Rustling footsteps blend with plumes of voices rising to the open sky where stars twinkle like city lights in distant worlds. And not far from the peaceful glow of fireflies and flashlights, summer's dreams take flight inside young heads laid to rest in tents and teepee, fields and forest.

Summers have always belonged to children, whose vacations often carry the connotation of being unlikely places for learning. Yet, camps and the summers they occupy have served as landscapes for learning for many generations of campers. While schools have traditionally been charged with academically enhancing our capacity to live and work in an ever-changing society, camps are gaining recognition as vital summer learning venues, most notably for those underserved in the classroom. Richard Louv's (2005) Last Child in the Woods, calls attention to the risk of what he terms "nature deficit-disorder," by suggesting direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood. However, there is more at stake than the valuable exposure to nature during summers: camps are vibrant settings for skill building and socio-emotional growth through the arts, media, music, sport, and a range of other activities. And the learning extends beyond the single child in camp to include relationships and linkages between families, schools, and entire communities.

A Renewed Focus on Summer

In February, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law. The $787 billion bill includes an unprecedented amount of funding for education, with significant opportunities for summer learning programs. While not all of the reinvestment funding is geared toward summer, the emphasis on out-of-school programs has renewed excitement and national attention towards the importance of summer experiences for children.

Just this past summer, The Johns Hopkins University National Center for Summer Learning announced the President's proclamation declaring July 9, 2009, as "National Summer Learning Day." Across the country, nearly five hundred programs, including camps, in forty-eight states held events to draw attention to the importance of summer learning in the lives of youth and their families.

Nearly one hundred years of research compiled by the National Center at Johns Hopkins tells us all children lose ground academically during the summer, and the achievement gap is even more striking for low-income children. These children are at the greatest risk to lose the most, falling further behind in reading and math each summer.

Long-standing traditions of summers as places of fun and personal growth remain, despite the national focus on learning and federal funding. What does change, however, is the nature of how we use school vacation to engage children to think and build competency so that their school year is more successful.


From the Latin word campus (for field) we find an etymological link between school campuses and campsites. These two institutions not only share a common root, but together account for countless hours of engagement and influential experience for American children and adults. Families come to mind as the only other structure surpassing the influence of camps and schools. More than 12,000 day and resident camps exist in the U.S. Each year more than 11 million children and adults attend camp, including 8,000 nonprofit groups such as youth agencies and religious organizations, and 4,000 privately owned independent for-profit operators. Camps employ more than 1,200,000 adults to work as counselors, program/activity leaders, unit and program directors/supervisors, and in support services roles such as maintenance, administration, food service, and health care. Likewise, nearly 50 million students are heading off to approximately 97,000 public elementary and secondary schools this year alone.

Relationships between camps and schools are historically wellestablished and often overlap. In her history of summer camps and the shaping of American youth, Abigail A. Van Slyck (2006) writes "Private camps, for instance, were usually founded, owned, and operated by one or two individuals (sometimes a married couple) who were often educators" who treated the camp experience as an extension of the school experience, even hiring some of the same teachers to work in both places. In addition to sharing staff, Van Slyck unveiled more formal relationships between camps and schools in the early 1900s:

In the 1910's, private camps were listed in their own section of Porter Sargent's A Handbook of American Private Schools. Beginning in 1924, a separate Porter Sargent publication, A Handbook of Summer Camps, provided parents with a comprehensive listing of private camps. In the same years, Red Book magazine ‘adopted an editorial policy which consistently sought to promote the work and influence of the private school and the cultural camp,' and began publishing guides of its own.

These publications exemplify the formal ways in which camps (primarily private) and schools (also private) were connected, or at least that they catered to similar clientele. Despite the mutual participation of campers and staff in these private schools and camps, the content of the two experiences, however, would have been mutually exclusive. For example, during the decades between the First and Second World Wars, John Dewey (1938), published Experience and Education, outlining a curriculum of cooperative, democratic learning environments that stress an interactive process among students and teachers and experiential learning, a language with which most camp professionals remain comfortable even today.

Encouraged by this shift in pedagogy and philosophy, the leaders of the National Council of Teachers of English also sought to incorporate experiential education, "recommending in 1935 that the nation adopt An Experience Curriculum in English" organized around Dewey's philosophy. While progressive, experiential educational programs have persevered in camp programs, Dewey's ideas slowly disappeared from the few schools where they had been tried by the 1960's (Applebee 1974).

In decades since, although camps and schools often shared human resources, there has not been widespread pedagogical influence of camp's experiential learning practices over school curricula. Despite this historical schism, momentum suggests, however, a renewed interest in further collaboration between summer camps as models of summer learning opportunities.

Camps and Classrooms

Identifying linkages on the network of educational institutions that envelop us, and imagining all the spaces where we acquire information, processes, and skills leads through a variety of points among and between people and places.

Writing for a special edition of the Teachers College Record, Hope Jensen Leichter (1978) identifies many of these institutions as "places of work, associations, neighborhoods, friends, religious institutions, (and) museums." Each of these institutions respectively contributes to the holistic development of our intellectual, cultural, social, and academic being, and much of this web exists beyond the walls of schools. So, just as children go about the activities of learning in classroom settings, similar skills are acquired through experiences in families, communities, and yes, even camps.

Philosopher of education, Maxine Greene (1978), suggests meaningful learning experiences "cannot, of course, happen solely within the schools and through the agency of the schools." These spaces, according to Greene, are created and lived in "living rooms, on playgrounds, in workplaces, studios, and waiting rooms." Greene could just as easily be talking about camps when advocating for learning that takes place in and across many settings, and between, and among many individuals as well as groups of people.

Seasonal Perspective of Learning

The question is not only about where we learn, but when. Education researchers for over a century have been interested in a seasonal approach to learning that seeks to determine whether or not there are months during the year when children are more likely to make greater academic gains and progress. Across much of the nation, excluding those on a "year-round calendar," school systems follow a traditional agrarian calendar, originally created to allow for farming and labor rather than the modern vacation and relaxation. Interest in the seasonality of learning can be traced back to a review of thirtynine studies completed by Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsey, and Greathouse (1996), the oldest dating back to 1906 (White 1906). These studies essentially point to the same conclusion: all young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. In terms of standardized test results, the research is clear in concluding that students typically score lower at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of summer vacation (Cooper 1996).

The cumulative summer learning loss for children is even more striking. On average, students generally lose over two and a half months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills, and almost two months of reading achievement are lost for low-income students. In addition, studies reveal that the greatest areas of summer loss for all students, regardless of socio-economic status, are in factual or procedural knowledge (Cooper 1996).

Noticing the achievement gap is only part of the challenge. Recognizing ways camps can bolster children's experience outside the classroom and combat the learning gap is a worthy undertaking. Camps are not singular in their potential to build confidence and enrich experiences during the summer months; however, the distinction lies in the nature of relationships between campers and their surroundings, tapping creativity and utilizing experiences in ways school structures simply cannot employ.

Camp as Educator

Since educational settings greet us at every corner, camp is merely one of the spaces in which a great deal of teaching and learning occurs. There are also certainly many types of camps available to children and adults of all ages, each serving a specific or general population with a particular focus or mission. However, despite the range of camp opportunities, there are common features and proven benefits. That is, youth have attended camp for a variety of reasons, and research suggests that camp participation impacts youth in multiple ways by enhancing affective (self-esteem and self-concept), cognitive (knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes), behavioral (self-reported behaviors and behavioral intentions), physical, social, and spiritual growth (Powell 2003).

The question then becomes whether or not the features of camp qualify as educational experiences? Esteemed historian of education, Lawrence Cremin (1978) provides a broad definition of education as "the deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, attitudes, values, skills, and sensibilities, and any learning that results from the effort, direct or indirect, intended or unintended." Each element of this definition informs and illuminates a component of camp, further relating and legitimating its role as an educational institution.

Educational Settings, Landscapes, and Spaces

Camp has the capacity to imagine the spaces and traditional landscapes of learning differently. Ruth Vinz (2004), who evokes an almost philosophical approach to this question of where learning takes place, imagines this to be a "constructing/ producing site" in which we begin or attempt to understand what "interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, or transdisciplinary learning might mean" and how these places can be actualized in our every day situations.

Occasion to think in this way rarely, if ever, takes place in schools; however, the presence of adults with varied talents and interests makes this conversation possible in camps. These individuals provide the passion and resources to "tutor sensibilities" and "tease usual ways of looking at the world into new images of the possible" as Herbert Kohl (1994) remembers the adults and mentors of his childhood doing. Counselors, teachers, and other adults in camps are given the liberty, and are in fact challenged, to create robust courses of inquiry for children. Literary magazines deal with the often uncomfortable and misogynistic perceptions of women by society, children as social activists, cartography and orienteering, stream ecology, and the ample availability of books to read.

A concerted effort among those involved to emphasize process rather than outcome, often sets learning in camp apart from other settings, primarily school settings, which continue to rely on high stakes achievement tests to measure success. As children are encouraged to take ownership of their experiences, activating their inquisitiveness and relying upon their own sense of motivation, we increase the likelihood of shaping what Kohl remembers enabled him "to take conscious control of my own education."

Common Messenger

In addition to camp, children obviously participate in multiple settings, and since it is possible for children to combine the expanded horizons acquired in camp with those more fundamental school experiences, children's typical ways of learning and thinking can be dramatically altered. In these instances, children become the "common messenger" between these settings, allowing spiral and cyclical ways of gathering information to emerge rather than typical linear models (Leichter 1978). As children begin to pass through and participate among these various settings, the learning becomes bound to the individual in more meaningful ways, traveling with them, lending a greater sense of purpose and value of the process, and accentuating the practice of learning.

Family-Camp Linkages

The year-round nature of the many camp organizations — including reunions and winter trips — affords families the opportunity to strengthen communication between parents and full-time staff. Linkages between these groups provide myriad opportunities for families to experience the residual benefits of their children's camp experience. As the number of exchanges increases over time, and the interaction is sustained over a period of years, the sharing of knowledge, values, attitudes, skills — the learning — is more valuable. Within this relationship, each party is responsible at some level for assuming an alternating role between teacher and learner. That is, families have an equal amount to teach the camp organization about how to best deal with their children as the camp organization has potential and responsibility to teach and share with parents and families.

In another sense, while children participate in camp, away from their families, they still carry with them norms and behaviors originating at home. These home behaviors remain influential and affect not only the original child, but those with whom they come into contact. Multiple versions of norms and values from many different families arrive at camp via participating children. Many children, consequently, benefit from the teachings of several families through other children in contact with theirs.

As evidence of these family-camp linkages, an outcome study of Project Morry Campers conducted by Deborah Bialeschki, et al. (2002) asked parents to provide written feedback in the form of answers to openended questions several months after the completion of camp. One of the first questions asked how the parent perceived the child had been affected by involvement at (then) Morry's Camp. Parents noted that their children had become "more independent" and, concomitantly, "more mature and responsible." One parent stated: "[Her child] became more open and not as shy." Another parent said, "I believe that [girl's name] has found out about herself what she never knew she had in her." Two other changes parents noticed in their children related to "improved interpersonal skills and a more caring attitude." For example, parents said, "His social skills are continually improving," and "Her attitude is better. She has learned to work in group settings." Another parent stated: "She has become more caring for others through her experiences."

Bialeschki reports campers and parents were aware of the "direct positive psychological, social, and physical benefits of the camping experience." Regardless of whether the comments were from a fifth grader or a parent, they all articulated many of the values traditionally associated with going to camp. The activities that required physical skills in a natural setting resulted in enhanced environmental awareness and feelings of physical competence. The social interactions from daily living in a shared community resulted in a recognized growth in respect, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. The combined effect was one of self-empowerment and personal growth that reached into all aspects of the child's life well beyond the confines of the camp environment.

Evidence of the "common messenger," or instances in which children create links between institutions, combining among settings diverse experiences, information, and other assorted learning, one parent in Bialeschki's study conveyed a poignant viewpoint illustrating the extending possibilities and implications beyond the child for the camp experience: "This program has not only helped my daughter, but it has also helped me in a great way."

Children clearly transmit camp experiences with their families, and ultimately, the community to which that child returns, increasing the possibilities for unrestricted learning emerge, adding to the potential social capital of that community. For example, children from camp that have stressed responsibility, respect, caring, leadership, and good citizenship may return to their home communities and put these attitudes into action in their home, school, and daily living.Among and between the several spaces, landscapes, and settings identified thus far, children have the chance to shape and bind these images into solid pieces, which are then combined with others over time, constructing a vibrant array of learning.

Camps Cannot Become Classrooms

Opportunities for learning are ubiquitous in the camp settings, therefore offering a unique experience for children to explore, discover, appreciate, and experiment. The creation of such a space where possibility abounds for children, in whom new meanings and understandings can emerge, results from what Maxine Greene defines as the "risk of risking."

Occasions for children to choose, challenge, and reflect — to actually risk risking — are too often absent from the dialogue, if even dialogue exists, at school. The sincere appreciation of children's ideas as real and valuable, as truth, more likely occurs in unstructured environments, as opposed to the institutional framework of schools. As a result, the attitudes and perceptions of the learner — the participant — become much more accommodating to the acquisition of knowledge and the advancement of information, skills, and procedures in places like camp. This combination of risk and success, a space in which children feel safe and comfortable with their attempts and mistakes, yields greater achievement and more productive outcomes. Children desperately need time to negotiate with other children and adults the contradictions and complexities, consider alternatives, and identify the compelling.

To look upon education and our learning world through the lens of what Greene describes as "finished and predefined" is both dangerous and unfortunate. Progressive notions, indifferent to boundaries and commonly held fences, are necessary to reach a level of comprehension with capacity to shape more appropriate versions of teaching and learning — versions open to embracing and valuing all settings and the links that exist between these spaces. The acknowledgement of camp as "a classroom" is capable of widening our view.

Author's Note: This article is the first in a series of publications focusing on the value of camping and learning.

Applebee, A.N. (1974). Tradition and reform in the teaching of English: A history, Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Bialeschki, Deborah M., Teresa Younger, Karla Henderson, Dawn Ewing, Mary Casey, II. (2002). "Happy but sad: Outcomes at Morry's Camp." Camping Magazine, January/February, 2002.

Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K, Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, pp. 66, 227-268.

Cremin, Lawrence A. (1978). "Family-Community Linkages in American Education: Some Comments on the Recent Historiography."Teachers College Record, 79 (May 1978): p. 701.

Dewey, John. (1938). Experience and Education. Kappa Delta Pi Publications. New York, NY.

Greene, Maxine. (1978). "Steamboats and Critiques." Landscapes of Learning. Teachers College Press. pp. 111-125.

Kohl, Herbert. (1994). "The Tattooed Man." I Won't Learn from You. The New Press.

Leichter, Hope Jensen. (1978). "Families and Communities as Educators: Some Concepts of Relationship" Teachers College Record, Volume 79, Number 4, May 1978.

Louv, Richard. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books. New York, NY.

Powell, Gwynn. (2003). "What happens to campers at camp?" Camping Magazine, September/ October, 2003.

Van Slyck, Abigail. (2006). A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960 (Architecture, Landscape, and American Culture), University of Minnesota Press.

Vinz, Ruth. (2004). "As Spiders Make Webs: Constructing Sites for Multidisciplinary Understanding" Draft (4/1/2004). Cited with permission from the author.

White, W. (1906). Reviews before and after vacation. American Education, 10. pp. 185-188.

Lance Ozier, Ed.M., is education coordinator at Project Morry and an instructor in teacher education at The City College of New York and Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition to Camping Magazine, Ozier's writing has appeared in the Journal of Democracy and Education, and the Daybooks for Critical Reading and Writing.

Originally published in the 2009 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.