How Summer Camp Should Inform School

Photograph from Camp Maxwelton summer 1979 (the blogger is third from the left)

Over the next couple of months, they will open up the musty storage sheds where they stacked the mattresses in mid-August. They will pull the canoes out to count and inspect even though the weather is not yet warm enough to spend much time on the lake before mid-morning. They will walk the docks with hammers ready to knock nails back into place after the Puck-like freezes and thaws that released them from their places. And they will paint—the dining hall, the gymnasium stage, the woodshop. They will face some ad hoc tasks too: pulling the bee hive from the under the eave of Cabin 8, evicting black widows from the softball field storage bin, rebuilding a lost cause stall door in the barn.

In the evenings they will be thinking about the people who are coming before the people who are coming have yet had much time to think about summer, and they will busy themselves making plans—for summer camp.

It has been many years now since I was the Program Director of a boys camp in western North Carolina and even more since I spent a year right after college working there during the off-season, and yet as the school year begins to turn toward its final stretch, my mind turns back once in a while to camp.

It has long been a guiding thought for me that the best of summer camp should inform schools. The best of summer camp includes: flexibility in scheduling—a willingness to break the routine when good learning and fun benefits from it, ample chances to laugh with others, myriad chances to try something new, time to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, time to take care of the shared environment of the camp community (such communities don’t wait for someone else to clean up behind them). Most importantly, the best of summer camp includes the space—literally and figuratively—for young people to become both more independent and more empathetic. At a good camp one finds not only that there are things greater than oneself, but that one is a vital part of those greater things.

The best schools create an environment that allows for the same discovery.

(I went to Camp Maxwelton in Rockbridge Baths, VA as a boy, later working there for a couple of summers before college. During college and after I worked at Camp Pinnacle in Hendersonville, NC.)

13 thoughts on “How Summer Camp Should Inform School

  1. scootd March 25, 2012 / 7:59 am

    Sea Gull winds are blowing!….reading that summer camp blog brings back the salt air breezes of Camp Sea Gull, where I spent six, wonderful, “flexible”!!, summers.

  2. Bartley Griffith March 26, 2012 / 9:20 pm

    This post resonates with me, Ross. My work as a summer camp counselor rather than my time in school inspired my initial interest in teaching and education. I raise the following question: What does assessment look like at a summer camp? How did we know, as either campers or counselors, that things were working? That in the face of all those mosquitoes and late-night pranks that we were actually learning something?

    • J Ross Peters March 27, 2012 / 7:25 am

      You ask a key question I think, Bart, because we did know, didn’t we? What was there beyond a sense of feel that allowed us to know we were learning? Maybe the feel of it was enough in the context of camp. Perhaps the richness of learning was most fully realized or represented in the cohesiveness of the community, in our powerful drive to return year after to year in so many cases. As human beings I sense that we congregate where the sweet water is,where the food is, and when we have the luxury, where the meaning is and the learning is.

      • Vin January 8, 2013 / 3:12 pm

        Looking forward to digging into John’s find.
        Thanks for the link to that article, John. You guys may have seen the Time Magazine article a year and a half ago that showed the summer achievement slide that kids from impoverished backgrounds feel over the summer. The article does not address it, but the same graphs show that kids from middle and upper incomes gained in achievement over the summer when most of them were out of school. I concluded that the phenomenon mentioned above is part of the reason. Instead of keeping poor kids in school over the summer, we need to find ways to give them more camp experiences, or the chance to pursue interests.

        Ross, some of my best metaphors for my teaching come from my Waterman and outdoor ed experiences and from coaching rowing. As a Waterman yourself you are probably familiar with what I am talking about.
        I took a stab at making the link that Ross is talking about in this article a couple of years ago, in case you are interested:

  3. John Thompson June 14, 2013 / 1:44 pm

    Just stumbled upon this now – and as the guy to your right in this photo (hey man! hope you are well), all I can do is echo your sentiments. The fact that not only do I remember bits and pieces of almost every day I spent at Camp Maxwelton over those six summers from 1976-1981, but that I remember the names of everyone in this photo – Carter Thompson, Ross, and Tupper Hyde – when I can often barely remember what I had for lunch, speaks volumes. Great stuff.

    • J Ross Peters June 14, 2013 / 7:55 pm

      John–how cool we reconnect over this photograph! I am glad we bullied that photographer into taking our picture this way. Hope you are well.

  4. J Ross Peters March 21, 2016 / 11:22 am

    Reblogged this on Ross All Over the Map and commented:

    I was reminded of this entry today and have been thinking of its relevance, particularly this sentence…”At a good camp one finds not only that there are things greater than oneself, but that one is a vital part of those greater things.”

  5. Tim Ludwig March 21, 2016 / 11:41 am

    How How

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