So the start of the school year is a bit of a weird time for your camp director. When everyone else is getting back into their routine, we try to reconcile with the fact that the end of summer means we don’t have every minute of our day scheduled out for the next couple of months; we have to learn to cook again; we can go to bed before midnight and wake up after 6am; we don’t get to have 300 people shouting good morning to us; and we get to see our kids and everyone else's head off for school each morning.
Needless to say, the kids we see heading off to school, even with the excitement of the new school year, have a lot less spring in their step than the ones yelling good morning to us at camp. This is not a huge surprise, and we don’t have to dig too deep to figure out why. Among other reasons, kids at camp are happier because they are sleeping better (and waking up at a more natural time), they get to play more, they don’t have the stress of homework and tests, or the drama of middle/high school social dynamics. Kids going to school are tied to the clock and calendar, are coping with parent and teacher expectations, and are facing a long winter of much the same routine. So no, they aren’t going to be as bright and bubbly as when they are at camp.
Which brings me to my point. Kids need vacation. We all need vacation. But kids especially.
Developmental psychologists tell us that kids, and adolescents, are learning about their world, themselves, and their place in the world as much or more through play and social interaction as they are through formal classroom education. We camp directors, and most parents, are fully aware of the fact that kids are not being taught any number of valuable skills in school. But that's okay because their brains are wired to learn these things, if they are just given the opportunity. The growing brain is very, very good at creating the experiences, the experiments, it needs to learn how the world works. Whether it's a 4-year-old figuring out what happens when you let go of the bars you are swinging on at the playground (“Oh, gravity, hi!”) or a 15 year old figuring out what happens when you say, “Hi…”, to the guy or girl you have a crush on. (“OMG, she’s talking to me!”).
Schools do not have a mandate to teach all skills needed to be a happy, fulfilled human being. Schools do have a mandate to teach all the skills needed to be a productive employee. The rest is left up to family and the community. The problem is that the family and the community need time to create opportunities for this learning. Space. Freedom. A chance to let social situations breath. What happens if that space isn’t provided? When does that learning occur? What if doesn’t? What if they never get a break to just slow down, recharge their mental and physical batteries, to let go of the stress that they live with for 9 or 10 months of the year?
My concern is that summer used to be a fairly sacred space for childhood and adolescence. On the aggregate, kids and teens spent summers outdoors, with friends, in fairly unstructured days. Whether they were at camp, on vacation with parents or family, or even just bombing around the ‘hood on bikes, they were learning about their world, themselves, and their place in it. This is no longer the case for many kids and adolescents. Instead of having the luxury of time, for a lot of teens especially, the summer looks a lot like their school year. High-pressure sports are a part of the problem. A bigger issue is academic prep, college campus-based programs and internships that shift the entry into the adult world of year-round grind, several years forward. Ironically, college admissions offices are quite forthcoming that these programs do not influence admissions decisions, and may even be of a detriment to colleges looking for applicants who have well-developed identities and social skills, who will not be going through the adolescent crisis of identity as college freshman or sophomores, and who are better equipped to avoid burnout.
So as we enjoy a September weekend of lingering summer warmth, casting a leery glance towards Monday morning, I think we should spend a little time thinking about where summer went, if it was spent making memories, or making resumes, and which will seem more important in future years.