Summer camp: the ultimate 21st century skills learning environment

By Andy Pritikin

It used to be so easy. Mom was home, and kids wanted to play outside, as we only had seven channels on the television (and no central air). Boy, how times have changed.Technological advances have profoundly affected life, as we know it, including how we raise our children.

Most families rely on two sources for child rearing, (1) What we as parents teach our children at home, and (2) what educators teach our children in school. But there is a third, very important arena that many parents do not consider:What is taught to our children when we, the parents, aren’t with them, when they are away from us and away from school.This is when they are actually most able and willing to learn.This is where the summer camp experience comes into play.

PROBLEM: Too much technology consumption

Technology is a drug, and we parents are the drug pushers.While parents recognize the inherent issues, the majority of American families do not institute (or uphold) rules to govern their children’s technology consumption. It’s right in front of our eyes — the 2-year-old scrolling through Mom’s iPhone, kids who can’t ride in a car for more than two minutes without a movie playing or a handheld electronic device, and older children addicted to violent video games. Most parents give their children these technological gadgets thinking that it relaxes them, when in fact they are being greatly stimulated, suppressing their capability to control their emotions (self-regulate).Today’s children are less able to cope with challenging situations, as most lack resiliency and patience. Kindergarten teachers tell us how their students are no longer able to build large-scale projects, as they get frustrated and quit.

Parents can’t figure out how to mitigate it technology consumption.They often choose to avoid negative interactions, since they have so little time with their children to begin with. But when summer comes around and school obligations end, the opportunity is out there for a digital detox in the sun, dirt and sweat of summer camp — the only place that kids give up their phones, Xboxes,TVs, computers and thank you for it!

In an unplugged environment, camp helps children develop emotional selfcontrol, allowing them to find connections within themselves — a vital part of growing up. Camp also provides a unique environment for kids to learn how to share, co-create and collaborate with one another, developing friendship skills along the way.

PROBLEM: 21st century skills not taught in school

“21st Century Skills” are defined as the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to be competitive in the modern day workforce.The Partnership for 21st Century Skills ( is a non-profit organization comprised of some of the biggest, most successful businesses in the USA. p21 researched and compiled a list of the specific skills that these companies seek in their new hires.The answers were not the “3 R’s” which our schools focus on, but “the 3 C’s”:

1. critical thinking and problem solving

2. creativity and innovation

3. communication and collaboration

They also listed the following life skills as most important for their new employees:

  •  flexibility and adaptability
  •  initiative and self direction
  •  social and cross-cultural skills
  •  productivity and accountability
  •  leadership and responsibility

Unfortunately, the wonderful teachers in our schools focus a major portion of their classroom time on preparation for standardized tests.The newest educational reform uses a term called “Depth of Knowledge” (DOK), which measures the process of transferring and applying knowledge to different situations. While this is a step in the right direction, the new Core Curriculum does not measure collaboration, creativity, initiative, leadership or responsibility — skills that are taught extensively at summer camp.The teachers who work for me in the summer say that they wish their classrooms could be more like summer camp.While working at Liberty Lake, they tell me,“Now THIS is why I became a teacher.”

SOLUTION: Children’s Summer Camp

Below is a typical camp experience, acknowledging 21st century life skills:

 Parents sign up their children for summer camp, children anticipate it for the upcoming months, having inner-conversations, keeping their emotions in check, and imagining what it will be like. (self-control, emotional control, selfdistraction).

 Children take the bus or get dropped off at camp, breaking free of their parents and embarking on exciting new experiences (independence, initiative, courage, optimism).

 Children become part of a group/bunk at camp, sharing responsibilities and working together, all while being a good person. (teamwork, responsibility, accountability, integrity)

 Children participate in activities throughout their day, including swim, athletics, arts and adventure.They try new things, listen to the staff members, and push themselves and their peers to new heights (aspiration, curiosity, respect, leadership).

 Children experience the ups and downs of making and keeping friendships (integrity, communication, adaptability, patience).

Camp is the ultimate “depth of knowledge” environment for teaching 21st century life skills.We see it every day in the growth of our campers (and staff), and more and more camps are doing the research to actually prove it.

At Liberty Lake, we survey campers during their final week of camp with us, and ask them questions based on the growth of the life skills we focus on. When asked last summer how their teamwork skills changed at camp, 63.3 percent said they “increased some, I am sure”, and 33 percent said they “increased a lot, I am sure” — a 96 percent reported increase.

We also surveyed parents, and 81 percent reported seeing an increase in their children’s teamwork skills at home, in regard to an improvement in interpersonal skills, ability to effectively communicate, cooperation, collaboration, leadership, and supporting/helping others. The results were similarly positive for the other character skills measured.

Like a life-skills multi-vitamin, summer camp is supplement for modern society. In a world where parents battle for their children’s attention from video screens, and school teachers focus on teaching for the tests, summer camp provides a wonderfully unique environment for learning the skills that parents and future employers yearn for our children to develop — skills of character, skills for life!

Andy Pritikin is the owner/director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Mansfield Township, as well as the president of the American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey. LibertyLake-,