The Prediction

I often talk about the early childhood movement. Beginning with thought leaders such as John Dewey in the early twentieth century, continuing with Jean Piaget through the mid-1900s, and growing national recognition in the second half of the twentieth century, the early childhood development movement revolutionized how we approached the education of young children. The success of that movement (over the course of many years) was the result of practitioners working with researchers taking early brain development science and making a compelling case to parents as it related to their child’s success in life. This merging of multiple elements facilitated the changing of a paradigm — traditional child care or babysitting to intentional infant development.

The movement truly transformed early childhood.

Today the camp community could help marshal in yet a second movement — the youth development movement.

I believe there is a trifecta that provides an environment, if maximized, that could drastically change the comprehensive education system for early (ages eight to fifteen) and late (ages sixteen to twentyfive) adolescents. This education system would be an innovative, collaborative partnership between schools and camp/ out-of-door experiences.

The Trifecta


1. Brain-Based Learning

What is known today about brain-based learning, including the supporting “teen brain research,” validates and affirms the pedagogy we have used at camp for decades. The research provides evidencebased credibility to what many in the camp community have intuitively understood for years. Emerging critical thinking, problem solving, reflective skills, communication, and creativity are all supported by active, participatory learning. This knowledge, based on science, demands society revisit the wisdom of keeping fifth graders at their desk, working alone, over 90 percent of their day. It demands we reconsider taking an environment that has reduced recess by nearly 40 percent and expanding it into a full-year program. It compels us to consider a new, holistic equation that would add home, school, and camp/out-of-door experiences in order to create a new system unequaled by any other.

2. Nature and the Out-of-Doors Experience

We now know today’s youth suffer from alarmingly limited access to the natural world. We can look at obesity rates alone and realize physical activity and access to the out of doors have been altered. This change in activity has been precipitated by any number of things, including the fear many parents have of allowing their children to “run the neighborhood” due to fears of harm and abduction. Activity has also been modified by the number of hours young people spend in front of screens — an average of seven and a half hours a day. Sadly, our time spent out of doors has decreased by 50 percent in the last two decades. Yet, the benefits of nature are supported by a plethora of studies. Access to nature and the out of doors, and the benefits of such, go well beyond physical well-being. Nature supports cognitive, psychological, spiritual, and social well-being as well. (See Keniger, Gaston, Irvine, Fuller, 2013.) Direct experience in nature is important to a child’s intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical development (Kellert, 2005). A new, comprehensive educational system that includes home, school, and camp/out-of-door experiences addressing the nature deficit head-on would significantly improve desired outcomes.

3. Play

This is not a four-letter word. Yet, it seems we have criminalized play, which, by its omission, denies a rite of passage — childhood. We have witnessed a 25 percent decline in play. Play is a normal developmental process. To tinker with normal development is irresponsible and, possibly, a dangerous experiment. Those who are not allowed to play have less energy, less interest, and less enthusiasm about life. Play is a critical stage of learning. It is a learning process that is actual and active. Play allows young people to practice “how” to survive and thrive in a community. It teaches young people “how” to learn. “How” to learn includes persistence, grit, participation, failure, encouragement, and perseverance. Play is a process of experimenting and redefining important life lessons — a form of self-regulation. It sets a foundation for personal mastery.

Play is the most important element in the trifecta because it resonates with parents. The science of the brain or nature may be interesting, but play is a concept that is fundamentally understood by parents. They simply have not had permission in the last several decades to advocate for play when all those about them are suggesting their job is to build their child’s resume — not preserve their rites of passage. A new system of learning that supports and incorporates the lessons of play, combined with the natural world and a pedagogy supported by brain science, could create a platform for the second movement.

The Promise

ACA’s 20/20 Vision — a commitment to have a direct impact on the lives of 20 million children through the camp experience by the year 2020 — was a “movement” for change within our camp community. The ACA Board of Directors felt it was imperative to ensure that no children and youth were deprived the opportunity to have a camp experience. It was a movement that would require the collective action of many individuals. It was a movement that would demand we network with those who may not have been a part of the ACA camp community in the past (camps, campers, families, and other out-of-door programs).

The 20/20 Vision was also important for the future of the camp experience. ACA is aware of the fact that our camps are serving a shrinking minority. In 2010, 46 percent of children and youth in America were nonwhite. During that same period of time, ACA camps served only 27 percent nonwhite campers. If we believe all children should have an opportunity to have a camp experience, we must continue to pursue and make the necessary changes to advance the 20/20 Vision.

Yet, the 20/20 Vision, a movement for change, must expand beyond our association’s limitations. The truth is there are over 96,000 public/charter schools in America and over 75 million children and youth (approximately 55 million of camp age). We are 2,600 camps and 10,000 members strong. We serve 5,000,000 children and youth on an annual basis. Add to that number 1 million counselors. If we are promising ourselves and the children, youth, and families that, indeed, every child not only deserves but NEEDS a camp experience, then the 20/20 Vision must move beyond ACA and ACA camps to include more children and youth, working with an ever-expanding audience dedicated to the success of children and youth — camps and out-of-door experiences, parents, schools, and the community.

How do we help initiate and facilitate a larger movement to be sure all young people get what they need in order to be successful in the twenty-first century? Brain science, nature, and play all support the skills and competencies desired and articulated in popular press. We know where kids go to receive “academic” equipment, but where are the places they go to receive critical social and emotional readiness equipment? Where do they intern for life? A movement has at least four elements: Urgency (the trifecta), Evidence (science/ data) that it will impact society, Readiness (grit), and a critical mass of Champions (advocates).

A movement does not need everyone to move the needle; it needs a critical mass. A movement does not happen overnight. A movement is mobilized by those who are committed and ready to sustain effort over time.

ACA and the camp community have an opportunity to be at the forefront of this movement — to position ourselves as proven leaders preparing children and youth to be tomorrow’s guardians of purpose — twenty-first century leaders. There is a sense of urgency and solid science to support what needs to be done. And, we certainly are advocates with grit!


The Prediction. The Trifecta. The Promise.



Kellert, S. (2005). Building for life: Designing and understanding the human-nature connection. Island Press: Washington, D.C.

Keniger, L., Gaston, K., Irvine, K., and Fuller, R. (2013). What are the benefits of interacting with nature? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(3). Retrieved from

With four decades of experience as a change agent in youth development and transformation, Peg L. Smith is the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association® (ACA). ACA is the champion of better tomorrows — providing resources, research, and support for developmentally appropriate camp experiences. Learn more at or

Originally published in the 2014 January/February Camping Magazine