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Teaching the Skills That Children Need to Succeed
In his book Homesick and Happy, child psychologist Michael Thompson, PhD, describes the dilemma that faces so many of today’s parents. “I have spoken with many parents, who, out of the deepest love for their children, want only to do more — not less — for their children,” says Thompson. “They believe that the more time, energy, attention, and money they can devote to their child, the better” (2012, p. 9). But as Thompson points out, the real challenge is knowing “what” to do for our children: what qualities they will need to be successful in life and fulfilled as human beings and how to “give” them those skills.
What Keeps Parents up at Night?
In truth, as Thompson points out, there are limits to what parents can and should do for their children, and there are several things that most parents want to do for their children but simply cannot. These include making their children happy, giving them self-esteem, giving them friends or managing their friendships, keeping them perfectly safe, and making them independent (Thompson, 2012, pp.10–11).
For many parents, their inability to give their children these things creates stress and worry in their lives. Compounding this are the many other messages that parents are bombarded with each day. Make sure your child is involved in extracurricular activities with some structured activity occupying every afterschool or weekend moment. Get them involved in sports as a toddler so that they don’t miss out on the chance to play on elite teams when they are older. Average isn’t good enough. Ordinary represents a failure of parenting. Look at your neighbor and try to do even better than he or she is doing as a parent.
Everywhere parents look, they are offered competing models of parenting and no end of advice. Most advice centers on an “all of the above” mode of parenting, premised on the idea of childhood as a race — the faster a child develops skills, the better she does on tests, the more she takes on during her out-of-school time, the better she’ll do in life (Tough, 2013). This pressure has led parents to seek out “enrichment” over the benefits of traditional camp programs and to fill their children’s summer with multiple skill-building, specialty experiences. The race to build a child’s resume has extended into the summer space.
Living into Our Mission: Preparing Children for a Changing World
But this view of parenting is rooted in a model of what is, rather than what should be. When asked about the mission of my camps, I respond that our mission is to help children develop the skills that they will need to be successful and fulfilled in life. It is a forward-facing mission, one that requires us to scan the horizon and take account of the changing world and the demands it places on today’s children, youth, and emerging adults. Our vehicle is the camp experience, and our unique opportunity lies in helping children develop the critical skills that they are not likely to acquire at home or in school. We need to fill in the blanks left by today’s parents and today’s schools.
The world is changing and the pace of change is swift. Our K–12 school systems continue to educate our children with the skills of yesterday’s workforce, while today’s workplace requires mastery of a very different set of abilities. When asked, employers of all stripes identify the same set of critical skills that they are seeking in today’s employees — but are in short supply — and will be even more important in tomorrow’s graduates.
There are many different names for these critical skills. In the business world, they are often called 21st-century skills. This framework includes a variety of “applied skills,” which depend upon mastery of core subjects like the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) but also include higher-order competencies often involving noncognitive skills. When asked, employers consistently state that communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity — the four Cs (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2013) — are among the most important skills for new hires to possess, and they are in short supply (American Management Association, 2012).
How Children Succeed
In his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, author and journalist Paul Tough challenges what he calls the “cognitive hypothesis” that drives the traditional focus of K–12 education in America. “Until recently,” Tough states, “most economists and psychologists believed that the most important factor in a child’s success was his or her IQ. This notion is behind our national obsession with test scores. From preschool-admission tests to the SAT and the ACT — even when we tell ourselves as individuals that these tests don’t matter, as a culture we put great faith in them. All because we believe, on some level, that they measure what matters” (2013).
But the scientists whose work Tough followed for How Children Succeed have identified a very different set of skills that they believe are crucial to success, including qualities like persistence, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. As Tough states, “Economists call these noncognitive skills. Psychologists call them personality traits. Neuroscientists sometimes use the term executive functions. The rest of us often sum them up with the word character” (2013).
Tough comes to these “character skills” by following the work of economists like James Heckman and psychologists like Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth, who have been assessing the importance of these skills to future success for many years. They have worked in tandem with many other psychologists, neuroscientists, and others who have demonstrated that intrapersonal skills like self-control and resilience, and interpersonal skills like leadership and teamwork, can have greater impact upon future success than mastery of basic subject knowledge.
Mapping the Skills and Deeper Learning
Last summer, the National Research Council, at the request of several foundations, appointed a committee of experts in education, psychology, and economics to more clearly define this landscape of complex skills (The National Academies Press, 2013). The results of their work are best captured in Figure 1, which divides these skills into three primary areas: cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. (See Figure 1.)
In addition to 21st-century and character skills, the committee also examined the role of “deeper learning,” or learning for “transfer.” They described this as a process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations. The committee found that deeper learning develops 21st-century skills, and that 21st-century skills can aid in the process of deeper learning at school. Because of this, the widespread development of these skills could reduce disparities in educational attainment and prepare young people for successful adult outcomes in work and other areas of life (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012).
How to Teach for Deeper Learning
Among the work undertaken by the National Research Council was an effort to identify effective ways to develop and strengthen these cognitive and noncognitive competencies in ways that support transfer. They identified the following research-based teaching methods as the most effective ways to teach such transferable skills, many of which will seem familiar to camp professionals, as we use them every day:
- Use multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks, along with sup-port to help children interpret them.
- Encourage elaboration, questioning, and explanation.
- Engage learners in challenging tasks while also supporting them with guidance, feedback, and encouragement to reflect on their own learning process.
- Teach with examples and cases, such as step-by-step modeling of how children can carry out a procedure to solve a problem while explaining the reason for each step.
- Prime a child’s motivation by connecting learning to their personal lives and interests, engaging them in problem solving, and drawing attention to the knowledge and skills students are developing and their relevance, rather than grades or scores.
Our Unique Opportunity: Camp as Enrichment
It is clear that today’s children will need to master a set of skills that they are unlikely to learn at home and often unable to learn at school. Yet there are so many skills embodied in these frameworks that it may all feel overwhelming. As camp professionals, we have a unique opportunity to utilize the traditional camp experience to help our campers develop and strengthen some of these critical skills.
In reviewing the lists of 21st-century skills, character skills, and other intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, it is easy to spot skills that camps have been helping children develop for over 150 years. Open up any book about learning at camp and you are almost certain to see chapters about leadership, teamwork, friendship, responsibility, independence, and inspiration. Helping children develop their social and emotional intelligence — their interpersonal skills — involves refining and strengthening their critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities. This happens every day at camps across the country, as does the nurturing of creativity, the growth of communication skills, the building of resilience, and the development of grit. In truth, for most camps, these skills are our bread and butter — our core subjects — and they lie in our traditional zone of expertise as experiential educators.
We now have a unique opportunity. A growing number of business leaders, psychologists, economists, neuroscientists, and others have begun to recognize the critical importance of these skill sets, as well as the fact that they are in short supply among graduates. Today’s parents are overwhelmed by choice and the limits of their own abilities to build these skills in their children. We have a unique contribution to make in the teaching of these skills, and an unparalleled opportunity to reposition the camp experience in the minds of parents, educators, business leaders, and others. To take advantage of this unique opportunity, we will have to do several things:
It is time to retire “the magic of camp.” We understand how transformational, and almost magical, the growth and learning that campers experience can be. That said, calling it “magic” devalues the importance of creating an intentional experience for children and alienates parents who have never experienced camp. To bring more diversity to the camp experience, and to allow others to understand the learning that takes place at camp, we will need to adopt language that is understandable and accessible to everyone.
We need to claim the word enrichment and take our place as educators. If an after-school math program is “enrichment,” so is a summer-long program that teaches critical skills such as leadership, teamwork, communication, and collaboration. We need to explain that while camp activities may focus on athletics, art, and outdoor adventure, the learning that children gain through these activities develops and strengthens their 21st-century, character, and other noncognitive skills. This is enrichment, and we are educators. In fact, in reviewing the guidelines for teaching for deeper learning described previously, many camps utilize those research-based best practices each and every day and have done so for decades. The vehicle we use is the camp experience, and the primary teaching method we use is experiential education.
If these skills are critically important to today’s children, we need to teach them with rigor and intentionality — and measure our results. It is not enough to see ourselves in these skill sets and know that we’ve been teaching many of them for years. Knowing that these skills are criti-cally important for children and that they are unlikely to learn them in other settings, we must teach them to the very best of our abilities. This does not necessarily require us to change what we are doing; rather, we must do it with greater focus and intentionality. We also need to move beyond anecdotes and participate in research at every camp to benchmark the growth of our campers in these critical areas. ACA has tools to help you do this. You can find them at www.ACAcamps.org/research/enhance/youth-outcomes.
The Time Is Now
In our 150-year history, it is unlikely that camp professionals have been presented with such a timely and valuable opportunity. We teach the skills that are most valued by the business world and that help children succeed in school and life. Yet to take full advantage of this moment, we must evolve. We must let go of old labels and words that have brought us comfort over the years. We must embrace our role as educators. We must promote what we do in new ways, using new terms that resonate with parents and employers. We must practice the development of these skills with intentionality and rigor. And we must prove that we are teaching these skills by benchmarking our camper’s growth and development through research.
If we do all of these things, we will give children the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world, and we will reach ACA’s 20/20 Vision by drawing more chil-dren and families to the camp experience. Now is the time. Don’t let it pass you by.
A Case Study
To develop these critical skills in children, each camp must identify the 21st-century, character, and other noncognitive skills that can be developed through their particular camp experience and are most valued by parents, employers, and others. No camp can teach all of these skills with rigor and intentionality. Each camp must choose a set of skills on which to focus and then look for ways to develop and strengthen those competencies throughout the camp day. Which skills lie at the heart of your camp experience and within your traditional zone of expertise?
As an example, four years ago my team created a new for-profit day camp program designed to teach a set of skills that we felt were vital for today’s young campers. We engaged in dialogue with local parents, consulted child development professionals, and spoke with area businesses, all in an effort to identify the critical skills that our prospective campers needed to learn and that weren’t being taught well elsewhere. We focused on the four Cs of the 21st-century skills framework — creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, communication, and collaboration — and included some character skills that parents value but can’t give to their children, as Thompson described. We then translated those skills into language that our prospective parents and campers could understand: independence, inspiration, teamwork, friendship, integrity, and independence.
Next, we created a traditional camp program that was designed to develop and strengthen these skills through each and every activity and interaction. We worked with our staff to develop teaching methods that would highlight these skills whenever they were implicated in an activity or interaction. Specialists designed their activity lesson plans to focus on these outcomes: not just soccer, but “teamwork” though soccer; not just adventure, but “independence” through adventure; not just nature, but “inspiration” through nature. We taught staff to “name it, claim it, and proclaim it” for our campers. We focused on learning these skills for transfer, helping our campers understand that they would carry these skills with them when they left camp and could use them in any area of their lives.
We also created a system to benchmark our campers’ development in these areas and honor campers each day who demonstrated the greatest growth. Finally, we utilized ACA’s Youth Outcomes Battery and other research tools to measure our results and committed to a process of continual improvement.
Most importantly, we described our outcomes in our marketing materials. We explained to parents that we would be helping their children develop critical life skills. While they would certainly have fun much of the time, the outcomes we focused on were designed to complement their children’s school-year learning and provide them with the competencies they would need to be successful at school, in the workplace, and in life.
In our first summer, our busiest week had an enrollment of 140 children — a good beginning. As word spread about this idea of a day camp that teaches critical skills to children, our enrollment continued to surge. In 2013, our third summer, our daily enrollment peaked at close to 600 children. We have recently partnered with a community-based nonprofit that serves the children of recent immigrants. Their children joined our camp community this summer, strengthening our diversity and our ability to reach even more children and families.
Brody, S. (2012). Beyond school time — Summer camps: Building 21st-century skills for 150 years — A presentation to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Institute. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5dnSjecYxk
American Management Association. (2012). Critical skills survey. Retrieved from www.amanet.org/uploaded/2012-Critical-Skills-Survey.pdf
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2013). 21st century skills framework. Retrieved from www.p21.org/index.php
Pellegrino, J. & Hilton, M., Eds. (2012). Education for life and work, p. 3–4. Retrieved from http://keyconet.eun.org/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=b4b7ca8f-bda7-4622-a8df-8f1eec3e1a13&groupId=11028
The National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferrable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Retrieved from www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13398
Thompson, M. (2012). Homesick and happy: How time away from parents can help a child grow. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Tough, P. (2013). A conversation with Paul Tough. Retrieved from www.paultough.com/the-books/how-children-succeed/extras/
Scott Brody is the owner/director of Camps Kenwood and Evergreen and founder of Everwood Day Camp. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the 2013 September/October Camping Magazine.