Now that the school year is winding down, many parents and their children are shifting their focus to a wide variety of camps to fill up the summer calendar. Some parents simply need daycare for their children when school is out. Others want their children to be able to finally relax and have fun around same-aged peers after a painful academic year. Other parents see summer camp as an opportunity to give children experiences that the schools do not provide, such as outdoor experiences. Many parents are eyeing up sports camps to give their children an edge on the athletic field. A growing faction of parents want the camps to provide their children with skills they deem valuable for the future, such as coding camps. And many parents see camps as opportunities for academic enrichment and training. We want to lay out some points of consideration for parents as they think through their options.
The benefits of summer camp
Summer camps can be fun. Climbing mountains, building go-carts, playing basketball, and creating art or music are experiences that can bring pleasure to one’s life. Further, being placed in a new environment allows young people the opportunity to meet others and begin building new relationships.
Summer camps can be vital recharging opportunities for young people who are enrolled in high pressure, coercive schools. Students who are academic overachievers or come from families who put a lot of pressure on them to excel face high levels of stress that lead to long-term chronic health issues, decreased intellectual vitality, and mental health challenges. Students who are academic underachievers often see schools as centers of torture. Summer camps can allow them to temporarily make a clean break from school so they can attempt to heal.
Summer camps can provide a release for young people who feel trapped in school. Traditional schools are authoritarian, hierarchical environments with restrictive rules and guidelines that strip students of autonomy. Students who have a high sense of autonomy respond to schools as if they were prisons.
Summer camps broaden young people’s horizons. In new environments, freed from the many restrictions of school, young people are more likely to dive into new experiences and to enjoy them, particularly without the assessment and grading that is associated with schooling.
Summer camps help get young people moving. In school, young people are mostly confined to a desk during the day. Occasional recess, physical education class, or after school activities cannot undo a sedentary lifestyle. Scaling rock faces, canoeing down rivers, swimming laps, and kicking around soccer balls are great ways to get children to do what they do naturally—move.
Summer camps can allow young people to build relationships with those who are younger and older than them. At school, young people are often segregated by age, and the only people they get to interact with who are not their age are authority figures. Because summer camps are often comprised of young people from a variety of age groups, as well as camp counselors, summer camps are good environments for young people to more appropriately develop their social skills.
Summer camps can provide enrichment experiences that allow young people to develop in ways that they are not able to at school, or they can position them for future success in school by giving them a head start. Additionally, select summer camp experiences may provide some resume bullets or essay fodder for those who plan to apply to highly competitive colleges and universities.
The downsides of summer camp
Summer camps limit opportunities for self-discovery. Summertime is often an escape from school, where young people can take the time necessary to focus on themselves, and to process their life experiences. However, young people cannot do so if they are being placed in camps that eat away the summer.
Human beings benefit tremendously from unstructured free play. Unstructured free play increases creativity, permits young people to seek out new learning experiences, improves problem solving, and improves mental health. The optimal amount of unstructured free play is unlimited unstructured free play. Summer camps infringe upon the opportunity for unlimited free play, and many camps are so regimented and structured that free play is not an option.
Summer camps continue to segregate young people from society. Students spend all year holed away in a school where they do not have the opportunity to regularly interact with people three or four years older or younger than them, much less with the rest of society. By placing young people in summer camps during the summer, they are still prevented from taking their rightful place in society and having the opportunity to interact with people of all ages.
Summer camps are often captive experiences that the young person cannot opt out of, or does not have the freedom or ability to restructure. This can inhibit their sense of autonomy in school- or prison-like ways.
Summer camps only run during the summer. Acknowledging the potential benefits of summer camp, they have a very short shelf life, and then young people are sent back to school.
A better alternative
The listed benefits of summer camp outpace the listed downsides of summer camp. However, the downsides are substantially heavier than the benefits. That is why young people should not be sent away to summer camp as some sort of medicine to offset the schooling experience, or as a supplement to schooling.
A temporary reprieve from the oppressive experiences of schooling is not sufficient for healing, nor does it allow young people to lead remarkable lives. A one- or two-month summer experience does not erase what happens during the schoolyear, and thinking of summer as a way to reset young people is a form of punting on the necessity of taking action to promote the health and welfare of children.
Young people need more than just an escape from school, or “better” enrichment activities than school offers; young people need to live lives of autonomy and freedom. Only when young people are freed from the burden of being subjected to schooling for 7 hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years of their lives will they have the opportunity to engage in and benefit from unlimited free play. And only when they have the opportunity to engage in unlimited free play will they also have the time to be with themselves to process, and to come to an understanding of themselves.
There are no shortcuts to leading a remarkable life. Free play and down time are not extracurricular activities. Being free from assessment, grading, and judgment some of the time does not undo the harm from being assessed, graded, and judged the rest of the time. Young people do not learn how to take control of their lives because they go to a summer camp, they learn how to take control of their lives when they are given the responsibility of making the decisions that are relevant to their lives. And that needs to be an all the time responsibility.
Summer camps can be beneficial, and worthwhile. But only as something that young people choose to engage in as a part of a broader self-directed lifestyle. Summer camps should be seen as learning experiences. But life is filled with learning experiences when one is not constrained to coercive schooling environments.
1. We chose not to attempt to create an exhaustive list of benefits or downsides of summer camp.
Imagine the following experiment. Researchers place hundreds of rats into a large cage. The rats are then separated into groups of about 20, and each group is placed in their own partitioned space within the cage. The rats are not permitted to move around in that space; they are each assigned to a specific spot, and must remain stationary for 40-minute blocks of time. If they move from their assigned spot, they are subjected to a stress inducing sound.
The rats are not allowed to socialize with other rats while they are in their assigned spots. Instead, they are given menial tasks that they must perform to a time-based standard. They have no control over which menial tasks they are to perform. If they are caught socializing with other rats during the 40-minute block of time, or if they fail to perform the assigned tasks, they are subjected to a stress inducing sound.
At the end of each 40-minute block, the rats are released from their stationary positions for five minutes so they can be moved to their next assigned spot in a different partitioned space within the cage. They are allowed to socialize with other rats during the move, but if they are not in their assigned spot and performing their required menial tasks within the five-minute time limit, they are subjected to a stress inducing sound.
These 40-minute blocks make up the bulk of their day, with two exceptions. For 40 minutes each day they are permitted to roam free in a designated portion of the cage that may or may not have a beam of sunlight that falls upon it. And for another 40-minute block, they are permitted to eat processed rat food.
The sequence of these 40-minute blocks do not change over the course of the year. Each day is virtually identical to the day before it, with only a slight variation in the menial tasks that the rats are expected to carry out.
How do you think the rats in this experiment would fare in terms of physical, emotional, and mental health relative to a free-range rat? Physically, they would suffer. 40 minutes of free play per day cannot offset a sedentary existence. Cardiovascular health and muscular fitness would likely deteriorate, and the rats would probably begin to gain weight. The processed rat food would likely accelerate the weight gain, unless the rats lost their appetite for food. The poor quality of the processed rat food would likely contribute to malnourishment and longer-term health complications. The rats’ physical health would be further debilitated by emotional and mental stress.
Emotionally, the rats would have been prevented from socializing with other rats for a majority of their time in the cage. Rats are social animals, and the inability to socialize would lead to harmful behaviors during the small windows of time they would be permitted to interact with one another. It would not be surprising to see increased aggression and violence from select members of the rat community, especially in their attempts to exert dominance over one another, as is common among animals that spend much of their existence being controlled by others (e.g., researchers). The emotional stress experienced by the rats would negatively impact their physical and mental health.
Mentally, large number of rats would likely suffer from depression, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, or behavioral disorder, among other negative mental health effects. Their confined conditions coupled with a lack of autonomy and control would lead to serious mental illness for a significant number of rats. The resulting mental health complications of these rats would contribute to a degraded experience for the other rats, threatening their emotional and mental health, as well.
Now imagine that these rats are children. The structures and practices outlined in the experiment mimic the conditions children are subjected to in traditional schools. If it is inhumane to subject lab rats to such an experiment, it should logically follow that it is inhumane to subject children to traditional schooling.