Summer Loving and Learning

My 9 year old son is a different person in the summer. He goes to daycamp every day, and comes back happier, lighter and at peace in his spirit. We have spent this past school year with our son being so tense and anxious, looking to pick fights with us and his younger brother, defiance and anger often in his eyes. This was a tough year in our home. And through it all, we almost forgot who he really was. We started to believe that this angry, disengaged self was really him.

But here he is, coming home from camp every day, with a huge smile on his face, openness and peace in his eyes, and excitement to tell me all about his day. When he went to school, I would ask about his day, and he would just shrug and say, ‘It was fine’, in a voice that told me that it wasn’t fine. When I ask him about his day at camp, he can’t wait to tell me the stories and activities, the friends he has made, the funny encounters, and what he has learned. We love the summer.

But it begs the question, running through my head every day, “Why can’t school be more like camp?” It feels incredibly sad, and a missed opportunity, that at grade three, my son waits all school year for the summer. As someone who is passionate about learning (and works in the post-secondary sector), I am very concerned with his disengagement at school. I want my son to be excited and engaged with his learning, to be happy going to school and happy in his life. I want him to feel safe facing learning challenges that stretch him, to be creative and innovative in his thinking, and to make mistakes and learn from his mistakes. Is this too much to ask?

So what is it about camp, that is different from school, that captures my son’s spirit? A few elements come to mind:

  1. Active: camps are very active, kids are moving around all the time, instead of learning at a desk. People need to move. My son needs to move to learn, not because he has ADD but because people need to move. He is happier when he is able to be active, not at set times but throughout the day.
  1. Experiential: Hands-on experiential learning, like trying to sail a boat and learning about wind patterns, will be imprinted in memory because it is interesting and practical. This engaged learning is far more powerful than book learning that is remembered only for a test.
  1. Fun: Camp is fun! The songs, jokes and cheers. Doesn’t everyone want to have fun and enjoy life? Does school need to be so serious? Can’t learning be fun? I found this great article about a professor who doesn’t have exams or tests, but now reframes them as ‘celebrations’ – that is the spirit I am looking for!
  1. Connected: This is the game-changer for my son. My son makes an immediate connection to his counselors at camp. This does not happen at school. Based on this connection, he feels like he belongs and that he is safe. At the end of Day 1 at camp, he knows all of his counselors names. He talks incessantly about his camp counselors, and at the end of his week at camp, he is sad to say goodbye. I was pleasantly surprised when one evening, he gave up storytime before bed so that he could make all of his camp counselors snake puppets out of construction paper to give to them as presents (and he is NOT usually a crafty kid!). He selected which puppet should go to which counselor based on their personality. This connection just does not happen at school.

How hard would it be for schools to integrate these elements, to foster a (dare I say) fun, engaged and joyful learning environment? It would actually be very hard, because it would mean radically dismantling the culture of education that hasn’t changed much in 100 years. The culture of education that I am referring to, is where ‘learning’ takes place in desks and in classrooms, where kids line up when bells are rung, and fun is relegated to a once a year ‘fun day’ (listen to Sir Ken Robinson talk on this – he is very articulate and inspiring). Yes, dismantling this system of education would be hard. But for the sake of our children, it is time for change!

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