Our melody has remained consistent with any number of improvised counter melodies — our jazz.
ACA and the camp community have participated not only in a form of our own internal convergence by growing and evolving to meet the emerging needs of society, but our relationship with the external world has evolved, as well.
Convergence with Parents
One particular paradox that emerged in the last decade provided us with a clear opportunity to orchestrate integration in order to better serve children, youth, and families — our relationship with parents. As a community designed to provide children and youth with opportunities to separate from their families in order to build resilience, character, and independence (all important developmental steps), today’s technology and national events have radically changed the relationship between children and parents — and altered parental expectations and demands.
This seeming disorder provided us the opportunity to seek new innovations and ways to relate to and communicate with parents. To be successful, we had to manage contradiction and consistency and create a new environment of partnership with parents. By moving toward parents (as opposed to apart from parents), we ensured camp experiences were still viable options for youth development.
Convergence with Other Youth Development Systems
Today, we are confronted with a plethora of systems with interests in youth development. These systems — including schools, extra-curricular activities, and other outof- school time activities — abound with anomalies and possible conflicts, but are all compelled to meet the needs of children, youth, and families. Although all are microsystems of a larger system — youth development — they often compete with one another and with camp. This competition is often to the detriment of children, youth, and families. The reality is there are a finite number of resources (including time), while the needs are extraordinary.
All of us participating in the macrosystem of youth development have a responsibility to be sure to work collaboratively so that the needs of the whole child are addressed. We must ensure all microsystems support developmentally appropriate growth and development. None of the microsystems can afford to be bound by the past if we are to create a new future. Our individual realities, when viewed in totality, may not support the fact that the child is a single biological system that deserves a holistic, cogent response to their developmental needs.
Convergence within the Camp Community
ACA and the camp community are microsystems within the larger system of human development and, particularly, the youth development arena. To compete with one another — let alone with all of the microsystems within the larger system of youth development — seems exceedingly counter-productive. It is possibly the worst form of wasted energy, given the challenges we face as a society that is trying to raise a generation of successful, healthy, and contributing citizens.
Instead, calling forward our shared DNA (our values) regardless of our unique styles will only strengthen our import and impact with the macrosystem of youth development. Exploring our camp community for complementary overlaps will inform our points of synergy and our melody will be recognized when shared, even amidst the counter melodies found in the larger system of youth development. Convergence in the camp community enhances our opportunities to converge with any number of external structures and networks designed to meet the needs of children, youth, and families.
If we are a jazz ensemble that can draw upon local, national, and regional communities, networks, and systems all moving toward a similarly desired outcome, we must do so by advocating not for “camp” or a “program” but for what is good for kids. Our articulated value and benefit, although with emotional appeal, must have demonstrated validity. We need to hear what others feel must be accomplished in order to meet the twenty-first century needs of children, youth, and families and articulate how we add value to that equation. We will need to find comfort in this environment of open-ended change in order to be a viable part of the transformation. It is true that we will be frustrated by the incremental nature of the work and overwhelmed by the revolutionary action. Regardless, convergence is powerful and, if successful, can create harmony.
Peg L. Smith is chief executive of ficer of ACA. She can be reached at 765.349.3512. Visit www.ACAcamps.org/blog/word-peg  to read Peg’s blog.
Originally published in the 2012 January/February Camping Magazine.