While our nation is engaged in a conversation about education reform, I thought this was the right time to highlight what is right with America’s education: camp! In that spirit, I wrote an op ed to remind policy-makers that we need to celebrate the camp experience, especially against the backdrop of those who think that a longer school year will elevate us from our #24 position in the world in math skills. One thing I know for sure: children who go to camp rank #1 in confidence.

In no way is this intended as a political commentary, but rather as an endorsement of the camp experience as a valuable component of a child’s total education.

Here is the piece I wrote to media outlets across the country in my role as past president of the American Camp Association and advocate for the camp experience:

President Obama has endorsed a longer school year as part of the solution to America’s floundering educational system. I respectfully request that he reconsider that stance, and look no further than to his own daughter, Malia, who spent some of those precious summer weeks at overnight camp last summer.

As a longtime camp professional, who has literally thousands of anecdotal stories to affirm the value of camp’s experiential learning environment, I’d like to ask the President to reflect on his daughter’s growth after having spent out-of-school time at camp. Would those thirty days have been better passed at school, preparing for more tests; or in camp, a virtual classroom without walls, practicing for life’s circumstances?

Where did she learn authentic lessons in compassion, cooperation, critical thinking, decision-making, resilience, and responsibility?

We don’t need to teach more answers. Rather, our conversation about education reform needs to consider the whole child — the art of camp, with its social education, is a vital complementary component to the science of school’s lessons. We need to find programs to promote youth development through the camp experience; we need to make camp available to more children, not more school for all.

Children need to be productive, to feel connected, and to learn to navigate on their own. The answers will follow.

Thousands of my colleagues across the nation will attest to the power of camp. No grades. No permanent records. Just authentic connections to the real world. Play is the work of childhood; it’s how children invent and re-invent themselves, find their place in the universe, and learn what they are good at and where they need to practice. Life is the quintessential test tomorrow’s leaders need to pass.

The American Camp Association’s outcomes research confirms that ten measured social constructs enhance the platform for learning: self-esteem, independence, leadership, friendship skills, social comfort, peer relationships, courage, environmental awareness, values (ethics), and spirituality.

President Obama, I’m sure that you and Mrs. Obama have seen exponential growth in Malia since last summer in these skill sets — a direct result of living in a community with shared values and real-life, unfiltered experiences close to nature.

School and camp are the yin and yang of education, interconnected parts that together advance bona fide academic achievement.

Marla Coleman
New York
Past President, American Camp Association