If you’ve spent much time around schools, after school programs, or read the education section of the newspaper, the term 21st Century Skills is no doubt a familiar one to you. For those who aren’t familiar, 21st Century Skills are the skills identified as being essential for successful and happy lives and careers in the 21st century and beyond. It is widely recognized that for the near- and long-term future, in both the workplace and community, today’s kids will require analytic and critical thinking skills, information literacy, communications and teamwork skills. The term Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is frequently used to describe the acquisition of these kinds of skills. There is a contrast drawn to the skills more traditionally associated with K-12 education in the 20th century, which involve more content knowledge acquisition and specific skill-sets for singular, life-long professions.
When speaking of 21st Century skills, many educators and employers speak of the 4 C’s as the most essential skill sets to develop. The 4 C’s are – Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, Collaboration. I think its time we added a 5th C – Camp. Why? Because camp is the one place that allows all 4 of the other C’s to be developed in an organic, individually appropriate manner in a relaxed and holistic learning environment. We know that learning that takes place in such an environment is more likely to be both sticky and highly transferable. That is, the skills learned are not easily forgotten, and they serve the learner well in a wide variety of situations from school to future workplaces. Put another way, the conditions at a summer camp enhance learning, unlike the competitive, over-scheduled, or sleep deprived school environment which create conditions that inhibit learning.
So how does time spent at camp develop these distinct sets of skills? That is what is so cool about all this. None of this is new or cutting edge as far as summer camps are concerned. The skills now being branded as 21st Century skills are just the same outcomes summer camps have always delivered.
Collaboration – For many of the recent generations of campers, camps like MTC have been a bastion of non-competitiveness and cooperation. As college admissions have become more and more competitive, academic and resume-building pressures have filtered down through high school, to middle school, and even to elementary school grades for many communities. It has become a zero-sum game for many of our kids, and a summer at camp becomes a rare opportunity to view peers as collaborators and friends, versus competitors. As survey after survey have shown, being adept at collaboration is the skill employers’ value above competitiveness. Camp provides endless opportunities for collaborative skill building – from activities to evening programs to figuring out how to spend an hour of free time.
Communication – Communications channels are evolving at a rapid pace, and ability to adopt and implement the various methods of communication are critical. Communication channels have shifted radically from voice communications to text, email and other “digitally mediated channels”. However, the one set of skills that continues to rank highest in importance for employers is interpersonal skills – face-to-face communications. In fact, a lot of research indicates that the more day-to-day communications switches to text based (email, chat, DMs, Slack etc), the more essential good interpersonal skills are because there are fewer opportunities to make and solidify impressions. Those who come off as impersonal, awkward, or inappropriate will have fewer opportunities to change that perception. Good people skills are essential for rising through organizational structures, and for managing others. Camp, with its tech free, highly social, supportive environment, gives campers a chance to develop and practice interpersonal skills, with advice and role-modeling from caring adult staff. Again, these are learned skills, no one is expected to be perfect, but we can learn and improve.
Creativity – creativity flows from a variety of wellsprings, and the creative process is different for every individual. There is no single “creative” method that can be taught that will work for all learners, and the outlet for creativity is going to vary wildly between individuals. Yet employers place a premium on creativity far above what they would place on the knowledge of a content area or productivity tool. So how to develop something so intangible? The research into creativity is consistent, one sure fire way to kill creativity is to fill one’s mental space with constant distraction. Creativity requires some space to breathe, the absence of constant distractions. Daydreaming and boredom have been strongly linked to creativity. This is not to say camp is boring, it is anything but. However, camp still exists outside of the hectic schedule of the academic year, and in a time bubble before the widespread use of cell phones. Things move a bit slower at camp, without a multitude of competing priorities all demanding attention, and without an internet or app fueled escape valve for a moment of boredom. Again, this is a learned skill. A camper who has a free half hour at home may be tempted to pick up a video game or check social media. A camper who has a free half hour at camp is more liable to strike up a conversation, invent a game, read a novel, or simply day-dream. All these things can lead to creativity. Further, camp provides immediate and diverse outlets for creativity. Art, music, dance, theater, sports and games. And once our brains learn how to access their creative impulses and outlets, the path starts to become grooved. It becomes easier and easier, the more we practice the habit or situation that lead to the creative impulse in the first place. The good news is, these habits have a better chance of holding up against the distractions and pressures that kill creativity outside of camp.
Critical Thinking – this is perhaps the most sought-after skill, as assessed by employers, and by higher education. Critical thinkers are valued by all organizations for their ability to devise new solutions to new and existing problems. Critical thinking is a catch-all term that includes a wide range of specific skills, such as understanding bias, evaluating incomplete information accurately, and placing information into context. While no camp experience can teach all these specifics, camp does provide campers a ton of experience practicing many of these skills, challenging campers to solve novel problems on an individual, group and community level. In planning their individual schedules, cabin group activities, scheduled activities and interactions around camp, campers are challenged with a wide variety of problems to solve, and ways in which to solve them. Camp can provide kids with immediate feedback, and correction, in a positive and supportive environment that reduces the emotional element that can interfere with learning. Perhaps most importantly, MTC helps adolescents place issues into the correct context. Too often, in school and out, the interactions and experiences that matter a great deal to us are removed from their context, camp gives us opportunities to learn and understand experiences as they occur in context. This is a powerful concept, and one we will explore further in a separate blog.
Camp really is an ideal situation to develop the 4 C’s that employers are and will be looking for. Recent research from the ACA is confirming this, more to come on this later, but you can see some initial findings here. While developing the skills that are going to get you a dream job, or a big promotion years in the future are not the reason a camper should attend camp - it is really cool that a side effect of spending the summer in the woods, with a bunch of amazing people, learning cool new skills, will pay off in the years ahead. It’s kind of like having cake and eating it too. Mmmm cake. Maybe we should make that the 6 C’s….