Back to School

Camp Lake Swimming

This time of year, as we head back to school and the memories of our time at camp can seem far away, it’s a good idea to reflect upon some of the important habits and skills we learned during our stay at Rockbrook, and to realize how important they can be throughout the rest of the year.  But what are some of those values? What are some of the surprising things camp taught us that can still serve us well at school?

At Rockbrook this summer we learned:

—things are more fun when we include everyone
—you can be creative with just about anything
—making friends is easy when we respect and care for each other
—everything is better in a costume 🙂

Of course there are a lot of other ways camp helps kids grow too.

Peg Smith, the CEO of the American Camp Association, also wants kids to remember what they learned at camp, in particular the “Three Cs” — Confidence, Curiosity, and Character. Pack all these great things in your school backpack. You know camp is awesome; now make that true for school too!

Worth Preserving

Learning archery and arrows at summer campThe NC Legislature just passed a bill, and the Governor has signed it, establishing a commission to study the current length of the school year in North Carolina. For the last couple of years, there has been a broad debate about how much classroom learning our children should have. On one side there are those that call for more time in school, more minutes in class per day and more days per year, because it’s believed academic achievement is proportional to the amount of time in school and it’s been observed that children lose some of their academic progress over the summer when they aren’t studying. On the other side, there are those that value the traditional summer break from school (June through August) and understand it as an opportunity to learn equally important non-academic skills, so-called “life skills” or “personal skills.” These are things like being creative and independent, being friendly and outgoing, being resilient and determined, and so forth.

It’s easy to guess what side summer camps come down on. We cherish the summer months because they provide time for camp, naturally, but what’s important about that is all the important “whole child” learning camp provides even as our kids are having a great time. Check out these two articles we’ve already written on this issue: Longer School Year and Amy Chua and Camp.

There’s plenty to say about this, and I’m sure there will be even more debate as time goes on, but it’s worth remembering the real growth children experience at summer camp. When your Rockbrook girls return home, you’ll see it. They’ll be more excited about things, more likely to “dive right in,” and be quick to smile and laugh at the most common moments. They’ll probably seem just a little taller, in several different ways. A camp experience provides so many benefits that are difficult to reproduce at home and at school, it can make a profound difference in a girl’s overall education, and that’s something really worth preserving.

Girls ready to slide down the rock Brevard Sliding Rock Top

Girls love sliding rockToday, as part of our cabin day events, we took all of the mini session Middlers and Seniors to Sliding Rock. The Seniors took a morning trip and the Middlers an evening trip. With snacks packed (and a complete dinner for the Middlers— Rick’s chicken potato casserole, coleslaw, bacon, and nectarines— an amazing, delicious combination), we loaded all the buses for each trip into Pisgah. On both trips we went “after hours” so we could have the rock to ourselves and the girls could slide as many times as they wanted. The record I heard was 11 times. That’s a lot of slippin’ and slidin’! As the girls sit down at the top of the rock and they feel the cold water hit them in the back, it can be bit of a shock, the kind that brings out plenty of wide-mouthed screams. But as they begin sliding, pick up speed and get closer to the final plunge, just about everyone either has her hands in the air, is holding her nose, or is screaming her head off! Sometimes all three!

Topping off these trips, we just had to stop at Dolly’s so everyone could pick out a cup or cone of their favorite flavor of ice cream. Dolly’s is a wonderful ice cream stand located at the entrance to the Pisgah Forest that offers more than 50 different flavors, one of which is named after Rockbrook (there are 20 other camp flavors too), “Rockbrook Chocolate Illusion.” Yes, it’s an all-chocolate flavor with fudge, brownies and chocolate chips mixed in, but also mini-peanut butter cups to “lighten it up.” A little over the top, but yummy.

We are all having a great time… a getting a lot out of it!

Campers Happy at Dolly's

SUCCESS Act – H.R. 5963

Summer Camp Girls Success

Have you heard of the SUCCESS Act (H.R. 5963), a bill introduced last year by US. Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York? “SUCCESS” is an acronym for (promoting) Students Using the Camp Community for Enrichment, Strength, and Success. Essentially this bill would direct the Secretary of Education to fund pilot programs exploring how the summer camp experience promotes physical activity and healthy lifestyles among children and youth, reduces summer learning loss, and promotes academic achievement.

It’s long been known among summer camp professionals, and among camp parents, that children who attend camp receive unique and valuable benefits. Because of camp, kids are better prepared for school when they return, are more physically fit by virtue of the activities at camp, and are more socially adept and emotionally mature (confident, independent, resilient). Likewise, it’s clear camp kids struggle less with childhood obesity and summer learning loss, two issues that are rampant and negatively impacting today’s children in America.

This legislation recognizes these benefits of a camp experience and aims to study how they can be more broadly known, made more widely available to children throughout the country, and how they can be more tightly integrated with school curricula. We know camp is powerful, but let’s talk about how and let’s get more children involved so they too can benefit from the experience. This bill would be a good step toward that goal.

The American Camp Association is promoting the SUCCESS Act as well.

Unfortunately, this bill “died” in the Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities during the 111th Congress, and thus far in the new 112th congress, it has not been reintroduced. In today’s federal budget climate, it’s hard to imagine this new congress being too excited about bolstering our nation’s public education, in even the small step the SUCCESS Act was designed to achieve. That’s a shame, you have to admit.

Interrupt the Race to Nowhere

Crazy Summer FunAfter discussing the rigorous, driven parenting style recounted by Amy Chua, the recent documentary film Race to Nowhere adds fuel to the fire. In their desire to do “what’s best” for their kids, to provide them “every opportunity,” and to cheer them on to “work hard” toward their goals, the film shows parents pushing their kids to the brink. It’s heartbreaking to see in the film the anxiety both school kids and their parents are dealing with as they race between school work, team practice, and other responsibilities. The quality of what they eat and the amount of sleep they get are the first to be sacrificed in this pressure to excel, but kids are also, I would say, giving up important parts of their childhood. In the name of “getting into a good college” and later, “getting a good job” they have hopped on a treadmill that’s speeding past valuable opportunities to develop as healthy, happy human beings.

Here again, we have to applaud the power of a traditional sleepaway summer camp to act as a welcome relief from these pressures. Rockbrook is a down-to-earth community of people who simply love to relax, be themselves, make good solid friendships, and enjoy the pure freedom of summer. We’re a zany bunch, always in motion, and always ready to try something new for the fun of it. Camp, like the best moments of childhood, is full of unexpected pleasures. Surrounded by equally enthusiastic people, it’s easy to be excited about everything!

The lasting benefits of a camp experience are very well documented, but here’s another. It’s simply wonderful for kids to take a break from the pressures of school. Interrupting the “race to nowhere” with camp is a very good idea.

Amy Chua and Summer Camp

Camp Kids Creek PlayingHave you run into Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, or heard any of the controversy surrounding it? The book is mostly a memoir of Chua’s own childhood and her Chinese mother’s parenting style, but it’s also an account of how she is raising her own children with similarly strict, high standards, as opposed to what she sees as the overly indulgent, coddling, and soft ways of western parenting. Some of the anecdotes are shocking… demanding thousands of math problems be completed in training for a competition, threatening to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals if a music composition wasn’t played flawlessly, and refusing to allow her daughters to attend a sleepovers because they are a waste of time. It’s not too hard to see why American mothers were so quick to denounce the book as horrible parenting advice.

After hearing about this, you have to wonder if Amy Chua ever sent her kids to summer camp. I kind of doubt it. We can only speculate, but for parents that value intellectual, musical or athletic achievement over everything else, spending weeks at summer camp to “just play” doesn’t make much sense. Calls for a longer school year, and thereby a greater opportunity for classroom learning, are akin to this attitude. The idea is that if you really want to be good at something, even the best at it, then you have to give up other things. Superior achievement requires sacrifice! While it is true, this approach can yield highly trained, skilled people, you have to wonder “at what cost?” Sure you might be a top-notch pianist, but what did you miss out on when you were doing all that practicing? Yes, we can all be a lot better at math and science if we study all year round and you might even be a world-class athlete, but with all that training, do you have any time for other parts of yourself? Your creativity, your friends, your undiscovered talents? Sadly, the answer in most of these cases is “no.”

Amy Chua’s book reminds us that training our kids too rigorously, at the expense of the “whole child,” can have serious consequences. Like a blind devotion to academic achievement, we risk narrowing educational experience and perspective to the point of debility.

Fortunately (and I would include Chua here), most parents understand the value of providing their children diverse educational opportunities because they want them to grow up with a wide range of personal skills that can serve them later in life.

That’s why parents send their children to Rockbrook.  They want more for their girls than just what school provides.  They understand the tremendous benefits of a summer camp experience.  They know camp is fun, but more importantly, is a break from all the “practices” of the school year, where girls can relax and explore all the other sides of who they are.

A Longer School Year?

Camp Learning Outdoor Wonder

The issue of summer learning and “student achievement” has popped back up in the news. Yesterday, President Obama gave an interview and said he favored lengthening the school year (and of course, shortening the summer break from school). He suggested American kids were falling behind because other developed countries go to school more of the year—the assumption here being we all would be smarter and achieve more if we stayed in school for more classroom learning.

Apparently quoting his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, Mr. Obama also cited studies showing students “losing what they learned” after taking the summer off, with the effects being particularly significant for poorer children who don’t have opportunities to learn when away from school. “A longer school year makes sense,” he concluded. Here’s an article where you can read more and see the video.

Of course, it’s impossible to convey the full complexity of this issue in a 30-second answer, and while easily debatable, it’s clear that making a “longer school year” the centerpiece of education reform is a direct threat to the American tradition of summer camp. The American Camp Association was quick to say as much and question the President’s opinion. According to the ACA, children receive crucial educational benefits from their experiences at camp; they learn things they can’t learn at school, and if we are concerned with educating the “whole child” we shouldn’t extend classroom learning, but instead broaden the opportunities for all children to benefit from camps and other summer experiential programs.

Many questions are yet to be answered. Should we model our school calendar on the values and assumptions of other countries and cultures? Should we sacrifice the benefits of non-classroom learning that can occur in the summer for the enhanced academic/intellectual learning gained from more school time? Do we really value science knowledge over resilient self-esteem, and mathematics over caring, compassion and teamwork? Could the expense of extending the school year be better applied to fund summer camps and experiential outdoor programs?

In education reform, let’s not be too quick to adopt this kind of simple solution that carries too many negative consequences for our children. Instead, let’s be creative with the whole child in mind. Let’s start by recognizing “multiple intelligences,” and from there seek to encourage every child to explore all of their talents and hidden abilities. Let’s remember that education is so much more than what school provides.

Summer Learning for Children

There’s been another push recently, here in North Carolina and other places, to lengthen the school year by shortening the time students have off in the summer. Taking a look back at the history of schools in America, it’s interesting to see that this has been a long trend. During the pioneer days of this country children grew up on farms and helped their families with the seasonal work farming required. Most of their time was spent outside, working, and learning practical skills. This left only the winter months to supplement this “real” education with “book learning,” the kind of intellectual development we associate with school nowadays. It’s true; school used to only be 3 months of the year!

Summer Camp Learning KidsAs cities grew, Americans became less tied to summer agricultural work, and so the time available for school increased. This meant the school calendar was simply extended, back into the fall and forward into the spring. The agricultural origins of our traditional school calendar, with time off in the summer, was retained even as the need for its seasonality waned. The summer, of course, became a time when all kinds of non-classroom educational opportunities could therefore flourish. Summer camps, programs to “train the eye and hand,” outdoor work and travel became an important part of growing up in America. Leading educators, John Dewey for example, came out in favor of the learning that goes on in the summer, the importance of educating the whole child, encouraging creativity and building healthy “minds and bodies.” The importance of preserving the summer as time away from the classroom was long understood and valued.

As pressures to advance the educational system in America have increased, however, school system administrators have looked to the summer “vacation” as a means to increase classroom time, and theoretically by extension student achievement. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it this way when he called summer “an inexplicable, counterproductive anachronism that takes youths out of an educational setting for 2-3 months every year.” The argument here is that if we want children to learn as much as possible, they should be in school as much as possible.

Ugh. That argument, however, is based on a fundamentally flawed assumption, namely that classroom learning in school is more valuable than the education children receive over the summer. Current research has demonstrated, quite conclusively, just the opposite— that a summer camp experience, for example, provides tremendous benefits for children, unique gains far beyond what they could find at school.  These are huge benefits too… some of which, like confidence, communication and leadership, serve as pillars later life.  Shrinking the opportunity for children to attend summer programs and camps, in the name of academic achievement, is short-sighted and comes at a great cost.

It may be harder to measure the important life lessons gained over the summer, and it may currently be difficult to provide organized summer programs for all children, but the opportunity for crucial youth development outcomes is undeniably linked to time spent at summer camp.  Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to promote that opportunity for our children?  Yes we should, and that means preserving the summer and resisting the temptation to lengthen the school year.