The Importance of Summer Camp and Time OutdoorsDecember 9, 2013
An article in Tuesday’s Slate magazine made us smile. It pointed out the fundamental need children (and adults, too) have to spend unstructured time outside, unplugging from the virtual world. It also made the case for the importance of summer camp in children’s lives.
The article by Emily Bazelon reviews a documentary called School’s Out, about a pre-school and kindergarten in Switzerland that takes place outside all year round. Even in snowy or rainy weather the kids and teachers are tromping around in the mountains. In sharp contrast to the standard American curriculum of learning letters, number and shapes, these Swiss students spend their days running and playing with nature. Her descriptions of the kids and their interactions in the movie reminded me a great deal of what we see at our summer camp in NH. The freedom to explore the natural world around them gives the children organic lessons in how to navigate, negotiate, try new things, and simply relate to one another through imaginative play. That feels exactly like one of my favorite times of the daily schedule at Camps Kenwood and Evergreen: Free Play.
While much of the daily schedule at our summer camp in NH is structured, we also set aside time each and every day for our campers to explore freely, try new things, and learn the important skill of hanging out with peers. Free Play last for about an hour each evening after dinner, and it is typically listed as the 1st or 2nd most favorite activity of all of our campers. How could it not be? How many kids do you know who have an hour free every single night after dinner to work on art projects, play a pickup game of a sport, or just sit on a grassy hill with friends and gab? Sadly, none that I know (including my own two). Along with teaching our campers how to hit groundstrokes and successfully waterski, our summer camp in NH’s curriculum includes teaching children how to be independent and explore their world. As the author of this great article points out, unstructured free time does not come naturally to most children anymore.
We should pause over [the researchers] underlying concern, about the implications of constantly channeling kids in a predetermined direction. This isn’t just about reliance on technology—it’s also a byproduct of the enormous anxiety parents feel about screwing up. The well-beaten path is easier to justify than the road to who knows where. The straighter and narrower, the better.
And yet, somewhere in our hearts, plenty of parents know that just can’t be right— not all the time, anyway.
Repeated studies have shown that when recess is delayed, children pay less and less attention. They are more focused on days when they have recess. A major study in Pediatrics found that children with more than 15 minutes of recess a day were far better behaved in class than children who had shorter recess breaks or none at all.
As a summer camp director and a parent of two small children the concept put forth in this movie seems rather intuitive. Children (and not just young children) learn a tremendous amount when they step outside of the classroom. Human beings thrive when they have time to run, jump, and even when they fall down. Our children need to spend unstructured, unplugged time pursuing what interests them. They will cognitively benefit from hikes, fresh air, and occasionally returning home with muddy shoes. They benefit from learning that as human beings they innately have the tools to wander, get lost, and find their way.
As much as I loved this article, it saddened me that it wasn’t until the final sentence that she was able to connect the dots, and declare how important a part of the educational equation summer camp is.
Back in Connecticut, the New Haven teacher also talks about the importance of introducing her students to materials that don’t have to be used in a certain way. [researchers cited in the article] point out that some apps and games are built to push kids in this direction—they’re “enabling” rather than dependence-building. I’m all for that, but it’s hard to imagine a more natural way to instill this capacity in kids then sending them outside every day. If we can’t have forest kindergarten in the United States, can we at least try universal summer camp?
Bravo to Emily Brazelon for recognizing what so many other child development experts have as well: that all children need summer camp because it’s fun and it teaches many of the crucial life skills that our schools are no longer able to teach. We cannot underestimate the importance of summer camp!