China is interested in American summer camps. This should not be a surprise to anyone who has seen the increasing numbers of Chinese attending the American Camp Association or Tri-State conferences. It is not a surprise to camp directors who are starting to get calls from Chinese parents — or more likely from middlemen representing Chinese parents — who are interested in having their children come to the United States for a summer, mainly to work on their English language skills. Such calls may cause a camp director to pause; they may make her wonder whether her camp can provide a meaningful summer for a Chinese child who does not speak English well or has never experienced anything comparable to camp in his or her life.

It seems likely — actually, inevitable — that American camps will be receiving more such calls in the future. As China has grown into an economic superpower in the last 30 years, its upper middle class and upper class have looked abroad for opportunities for their children. American private schools and boarding schools are increasingly a destination for the children of well-to-do Chinese families. Bloomberg News reported that between 2005 and 2014, there was more than a 5,000-percent increase in the number of Chinese students attending secondary schools in the U.S., an increase from 632 students to 38,089 according to Homeland Security’s Visitor and Exchange Student Program (Winter, 2014). Chinese students now compose more than 31 percent of foreign students in the U.S., dwarfing the numbers from previous leading contributor countries South Korea and India (Pew Research Center, 2016). Just like American boarding schools, American camps will have to deal with the challenges of meeting the needs of Chinese campers. Individual camp directors will have to assess the needs of the children and their own capacity to meet those needs and make their decisions to accept a child or not.

Ultimately, however, it is clear that American camps will only ever serve a tiny minority of Chinese families, children from globally minded upper-class families who have heard good things — or anything at all — about summer camps. In a country so large, a few thousand kids amounts to the smallest of small potatoes. After all, there are 16 million babies born in China every year; the Chinese education system is the largest in the world (Statista, 2016). If Chinese children are going to experience camp, there will have to be a homegrown Chinese camp movement, which leads to an interesting set of questions:

  • Is there already a camp movement starting up in China?
  • Are the Chinese looking to American camp professionals for help in launching North American-style summer camps?
  • Do the ideas behind American camp experiences appeal to a Confucian culture in which academic study — year-round academic study supervised by parents — is the highest good?
  • Does it look as if the Chinese will embrace American-style camp?

The answer to all of these questions is yes. China has the beginnings of a camp movement, and the Chinese are looking to American camp professionals to help them. Things are going pretty well, according to Scott Brody and Steve Baskin, two American camp owner/directors and camp industry consultants, who have forged perhaps the first strategic partnership between American camp professionals and Chinese youth development professionals.

I know Brody and Baskin from our years together on the ACA National Board and have worked at both of their camps, so I have had the chance to talk with them over the last two years as they have worked as strategic partners to help create camps in China. (See their companion article about setting up camps in China.) At their invitation and that of their Chinese partner, Initiate Development for Education and Service (IDEAS), I had a chance to speak at the inaugural China Camp Education Conference in Beijing in March of 2015. That conference gave me considerable insight into the hopes of those professionals in China who are looking to American camps. It also gave me a sense of the possible conflicts that may arise between the assumptions and conceptions of American camp professionals and their Chinese counterparts.

The Hopes

The Chinese educational system does an exceptional job of producing hardworking students who memorize staggering amounts of material and tackle complex problems, particularly in math and science. But the Chinese are interested in having their children develop abilities that their educational system does not seem to cultivate, abilities they feel American children may possess: creativity, curiosity, a zest for learning, and the capacity for innovation.

Right from the beginning, Chinese children come to school prepared to learn, and their families organize themselves for their children’s academic success. In 66 years, the Chinese have taken their citizens from a 20-percent literacy rate in 1949 to a 92-percent literacy rate in 2014 (Facts and Details, 2016), an extraordinary educational achievement.

Though Chinese students regularly outscore students from many other countries on international tests, Chinese educators worry about their students. At the China Camp Education Conference, the leaders of two of the most highly competitive high schools in Beijing spoke honestly about why they were interested in learning more about American summer camps. One principal noted that his elite school was turning out very successful “test-taking robots” who no longer have any enjoyment in learning. He expressed the hope that summer camps might provide a way to revive that lost joy.

From my observations at the conference, however, it isn’t enough to simply promise the Chinese that camps can be fun. The professionals I met in Beijing are seriously pursuing ways to improve their youth development; they want to give Chinese children every edge, both in education and in character development. That was the motivation Aijun Nie, a professor who trained and has taught in the U.S., and Zhao Wei, the leader of a Chinese youth development foundation, had in their minds when the IDEAS team came to the ACA conference in 2013. They attended Steve Baskin’s talk on the ability of summer camps to teach 21st-century skills (P21, 2016), something Baskin and Brody have been talking and writing about for four years at many different camp gatherings. They strongly believe that camps do a better job than schools in teaching the core of P21 skills: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

Baskin’s presentation in 2013 started a conversation with Nie and Wei. His reaction, which he shared with Brody, was that they grasped the power of the camp experience for Chinese children. The conversations continued in Orlando in 2014. After hours of conversation between Wei and Brody, it became obvious to him that she was brilliant and that, “She really understood camp and the potential of the camp experience in a way that I really wish American parents understood.” Furthermore, it was also clear that her position as a highly regarded thought leader in the education and service learning spaces positioned her perfectly to move the Chinese camp movement forward.

Wei had already begun to explore summer camp as a vehicle to teach critical life skills and service learning, and had led a successful effort to construct the first purpose-built camp facility in China, which had hosted school groups and children interested in service and experiential learning. Her conversations with Baskin and Brody led her to focus on the full array of critical life and career skills and dispositions that could be impacted through more intentional and comprehensive day and resident camp programs, taking the best from American summer camps and mixing it with Chinese culture to create “camp with Chinese characteristics.”

Brody reports that Wei grasped that camp, “is not a place, not something kitschy,” rather that it is, “a profoundly impactful setting.” She decided to broaden the scope of her previous approach to camp education to include the development of a two-week summer session resembling the traditional American model, as well as the creation of a new model for a highly intentional day camp program that could serve as an introduction to the new two-week model of resident camp.

While Wei had big plans for the camps that IDEAS would create and run, her vision extended to the creation of a whole camp movement in China. To facilitate the growth of a camp industry, she recruited other education partners and founded the China Camp Education Alliance, serving as its first president. She has blogged about camps; she has encouraged her friends and colleagues to send their children to American camps; she has sent her own son off to be a counselor at Camp Kenwood and Evergreen in New Hampshire. In addition to the resident camp she founded in Beideihe, and the day camp program that Baskin and Brody helped her start last summer, Wei has a second resident camp in development right now, with plans for many more across China.

Social Education

From the point of view of the Chinese, what we call “camp” is “camp education,” a “social education model compared to school education and family education,” which originated in the United States more than 150 years ago. All this was described formally in a press release issued at the end of the conference by the newly formed China Camp Education Alliance (2015). The press release attempts to educate Chinese readers on how “camp activities have significant influence in helping young people build self-confidence, develop independent character and leadership, and improve social skills.”

One of the new camps that IDEAS hopes to create is described on its website as a “Whole Person Camp” (2013). That name comes quite close to the “whole child” language so valued by American progressive educators. The camp wants to address the whole child and also teach six traditional Chinese arts to children, including calligraphy, flower-arranging, and lute-playing. That is a departure from the traditional Chinese focus on math, science, and language, but one that respects the culture and stays safely in the realm of skill-building.

Similar experiments are going on in some schools in China, or at least in the one we visited. The day before the conference began, Baskin, Brody, and I visited the Experimental High School Attached to Beijing Normal University, where we met the director of counseling who is trying to create a counseling department more focused on the social-emotional development of students rather than just the tutoring and academic support they might require in an effort to do better on tests. (We saw the statue of Confucius in the front hall with the spot rubbed smooth where students always rub it on their way to their high-stakes tests.) The director proudly showed us all of her efforts to get her students out of their purely academic mindset and try out thoughts about what will make them happy in their future lives. She encouraged us to get her teachers out of their classrooms, to take them away from those traditional settings, and to help them focus on the out-of-doors, play, and cooperative games. She wanted them to experience experiential learning.

The attempts of the Chinese to understand the potential of camps and to match their hopes to the reality of what their North American guests were describing were on display at the conference. The 300 or 400 Chinese attendees were intensely involved; their capacity to attend every session, to pay attention, and take constant notes was, I confess, rather greater than my own. I got tired and rebelled against the requirement that speakers gather early in the VIP room, allow themselves to be lined up and march into the conference in two lines. I noted that choice, either for speakers or for campers, was not much mentioned. I don’t think Chinese parents would feel at ease sending their children to a camp where the campers get to choose everything they wanted to learn.

The attempts of North American camp professionals, myself included (I was described in the program as an “orator in America” and the possessor of a doctorate from the University of Chicago), to convey the magic of camp to people who had never experienced it was something of a hit-and-miss proposition. That is always a challenge for camp professionals when we try to educate people who have never themselves gone to camp. The syrupy argument, “Camp is so wonderful. You just have to experience it,” won’t work in China because it doesn’t really work anywhere.

John Jorgenson from Canada, and a group of Americans, including Don Cheley, Lance Ozier, Andy Pritikin, and myself, tried to convey our sense of camp as a life-changing experience, something that creates independence, joy, and self-confidence in children. Our moderator and translator was Nie, Wei’s colleague, who waded in with me when I took my microphone into the audience to ask the participants how they had achieved a sense of independence in their childhoods. I could tell that he understood the ideas I was advancing. I could not judge whether the audience did.

Though the Chinese use the same term as we do to describe children’s development, and certainly aspire to the goals of creativity and collaboration, they are culturally accustomed to the question: “What did you learn in school today?” That isn’t always an easy thing to answer when one is describing experiential learning that is at the heart of the camp experience. It is a challenge that Baskin and Brody have met successfully by talking continuously to the Chinese about the acquisition of 21st-century skills in the camp context.

Scott Brody told me that a current challenge is the expectation of many Chinese parents that when their children come home from day camp, they will be able to report to their parents what they actually learned that day. Parents are always checking to find out whether their children’s time away from them was spent productively. It is tough for children to casually report, “Mom, Dad, we engaged in a lot of fun activities that will make me a more collaborative and creative person.” Paradoxically, that has made day camp a harder sell to Chinese parents than residential camp. Parents of sleepaway campers can immediately see the changes in their children when they return; parents of day campers cannot.

Brody says, “While day camp is often the first step for American families into the camp experience, we may have to leap over day camps right to residential camps in China,” and indeed Baskin and Brody and the administrators from Kenwood and Evergreen and Camp Champions are currently working with IDEAS to create new residential camp programs in China.

It’s Got Potential

The potential for the camp experience in China is enormous because the population is so large, but size isn’t the only reason. The Chinese have a long tradition of embracing Western practices they admire. In the ’60s, there were less than a thousand teachers of English in the country. Now there are more than 350 million Chinese studying English (Facts and Details, 2013) — there are more English speakers in China than in the United States! When the Chinese muse about creating one day camp for every city of more than a million people, they are talking about 130 day camps, and that’s just for starters. The potential for camping in China is almost too big to imagine.

Evan Osnos, the author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China (2015), describes with great respect Chinese capacity for “self-creation.” Time and time again, the Chinese adopt and transform Western ideas for their own use. One feels that process is just beginning now with respect to summer camps. The camp movement in China is in its nascent stage with just a few American professionals involved, but if camp catches on, there will be a call for many American camp professionals to help in the effort. That will require us to be able to articulate clearly the developmental impact of the camp experience and the skills that children can acquire by spending time away from their parents engaged in the activities that we know so well. It will also mean that American camp professionals will have to appreciate the modifications that the Chinese make in the American template. After working with Chinese youth development professionals, Brody says, “Their real goal is to learn the best of America and to create a unique summer camp with Chinese characteristics.”

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Osnos, E. (2015). Age of ambition: Chasing fortune, truth and faith in the new China. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York: N.Y.
P21. (2016). Framework for 21st century learning. Retrieved from
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Michael G. Thompson, PhD, is a psychologist and school and camp consultant. He is the author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow (Ballantine Books, 2012).