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 t