Tiger Fun: Saving the World by Taking Camp Seriously

Beneath Amy Chua’s personal struggle in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother lies a deeper ambivalence about learning: What on earth should we do with our children outside of school, during unstructured free time? Chua is at times conflicted but wryly proud of her intense, authoritarian solution, a luxury reserved for high-achieving, high-functioning parents. At the end of this best-seller, I felt rattled by Chua’s belief that education happens only in connection to school or homemade settings that are rigorously academic.

So entrenched is this education–school link that year-round school is routinely proposed as the answer to educational deficits among US youth. Ironically, summer holds the potential to endow children and adolescents with the life skills and values they need to become healthy adults with important careers that make meaningful contributions to society. Formal schooling has tremendous value, but one key to a complete education is a high-quality camp experience.

Research on the benefits of summer camp has conclusively validated 150 years of conventional wisdom. Camp does accelerate the development of young people’s social skills, self-esteem, independence, spirituality, sense of adventure, and environmental awareness. Astute camp directors know that combining community living away from home with a natural setting and a recreational premise creates hearty, happy, healthy children who know how to work together, win with humility, and lose with grace. They become resilient, motivated, and emotionally intelligent.

In the United States and around the world, visionary adults have created excellent children’s camps; our challenge now is to give camp to many more children. For every child who attends summer camp in the United States, there are about five who do not. Ethnic minority children, including Chua’s own biracial children, are especially under-represented at US camps.

Since biblical times, wise adults have outlined the youthful precursors to successful adulthood. Every decade or so, a new group of adults laments the shortcomings of that generation’s youth and restates their vision about how those young people can overcome their failings. Most recently, The Partnership for 21st Century Skills recast the optimal outcomes of youth development as aptitude in: professionalism/work ethic; oral and written communication; teamwork/collaboration; and critical thinking. If corporate America is smart enough to understand that applied skills are essential for success, when will parents wake up to the importance of summer camp?

Summer camp was predictably absent from the recommendations in Are They Really Ready to Work? (co-authored by The Partnership). Yet the report, published in 2006, suggests a variety of action steps that camps have been taking since the mid-1800s. These include: teaching young people to make appropriate choices concerning health and wellness; offering activities that nurture creative thinking and socially skilled problem-solving; and providing opportunities for leadership.

Some would have us believe that fun learning is an oxymoron anywhere beyond preschool. If we stay fixed in that mindset, summer camp is doomed, along with our children’s mental health. Happiness is not a quaint byproduct of leisure; it’s the driving force behind success. We do our best — at work, at play, and in relationships — when we’re having fun. From that standpoint, summer camp becomes the perfect complement to traditional education. To Harvard University’s president, Charles W. Eliot, this was clear in 1922 when he declared, “The organized summer camp is the most important step in education that America has given the world.”

Parents should know that Eliot’s wise words pale in comparison to the words of enthusiasm that young people routinely use to describe their camp experience, such as:

  • “At camp, I make friends easily.”
  • “At camp, I get to try new things…stuff that might not be cool at school.”
  • “At camp, the pressures of school disappear and I can just relax and have fun.”
  • “At camp, I can be a leader by setting a good example for my friends.”
  • “At camp, I feel close to nature and to the planet.”
  • “At camp, I get to be myself.”

Parents might be surprised to know that it is this last response, “At camp, get to be myself,” that holds the most transformative power for youth.  When boys and girls find their authentic voices in a safe, nurturing, and challenging environment, they experience a rush of self-confidence.  This self-confidence then carries forward into other domains at home, school, and beyond.  It fuels their willingness to explore and learn, which is a key predictor of later success.

A high quality camp experience does more than halt summer learning loss; it provides experiences that accelerate development in the very direction employers crave. To quote one of my former leaders-in-training from Camp Belknap, “What I learned at Princeton and in medical school never could have prepared me to be chief resident at Johns Hopkins. It was my experience at summer camp that earned me that spot. I’m confident it’s also what will make me a good parent.”

What more could moms and dads possibly need to hear to convince them of the necessity of enrolling their son or daughter in summer camp? Although many US schools need serious improvement, we have less of an educational deficit than many believe. We have summer camps, created a century and a half ago by professional educators to bolster classroom education. It is now a moral imperative that we fulfill our commitment to our children by embracing the complementary relationship between schools and camps.

A version of this article was originally published in the 2011 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.  Reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association.  ©2011 American Camping Association, Inc.