Everyday, I write a fresh blog. To be clear, I am not saying that they are good blogs, but they are unique to the day. I try to make them entertaining – as a fellow “adult”, I want to give you a window into the life of a camp director.

I might talk about the camp dog, our odd schedule or a cute camper quote. [Note: my favorite from an 8 year old girl on her birthday. Her counselor asked her how she was doing. “Great!!” she responded, “I wish I had more thumbs to hold up!”]

But occasionally, I find myself in a more serious mood. On those days, the blogs are a little “heavy”. Please allow me one such article today.

This Spring, a large camp association asked me to serve as a keynote speaker. I was flattered, but also a bit intimidated. “What would you like me to cover?”

“I have heard you argue that camps are more relevant now than ever before. Explain that to us.”

I will save you the details of the talk (it was rather long), but I would love to share the central ideas.

  • I believe that camps help foster the skills that young people will need to flourish in the modern world. Computers and machines will replace a great deal of human jobs; but creativity, collaboration and communication remain uniquely human skills that machines cannot soon replace. Children who are skilled in these areas will have an advantage. Also, flexibility, adaptability and resilience will be essential for success. Summer camp is a perfect environment to teach and promote these skills (my previous article on 21stCentury Skills discusses some of this). Camp also addresses three negative trends that affect young people in the US.
  • The first negative trend is “test-centric education”. I understand the importance of accountability in education – we want to know what schools are strong and which ones are weak. Standardized tests seem like a great way to measure school performance. But I would argue that the tests themselves change the schools in important ways. First, teachers often “teach to the test”, stressing material in the exams more than other equally important (but non-measured) material. But that is not the primary problem. The biggest problem is the fact that test-centric education destroys (or at the least impairs) innovation. The leading innovators talk about the importance of finding NEW answers, working in TEAMS and being willing to FAIL multiple times while searching for answers. So innovation centers around creativity, teamwork and resilience. Now look at high-stakes tests like the SAT. They reflect individualwork over groupwork. The test taker is looking for an existinganswer rather than an as-yet-undiscoveredanswer. Finally, high-stakes tests train students to fear failureand take few chances.
  • The second trend is what I call “over-parenting”. I wrote a little about this earlier this week, so I will not belabor the points. In short, if we do things for our children, we are denying them the chance to learn on their own AND we are sending them the signal that they cannot do it on their own. To be clear, I have never met a parent that meant to send this message. The message they want to send is “I love you and I do not want you to struggle”, but the research I am reading suggests that they hear a different message: “I do this for you because I worry that you cannot succeed or thrive on your own.” If the future will require resilience and adaptability, protecting our children from struggle (especially when the stakes are low) denies them the chance to build capability and grit. I used to dread discussing this with parents, but I have found that virtually every parent I meet wishes that he or she could be a little more hands-off. But the current trends of parenting often make parents feel guilty if they are not deeply involved with all aspects of their child’s life. The parents I talk to all feel like the other parents are pushing them to do more, but they wish they could do a bit less.
  • The third and most concerning trend is “technological inundation”. I plan to write a more detailed article about this, but allow me to give a summary. I know that technology (including social media) has the ability to make our lives better and richer, but we are simply consuming too much of it. The average teenager will spend almost 60 hours each week looking at an electronic screen (up from 53 hours in 2012 with the increase almost all attributable to social media). Researchers report striking and undeniable increases in feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression since 2012 as described chillingly in this article (Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation). Interpersonal skills are dropping at a time when they will be the key to success later. Ultimately, our problem is over-consumption. I like to compare technology to food. Both food and tech are essential to our existence. I would never recommend to anyone to abstain from all technology any more than I would recommend fasting as a permanent lifestyle. But, like food, we need to consume a) the right technology and in b) the right proportions. Video games and Snapchat are like Doritos or ice cream – they are a fun treat, but not the basis for a full diet. Children are simply consuming too much. Imagine if our children were eating 8 meals a day. Even if the food were healthy, they would soon become obese. But if those meals are empty calories, they will really become ill. The key is not technological abstention, but moderation. Sadly, we do not really know how to teach moderation in technology – or, for that matter, live it ourselves. It is worth noting that virtually every teen I talk to wishes that she or he could spend LESS time on social media and technology, but they feel trapped. Like the parents that all feel like their neighbors are compelling them to parent more, these teens all feel like they must be on their devices all the time to “keep up” socially.
  • Summer camp is test-free, away-from-home and tech-free. As a result, it serves as a powerful counterbalance to some of the excesses children are experiencing. Please do not think I am suggesting that camps solve all problems. If children were technologically illiterate and never saw their parents, then camp would be far less valuable. But in today’s world, having a safe and loving place that is tech free is a powerful tool.
  • Finally, camps must accept this opportunity to impact families and children. We camp professionals cannot see ourselves as recreation experts, but as educators and youth developers. We need to be committed partners with our parents. After all, we are talking about the most important resource in the world – our children.

Steve Sir