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Rethinking Summer: Why Camp Remains Relevant for Teens

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, and Leann Mischel, PhDJanuary 2019

In a world filled with out-of-school time options for young adults, new research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) in collaboration with Coastal Carolina University points to the enduring, and positive, outcomes of leadership training for teens in both traditional and specialty camp settings.

What are they?

According to the responses of youth ages 14–17, their camp experiences yielded significant leadership-related gains in such areas as personal growth, independence, innovation, responsibility, teamwork, and business and social entrepreneurship.

Wow!

Threshold Experiences

“‘In the beginning,’ so goes many a great story. These familiar words beckon us across a threshold, often transporting us into unknown worlds and novel experiences. So too our lives are filled with many such ‘beginnings’ — new jobs, relationships, adventures, and even the inception of life itself. Each of these ‘threshold experiences’ not only introduces us to new domains, but also draws us into the realities of archetypal fields. Learning to creatively interact with these prefigured, a priori fields can allow us rich access to sources of eternal wisdom” (Conforti, 2007).

As young people navigate transition, such as from middle to high school and high school to college, they sometimes experience difficulties, doubting their own abilities to successfully set and achieve goals, be they social, emotional, educational, or vocational. Helping youth in transition has been a key focus of CARE and of The Jed Foundation (JED), which says, “Transitioning into adulthood can bring big changes and intense challenges. JED empowers teens and young adults with the skills and support to grow into healthy, thriving adults” (The Jed Foundation, 2018).

In many ways, such transitions may include “threshold experiences,” or “threshold concepts.” According to Jan Meyer and Ray Land of the ETL Project (which focuses on enhancing teaching-learning environments), “A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress” (Meyer & Land, 2003).

Threshold concepts are many things, including troublesome (especially when counterintuitive or alien), irreversible (they cannot be unlearned), integrative (individuals can integrate new concepts with old knowledge), and liminal (giving the individual new space to traverse). Perhaps most notably, they can be transformative, allowing the individual to see things in new ways (Meyer & Land, 2003).

Sarah Doenmez, academic dean at Dublin High School in New Hampshire and author of a recent article published by the National Association of Independent Schools, explains, “Learning thresholds are often the points at which students experience difficulty and are often troublesome as they require a letting go of customary ways of seeing things, of prior familiar views. This entails an uncomfortable ontological shift as, in many respects, we are what we know.”

Doenmez goes on to say, “As educators, we tacitly understand liminality as part of the learning process. And yet we probably leave it up to our students to deal with the discomfort of liminality on their own or gloss over it. Often teachers encourage students to minimize their uncertainty and confusion, exhorting them to show grit, to push through this stage to a resolution . . . Students must dwell in the discomfort and find their own routes to a next stage of understanding. As teachers, we need to affirm the feelings students experience, create time and exercises for them to make sense of their experience, encourage persistence, and reward them for the process of learning. We also need to help students see their progress and voice the changes they are undergoing. When we legitimize and value their struggles and walk with them through these passages, we are helping students undergo transformation” (Doenmez, 2018).

How else can we, as summer teachers, help young people through these transformative times?

Paul Jacquiery, a middle school teacher and a seasoned camp dad (who introduced us to the concept of threshold experiences), has some ideas. He wrote in an email, “Trips and adventures at Farm and Wilderness Camp changed the internal narrative from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’ for both my children, Ali and Erin. For Ali, swimming the perimeter of Lake Ninevah together with friends redefined what was achievable. Erin’s group worked tirelessly to climb several peaks in the Green Mountains. Returning home, it was easier to take the lead at school and to contextualize their challenges. The foundation for being a middle school president (Ali) and team captain (Erin) was rooted in those camp experiences in Vermont.”

Also helpful to those mentoring youth is JED’s focus on basic life skills, social and emotional skills, and mental health/substance abuse literacy. Each suggests key challenges and the need for assistance and support. They also form the basis for JED’s new “Set to Go” initiative, a curriculum that helps high school students successfully navigate their next step after graduation (Set to Go, 2018a).

Such skills can also be addressed in camp curriculum created intentionally with teens in mind. JED says of life skills, “There are many important lessons kids need to learn while growing up which are not taught in a classroom. As they mature, kids typically get better at handling their physical needs like sleep and nutrition; their organizational needs like managing their time and daily activities; and managing their ‘stuff’ (including clothes, managing money, etc.). We know that young people who go to college or live on their own lacking in these basic skills can have a harder time with the transition and might even be at higher risk for emotional problems.”

With regard to the development of social and emotional skill sets, JED advises, “Everyone has an array of thoughts, feelings, and relationships with others. As children grow up, these thoughts, feelings, and relationships develop and mature. These qualities will have a profound impact on our lives — especially as young people transition into independent life at college or adulthood in general. These developing qualities . . . include things like: identifying our emotions, knowing our values, self-esteem, resilience and grit, and relating to others.”

Finally, with regard to mental health/substance abuse literacy, JED offers, “During the teen and young adult years, it is not uncommon for emotional and substance use problems to appear. Therefore, it is really valuable for both you and your child to be able to identify the factors that can support emotional health and the indications that trouble may be emerging” (Set to Go, 2018b).

Program Innovation and Implementation

Similar themes appeared in our work with Camp Rising Sun (CRS) to analyze data they collected from campers over the course of many summers. In our 2015 Camping Magazine article “The Consequence of Character: How Summer Camp Promotes Character, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship,” we cited that data and reported the following.

“In assessing the impact — across multiple domains of development — of a seven-week selective international leadership program for gifted adolescent boys and girls, CRS found that experiential learning about leadership, diversity, and sensitivity to the needs of others resulted in important personal advances in tolerance, global awareness, self-confidence, sensitivity, relationships, and development of lifelong interests” (Mischel & Wallace, 2015).

We also pointed out that our own data revealed the relationship between leadership and civic engagement, stating, “There is no question that youth today are exercising leadership through civic engagement. That reveal comes in the work of young adults to improve their lives, families, schools, and communities — often through entrepreneurial behavior directed at helping others.”

That research, conducted by SurveyTelligence, Inc. for CARE, noted the work of youth social entrepreneurs who present as both oriented on people and values, sharing with their business entrepreneur counterparts an ability to identify the resources to get things done. The findings also revealed key variables statistically tied to entrepreneurial interest and behavior, including having family responsibility in childhood (such as household chores and taking care of younger siblings) and receiving information from elders.

Not insignificantly, the traits of both social and business entrepreneurs — taken in totality — represent the type of “noncognitive skills” employers say they are looking for, such as civic literacy and global competence (P21, 2018).

Leadership Outcomes at Summer Camp

According to the American Camp Association (ACA), “For more than 150 years, camp has been changing lives — allowing all children to feel successful, especially those who may struggle with traditional educational settings. Camp is full of fun and excitement, but it is so much more — developing children who are better equipped to lead in the 21st century with skills such as independence, empathy, the ability to work as part of a team, and a broader world view.” ACA adds that camps are also safe, nurturing places where children improve their social skills and gain self-confidence (American Camp Association, 2018).

Indeed, our 2015 data indicated, “Study participants who attended a summer camp were significantly more likely to state an interest in social entrepreneurship than those who had not attended. Why? They cited the influence of counselors, especially in mentoring them to develop social and leadership skills; assisting them in obtaining social and material resources to start new projects; and guiding them in understanding such projects and identifying other mentors. Young people who had started their own businesses or were highly interested in doing so were especially influenced by camp counselors who taught them how to gather resources needed to achieve goals” (Mischel & Wallace, 2015).

Data collected from more than 100 youth attending two summer camp leadership programs during the 2018 season provided some interesting insights. For example, campers believed that, as a result of their leadership training, they gained a better understanding of their own skills and how to manage themselves and others. They also identified themselves as more entrepreneurial in business and more inclined to engage in social entrepreneurship. Finally, they indicated they were more competent, independent, and team-oriented.

These outcomes confirm that summer camps produce better leaders.

Activities that promote such outcomes include counselors allowing campers to take on additional responsibilities (through leadership roles and team-building exercises) and encouraging the campers to reflect on those experiences throughout their stay. Campers might take part in sharing skills they know and teaching them to others, or they may be challenged to complete a physical or mental task they thought was not possible. Camp experiences should expose individuals to new challenges and stretch their abilities to go beyond their comfort zones. In doing this, campers increase their confidence levels and their ability to work with others in a team.

One 17-year-old told us, “Through this leadership program I learned how to put myself out there, contributing to the group discussion and decision-making. It also taught me responsibility and fairness, after all, I played a big part in all of the decisions regarding the girls in my resident unit, the activities they would do, and the best approach to the more adult conversations we had to have with them. Whatever mistake may have come from my actions, I had to be absolutely the one to fix it, and that taught me a lot about taking charge of a task and taking responsibility if something goes wrong. I learned how to work around other people’s needs and problems and how to make more effective compromises, both in working with other people and in managing my time.”

The Entrepreneurial Camper

Robert Glazer, founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners and a guest writer for entrepreneur.com, also reflects on the leadership traits promoted by the summer camp environment. He explains, “There are many practical benefits to camp that my wife and I have seen firsthand. Our children have gained leadership skills and independence at camp. They’ve learned self-advocacy and become more responsible. In fact, they’ve learned many of the same skills that entrepreneurs and emerging leaders need to be successful.” Here are a few of the most important (Glazer, 2018):

  • Take responsibility for your actions.
  • Get out of your comfort zone.
  • Focus on values and expectations.
  • Practice leadership.
  • Make time for relationship-building.

A Responsibility for Relevancy

Camp owners and directors bear huge responsibility for “delivering the goods” by way of impactful summer learning experiences, perhaps uniquely for teens whose parents may have other ideas in mind.

For them, rethinking summer can hold real, and tangible, potential.

As Glazer remarks in his aforementioned article, “Friends from outside New England sometimes look shocked when I tell them my three kids are spending the summer at a sleepaway camp in the Maine woods. ‘You send your kids away for seven weeks? Don’t you like them?’ . . . I am confident their time at camp will pay off. Learning to make friends, take responsibility, make decisions, take risks, and lead teams will give them a step up and critical leadership skills for whatever they choose to do.”

Glazer affirms, “Leadership is a tough job, and tough jobs take practice. Camp has given my kids the chance to practice making decisions and handling the consequences — experiences they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

That is why camp remains relevant for teens.

Photo courtesy of Camp Common Ground, Oakland, California.

References

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