For many, hope has always been an important element of "survival." The power of hope has often been chronicled. Hope is a feeling, a form of positive thinking often considered therapeutic. Hope can transform people from despair to one of possibilities. Yet, today, we find that we are in need of something stronger than "hope." A feeling of future well-being is not enough. Many, today, seek "well-founded" hope. We want our hope to be convincing, reasonable, defensible, and legitimate. We do not want to appear shallow or silly but, instead, using a feeling of hope that is justified and warranted.
The Summer Camp Movement
In the early 1900s, the camp experience was part of a movement — the summer camping recreation movement. Prior to that, in the 1880s only a few thousand children went to camp. From the 1900s forward, as a result of this "movement," summer camp moved into the cultural mainstream.
Are we a part of a movement today, 100 years later, or are we a trade, an industry? Is it a trade that simply exchanges goods and services for commerce or transaction? An industry focused primarily on economic gain and production? Or worse yet, if the answer is no, how are we perceived, if at all? Or, if we are viewed as a trade, what is the value of our goods and services and at what cost? How does the broader public today articulate our value? Is our meaning well-founded, based on intentionality, positive relationships, and external influence? Or, are we only understood by our own insular community? What is our story in 2010 after 100 years?
If, in fact, we were part of a movement stemming from the early 1900s, and it resulted in more children going to camp, our ability to articulate a contemporary movement is even more critical as we look forward to another century of quality camp experiences for generations of children, youth, and adults.
What is a movement if not the articulation of our value to society? We mobilized a century ago to ensure children could still enjoy nature and the outdoors. We felt there was undue emphasis being placed on tests and measurements. In the 1900s John Dewey, a philosopher and progressive educator, stated that we needed to better prepare children for a more complex world. In 1916, John Dewey argued that children's play is "as deeply meaningful in developmental terms" and argued for a system of education better fitted to the needs of the child. By 1932, we were concerned that children were losing spontaneity, freedom, and joy. What is childhood without joy? What will be the camper stories in 2011 after 150 years of the camp experience? I believe an excerpt from The Summer Camps New Factor in Education Thesis of A.F. Elwell, 1925 tells one of those stories: "For the future, academic education does not seem the only element needed for human welfare. Education, so far, has taught men everything except how to live."
Camp: A Window on American History
As we ref lect on the camp experience, we observe an evolution illuminated by urbanism and ruralism, gender issues, socio-economic issues, socialization, values, character formation, reinforcement of groups skills, ethnic awareness, immigration, and religion . . . nearly a window on American history.
The camp history has traveled through discovery, vacation, vocation, recreation, socialization, to education. How different, yet similar, are we today?
We look at today's parents who are filled with a generalized sense of anxiety and, certainly, an aversion to risk. We possess a hyper concern for safety that results in a stringent form of monitoring. Labels for this phenomenon abound — hyperparenting, cocooning, and helicopter parents are just a few. It has been said that we can never completely eliminate the risks facing children — but to attempt to do so may create more new risks.
"We are raising our children in captivity." Time is overprescribed, and at the same time, play "on their own outside of managed time" is evaporating. Children are internalizing adult concerns. One only has to look at the number of children diagnosed or medicated, encumbered by increasing homework, and those participating in binge drinking to recognize childhood stress is mimicking that of adults. Life is regimented, standardized, and less free.
Companionship, baby sitters, and "recreation" are often accomplished through a "screen": television, computers, and iPods®. The implications on physical health and socialization are apparent yet trumped by fear. It appears that once again children are losing opportunities to be spontaneous, free, and filled with joy.
Reforming and Transforming
As in the beginning of the last century, we are hearing words like reform and transformation. We are witnessing the same call to action today from our politicians and leaders as we did 100 years ago. We have economic, education, environmental, and demographic changes affecting our world. Many of these changes are creating a landscape that is continuously mutating and moving under our feet. These changes are causing us to rethink and reshape our dialogue and articulation of our value proposition — our social value — the camp experience movement.
Today, as a country, we are concerned with summer learning loss, global competition, health, graduation rates, and our ability to produce healthy, productive citizens in a global community. Today's education reform announced by the United States Department of Education states, "By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." As always, our success, as a country, is directly related to our ability to produce tomorrow's viable workforce.
In 1926 it was said, "one dares to predict that municipal summer camps for children of grammar school age, who have no place to play but the streets, would be an actual savings of thousands of dollars — a savings in expenses of juvenile courts, officers, and houses of correction." It is no less cost effective to provide today's youth with constructive, creative alternative learning environments, such as camp.
So, where is the camp community positioned in this new climate of education reform, the environment, the economy, the emerging marketplace, and the subsequent imperative to articulate and produce evidence of a sound value proposition? I happen to agree with Thomas Friedman who wrote in The New York Times, October of 2009, "We not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education."
In 1948, the book, Extending Education Through Camping, was published. A camp director was quoted, "They have learned to use the many experiences that have enabled them to assimilate better their knowledge. They have also grown in respect for, and understanding of camp mates of other races and religions. They have seen vista, fields and rivers, thus widening their horizons. These experiences should stand them in good stead now and in later life — experience we think every child in America should enjoy." What is more hopeful than witnessing growth? If you've witnessed a child's face when they have achieved a skill, task, or project — no test or score will give you better proof of success. Every child should experience success — every child should have a camp experience.
Yet, we cannot position the camp community without well-founded hope. We must position ACA and the camp community soundly and credibly as a vital learning environment. Neither the camp experience nor childhood should be marginalized or categorized. Semantics must be challenged. It is not just about schooling but learning systems. We are not simply concerned about recitation of facts but the ability to do critical thinking. We are asking for contribution not just participation. The nuance of language needs to serve as our asset. The camp community has one hundred years of enduring greatness that rests in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. Many of those Americans have made this country great.
The Camp Experience Is a Learning Environment
Developmental opportunities serve as the precursor for academic achievement. Children and youth deserve and require developmental learning systems that will support traditional schooling environments. The camp experience is a learning environment that complements schooling. But more importantly, it is an expanded learning environment that supports the development of healthy, productive citizens.
The camp community creates learning climates that understand how children learn. It is not a matter of time but the opportunity to succeed. Camp is a classroom — an experiential classroom. Do we teach literacy, math, and science? Yes, in a classroom without walls. Yet, of greater value, are the lessons we share in problem solving, critical thinking, engagement, personal responsibility, stewardship, leadership, and complex communication tasks. At the same time, a camper is learning how to "live with others" and develop a sense of community — a community that respects and celebrates diversity. To live in a camp community is to practice life in a microcosm of tomorrow's global community.
On a deeply personal level maybe the greatest gift camp gives one is the chance to define friendship — not just make friends. You can make friends on My Space. Rick Roth, one of ACA's new board members, explains it as "camp gave me the opportunity to define friendship." Anthony Pellegrini argues in his book, Recess: Its Role in Education and Development, "Friendships require a high level of sophistication — such as being able to co-operate, compromise, and inhibit aggression."
We have significant evidence as a result of the past one hundred years that the camp experience is a powerful venue for learning and development. Yet, we are not talking about preservation of the past but, instead, using today's well-founded hope that is convincing and substantiated thus illustrating relevancy in today's world. Why give up on an idea that lasts — and deserves to last? Indeed, a well-founded hope — for children, our country, our world.
Peg L. Smith is the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association. She can be reached at 765-349-3512. Visit www.ACAcampsblog.org to read Peg's blog.
Originally published in the 2010 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.