Why Can’t School be More Like Camp?

SchooolLikeCampYesterday, my fourth grade son came home from school downcast.  It’s his third week at a new school, and I had encouraged him to find a friend or two to invite over to swim.   He had asked two boys for their phone numbers, and the boys had said they were “adopted brothers” and written down a fake phone number before getting in different cars to go home.  My heart broke for my son.

My dream is for my kids to attend a school they love as much as they love camp.   But for that to happen, schools need to have a different culture and focus.  Here are my ideas on how teachers can make schools communities where kids thrive both academically and socially.

Focus on Relationships, Team Building & Goal Setting

The first day of school would start with the teacher leading the students in team building activities and giving them ample opportunities to get to know each other.  Kids would be paired and grouped in different ways to make sure that everyone learns each others’ names.  New kids would be warmly welcomed by returning kids.

Kids would share their goals for the year and what’s important to them.  They would also learn about each others’ talents and interests.    This conversation would be on-going throughout the year to give kids the chance to share with and encourage each other as they learn new things.

In all my years of parenting my five kids through school, only rarely have teachers taken the first day to help kids get to know each other really well.   My 5th grade son’s teacher this year did a great job with this by having the kids play “Human Bingo” and also making “Shields.”  Bravo!

At camp, the entire first day is all about meeting and getting to know each other and sharing.   Kids are welcomed into their camp “family.”  At camp, a child would never be sitting alone eating lunch – or anywhere else.   At school, that should never happen either.   There needs to be the social safety net of a culture that is inclusive of all kids, even the new ones, and that doesn’t allow kids to “fall through the cracks” and be alone and lonely.

Foster Social Skills

If we are so uber-focused on academics, we forget that the social experience at school is equally, if not more, important to our kids’ development.  According to Dr. Christine Carter, “…a new study , which followed nearly 1,000 people over 32 years, makes it abundantly clear that preparing kids for academic success does not necessarily lead to happiness. You know what does predict happiness in adulthood, according to the study? Friendship. When kids have a lot of friends in childhood and adolescence, they tend to grow up to be happy adults.”
Dr. Christine Carter, “3 Essential School Supplies”

We all know intuitively that this is true.  I remember much more about who my friends were during a certain time of my schooling than I remember about the course work.  Schools need to make it a priority to help kids foster good social skills.  Discussing and teaching skills like how to be a good friend and how to handle conflict are critically important.   I love Big Sibling programs at schools, where older students who are good role models are paired with younger kids to welcome them, help them get assimilated, and model good relationship skills.

A line from our camp song says, “I sure did learn much more here than I ever did at school.”    Unfortunately, it’s true.  In two weeks of camp, kids learn more about being a good friend than many do in all of their years at school.  Schools need to spend some time on fostering good social skills in our kids.

Hands-On, Active Learning by Doing

If school were more

like camp, hands-on activities would far out-number multiple-choice tests.  The information that really “sticks” is the stuff we do, so why is so much time spent on memorizing things that are forgotten within days?

If school were m

ore like camp, students would spend less time sitting at a desk quietly working by themselves on a work sheet and more time practicing teamwork and collaboration, working on science projects and presentations, acting out a book they are reading, and building their creativity and problem-solving skills.

Students would be encouraged to delve deeply into topics that interest them, regardless of what’s on the list of standards.

A Positive Culture

If school were more like camp, teachers would be trained to create a fun, warm, and inviting place as much as they are trained to teach math skills.   They would learn how to find what is special and unique about each of their students and help their students feel valued and included.

Teachers would check in with each student, every day, asking how they’re doing and providing support if they are struggling.

Kids would be excited to get to school, and teachers would greet each student with a smile and a high five, hug, handshake, or fist bump.

If school were more like camp, kids would be cheering for and supporting each other as they learn new skills.   Kids would celebrate each others’ successes by making daily “WOW” announcements and leaving encouraging notes.  For kids who are struggling in some area, supportive peers would provide guidance and encouragement.  Kids would openly talk about their areas of strength and weakness and support each other in improving.

Core Subjects Plus “Free Choice” Learning & Pursuit of Passions

At camp, we require that kids participate in certain activities, even if they’re a little scared.   We know that they benefit immensely from challenging themselves and building new skills.  But we also allow kids to pursue activities that they are passionate about.  What if school could be the same way?  Kids would be required to learn specific skills, of course, just like they are now.  But they would also have more free choice options to pursue things they’re passionate about.  Aspiring writers could have their own blog.  Future doctors could do extra science research and experiments.   If we showed more respect for kids’ interests and desires and let them spend more time on things that they are passionate and excited about, school would be a much happier place for them.

And so, I end where I began.  Schools could learn a lot from summer camps.  Many people, especially those who never attended camp, don’t understand why kids love camp so much.  Even kids who don’t like school.

There are lessons we camp people can teach if schools will listen.


I'm blessed to have five great kids (ages 13-23) call me “Mom.” As a summer camp director for the past 30 years, I've also had the privilege of working with thousands of kids, college-age counselors, and parents. I follow the latest research and trends on parenting, education, and children’s development and love to share what I learn!

  1. This inspired me to create a program for educators next summer teaching the principles that we teach to our leadership teens! Empowering educators to create a collaborative culture! This article gave me a significant idea for a project I am developing bthank you. And, let’s honor all the educators who integrate camp philosophy inside their rooms !

    1. Great! I know teachers will respond well to this kind of training and it will make a big difference for their students if teachers intentionally work on creating a positive community and culture. Would love to hear more about your work!

  2. My kids have been lucky enough to go to the very school that you described – Horizons K-8 public charter school in Boulder, CO. As a former camper and camp-counselor, I couldn’t agree more with all that you wrote, and just wanted to say that there are some great models out there. In our case, 21 years ago parents and teachers got together to create a school based on community, connection, and a love of learning. Thankfully the school district allowed it, and the best test scores in the state consistently prove that it WORKS. When you focus on relationships and inspiring kids, they can learn. I wish for this type of school for all children, and right now that wish is far from coming true. Just wanted people to know that it can happen, and there’s a place where you can see it in action if you want to change your school.

    1. Lauren, Your school sounds amazing! I do think that the community and connection need to be there first for kids to be comfortable and happy learners. So awesome that your school is doing such a great job! Is there info on your school’s website about the philosophy and training you use?

  3. Coincidentally, I would also say that The Watershed School (also in Boulder, CO) meets all of this criteria – and more. (I am neither a parent nor student at this school; I have worked with them contractually on orientation wilderness trips in the past.) I was pleasantly surprised to witness genuine friendships among all students. This is a school that cares foremost about the development of the community and interpersonal relationships, along with outstanding academics that challenge the students to think deeply and critically about their role in the world. It was great to read this and know that yes, indeed, schools like camp do exist. If only public education could get a clue! 🙂

    1. I second that, Jane. Watershed is an amazing school. I also have no ties to the school, but looked into it for one of my kids, and just talked to several middle school kids who go there. Their website is: watershedschool.org/

  4. I definitely agree with all of the points that you mentioned. Many of my friends and I attend camp, all different types of camps, and they all tell me that “I learned so much more at camp than I did at school”. Camp is such a great place, if only school could be more like it!

  5. Your blog entry gives me pause. My children attend the Arbor School in Portland, Oregon. Arbor is a school that truly values the social, creative and intellect equally and puts tremendous emphasis on relationships and team building. The play date situation you describe is almost unthinkable at his school. We are so lucky. As a ‘tween, our son sometimes says (in a somewhat mocking voice), “everyone is special (or a winner) at Arbor,” taking that fact for granted and not understanding that it a huge gift and not a given at all in our culture. It saddens me that this is not the norm in our schools, which are so often isolating. It costs virtually nothing to create the atmosphere you describe and my heart soars when I find it – at camps like GAC, schools like those described in these comments and occasionally an exceptionally well run youth program. There is usually someone like Sunshine at the helm.

  6. Some really good points. Outdoor education is such a great way to bond students and bring them together – inspire them to learn. It is amazing to see the classroom dynamic change as the students and groups overcome challenges together.

    My kids started at a traditional school and I saw how it wasn’t a good fit. They are at a Montessori school now and I really feel they are in the right environment. They are excited and interested in learning! I am happy to see more and more school integrate teambuilding and bonding – it makes a difference.

  7. Teachers can be taught to teach like this, I was and not in school. Check out qln.com and supercamp.com. Changed my life as a teacher in the classroom, as a faciliator, and as a mom now homeschooling my boys. This stuff is for real and it changes lives, “WHOOSH!!” 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing! I know Bobbi and the Supercamp people. QLN is a great program, and I’ve been able to do attend some of their trainings at camp conferences. Maybe this kind of training needs to be part of the curriculum for all teachers, or schools need to invest in workshops/trainings for their teachers? Or something offered online for free or at a very low cost? This is a great conversation to start having, and I’m encouraged by how many people have talked about schools and teachers who are already doing the “camp” thing. 🙂

  8. I agree that an emotional/social environment in which children feel safe and valued is a prerequisite for the development of intellectual curiosity, a love of learning, and a willingness to take chances and try new endeavors. I read this article out loud to my 7th grade son who fully understood this as well. This philosophy is the driving force behind GAC, and it is infused throughout every aspect of camp life. It is why our son attends GAC.

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