If you have listened to the news lately, you’ve heard that folks are upset. A recent Wall Street Journal poll suggests that upward of 70 percent of Americans feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction or feel that times are bad (Bendavid, 2011). And regardless of your politics, the numbers suggest that there are issues we must address — as a country and as people who can either rise or fall together.
And I believe we, as members of the American Camp Association, now stand at a crossroads that could change the course of our nation’s future. Camp stands poised at this intersection of the prominent role the organization has played in America’s educational past and the promising possibilities we might pursue tomorrow.
This is because members of the camp community have enjoyed a long and rich history of planting small acorns by investing in the promise of growing camp’s potential. I want to celebrate why this community matters more than ever and how your investment in camp is more important now than perhaps any other moment in history.
The challenges are great — and, yet, so are the unique solutions camp stands ready to offer.
We face challenges ranging from historic high unemployment numbers to an all-time-low national high school graduation rate. We face a lack of highly qualified American students to fill jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) positions, and overwhelming evidence suggesting summer learning loss is perhaps the causal factor for nearly all of the achievement gap between students who succeed and those who do not.
So what do we do about it? What do we not do about it?
As I wrote in the article “Camp as Educator: Lessons Learned from History,” published in the September/October 2010 Camping Magazine, I suggest perhaps the most sensible way for us to move forward as a society is by taking a moment to look backward.
The History of Camp and Education
We have known camp to be a solution to the pains of education and society for over a century now. In fact, the pioneers of camping in the late 1800s considered camp to be an educational endeavour. This is perhaps because many camp leaders were of the progressive education movement (the Progressive Education Association, founded in 1919, enjoyed its greatest success during the interwar years) gave this philosophy widespread visibility within camping circles. However, history points to several earlier references of the learning experiences of boys and girls during the summer. Educator C. Hanford Henderson, founder of Camp Marienfeld on the Upper Delaware River in 1896, planned a “study camp” that would combine a formal curriculum with outdoor recreation. Over time, he later wrote, he realized what a “novel and magnificent educational opportunity” camps represented.
The popular media also covered the educational advantages of camp with articles in Good Housekeeping, Outlook Magazine, and Redbook magazine. By the time Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University, told a group of Girl Scout leaders in 1922 that “The organized summer camp is the most important step in education that America has given the world,” camp’s role in education had been well established. This led to prominent educators from some of America’s other great academic institutions to lend credibility to organized camping — including Columbia, Yale, and New York University. Colleagues of John Dewey at Columbia University, where I had the privilege of studying, even considered camp to be a more superior learning environment to schools. W.H. Kilpatrick, the philosopher of education who worked with Dewey on a number of progressive education issues, said in an article he published in Camping Magazine in 1942: “We learn what we live, only what we live, and everything we live . . . the camp can thus spread a more adequate ideal of education” (Ozier, 2010).
Present Day Solutions
Now almost a century later, despite recent ACA research (Thurber, Scanlin, et al., 2007) citing strong outcomes of the camp experience that support what the educational psychologist Dr. Edmund Gordon (2005) calls the “social and psychological conditions” necessary for kids to do well in school — conditions such as confidence, curiosity, independence, responsibility — unfortunately, we cannot always count on influential educators today to advocate for the role of summer camp as did early educators. And in some cases, policy makers attack the summer months simply because kids are not in school.
Even our Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2009) recently put summer vacations on notice by calling summer a “waste of time” and promising to “shock the system” by introducing year-round school. But, there is good news: When he appeared some months later on the campus of Teachers College, he was pressed about the summer issue and asked “if he’d consider partnering with camps as an alternative to replacing them.” And his answer was better this time. Duncan said he was “a fan of camps,” and clarified by saying he doesn’t “worry about the kids who are in summer camp, he worries about kids who don’t get a chance to go to camp — the kids who get left behind.” Our challenge is therefore to increase capacity and bring camp to scale.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills recognizes the abilities to learn and innovate as the skills that separate students who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in the twenty-first century and those who are not (Cassner- Lotto, Barrington, et al., 2006). Camps are perhaps better suited than any other setting on the educational spectrum to foster creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration, which are essential to prepare students for the future.
We have proven research conducted by ACA that tells us camp helps kids learn in ways that will improve their school performance. So why do we still have such a hard time convincing folks that camps are perhaps better suited to provide kids with the kinds of experiences learners need, and that camp is more likely to grow citizens with the twenty-first century learning characteristics our world demands?
This paradox is why interest in the relationships between camp and learning matter more than ever and why investing in camp as a vital element on the educational spectrum is perhaps more important now than ever before.
Summer Learning Loss
Yes, the challenge of summer learning loss is great, but we have to continue to clarify the message that the solution is not more of the same in the form of an expanded school year. Just last January, ACA’s Explore 30 Summer Reading Program (Garst, Morgan, et al., 2012) showed convincing evidence that kids who read during the summer at camp increased favorable attitudes about reading, while negative attitudes about reading decreased. This is the kind of powerful solution that will challenge policy makers to reconsider the value of summer. It demonstrates the solution is not to sentence kids to eight more weeks behind walls when we know they are just as likely to learn outside them.
In that same meeting with Secretary Duncan I told you about, it was just after Congress passed significant stimulus investments in education, and someone in the audience asked the secretary to explain the amount of money being spent on teaching and learning. In other words, that person wanted Duncan to justify the costs. The secretary looked over at the guy and asked, “But, can you imagine the cost of ignorance?” Imagine — the cost of ignorance.
And I want you to imagine a different cost; I want to ask a somewhat related question to us in the camp profession: considering the challenges I have just described and realizing the solutions at ACA’s fingertips, “Can you imagine the cost of a world without camp?”
The consequences of this seem as dire as the possibilities are endless.
Nature Deficit Disorder
I mentioned unemployment earlier and specifically the challenge by industries to fill STEM careers. As Richard Louve (2005), who in his speech at the 2012 ACA National Conference, and in his books, has so eloquently pointed out, our kids are challenged by what he calls “nature-deficit disorder.” And yet, ACA and the camp community stand perhaps more prepared than any other institutions with landscapes of learning that seek to build students’ understanding of the connection between science and the environment. Google just earmarked $4 million for a STEM initiative through the National Park Service, and several camps and their young people are already benefiting from these programs (Fleming, 2011).
And finally, I want to touch on our nation’s abysmal graduation rate, which might be our country’s greatest challenge. I want to share some shocking statistics, or what I sometimes call sobering statistics. The national graduation rate hovered around 70 percent in 2008, and in some states and cities, it was much lower. New York City, where I live and work, sadly has a high school completion rate well below 50 percent of some incoming ninth graders who finish the twelfth grade (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2012).
This generation of students is the first of any industrialized country to be less likely to graduate from high school than their parents.
Camp has the capacity to change this sobering statistic. For example, Project Morry (where I have the pleasure of working), which is involved with some of the most underserved children, boasts a high school graduation rate of 100 percent.
The costs of such challenges may be high, but equally profitable is the promising potential of what camp can do about it, and I can think of no acorns with greater promise than high school graduates who grow into mighty oaks with endless possibilities.
One of my colleagues at Teachers College, the economist Henry Levin (2009), has spent a lifetime calculating the cost-benefit of education. In his recent metrics, he found that each new graduate would, on average, generate economic benefits to the public sector of $209,100. So imagine if the current number of dropouts were reduced by half through successful implementation of educational intervention, like camp. The net present value economic benefit would be some $45 billion.
Kids drop out of school because classrooms are places where learning is done TO kids — they’re told what to think and how to answer. On the other hand, camp is a place where kids grow to learn for themselves; they open their minds to possibilities they may not have seen before. Camp is where imagination flourishes — where kids can explore concepts and turn ideas on their head, opening them to changing how they see the world and how the world can interact with us.
A Call to Action
Camp preserves for kids the chance to slow down, to notice, to attend, to engage and interact with their world. ALL children deserve to know the joy of being able to see things not as they are, but as they could be.
A camp curriculum, unlike most school curricula, awakens kids with challenging activities that encourage innovation and exploration, the same kind of innovation that creates jobs, and the kind of exploration through which discoveries are made.
Let’s continue to allow camp to nurture creativity in this country so that we never have to import ingenuity.
Let’s let camp continue awakening the imaginations of future generations so that we never have to import ideas.
To do this, there is work to be done and funding to be secured, since there is never an easy way to get anywhere worth going. And thanks to ACA, we have the tools, the resources — the evidence — to meet the nation’s challenges head-on, in ways the pioneers of camping and early educators could only dream of doing. We need only to remind ourselves in the field and congratulate each other for the way our work CHANGES people’s lives indelibly — and infinitely — for the better.
I’m convinced: No eyes see so clearly, no ears hear so acutely, no hearts understand so lovingly, the special, devilish grace of children as do camp people. And so if there is anybody cut out for this work, it is us.
Alliance for Excellent Education (2012). “New York high schools.” Retrieved from www.all4ed.org/files/NewYorkState_hs.pdf 
Bendavid, N. (2011). Country is headed in wrong direction, 74% say. Wall Street Journal. October 13.
Cassner-Lotto, J., Barrington, L., et al. (2006). Are they ready to work? Retrieved from www.p21.org/documents/FINAL_REPORT_PDF09-29-06.pdf 
Duncan, A. (2009, March 5). On point with Tom Ashbrook [Radio broadcast]. Retrieved from http://onpoint.wbur.org/2009/03/05/education-secretary-arne-duncan 
Duncan, A. (2009, October 22). Transcript of Major Policy Address. Teachers College, Columbia University.
Fleming, N. (2011, December 14). National Park Service expanding education mission; Agency plans to reach a fourth of U.S. students. Education Week, 31(14): 8–10.
Garst, B., Morgan, C., Bialeschki, D. (2012). Explore 30 camp reading program impact report. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.
Gordon, E., Ed.; Bridglall, B., Ed.; Meroe, A., Ed. (2005). Supplementary education: The hidden curriculum of high academic achievement. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Kilpatrick, W. H. (1942). The role of camping in education today. Camping Magazine, 14(1): 14–17.
Levin, H. (2009). The economic payoff to investing in educational justice. Educational Researcher 38(1): 5–21.
Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. New York, NY: Algonquin Books.
Ozier, L. (2010). Camp as educator: Lessons learned from history. Camping Magazine, 85(3): 22–27,
Thurber, C.; Scanlin, M.; Scheuler, L.; & Henderson, K. (2007). Youth development outcomes of the camp experience: Evidence for multidimensional growth. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 36, pp. 241–254.
Lance Ozier has been education coordinator at Project Morry (Morry’s Camp) since 1998. He received his doctorate in English and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as an instructor in teacher education. In 2010, Ozier was appointed to the American Camp Association’s national Committee for the Advancement for Research and Evaluation (CARE). Contact the author at Lance@projectmorry.org .
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from a speech originally delivered by the author to the annual meeting of the Acorn Society at the ACA national conference on February 23, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Originally published in the 2012 July/August Camping Magazine.