Top 5 Things to Look for in a Summer Camp

In an information age where some predictions say that knowledge will double every 12 months and soon every 12 hours, the skills that we need to develop in our children don't look like the skills we developed in school.


The skills will not be about memorizing content, but rather analyzing content and higher-order cognitive traits of curiosity, creativity and persistence.
Paul Tough has described the importance of these traits in his award-winning book How Children Succeed.

The challenge is that school is not set up to develop these character traits. Teachers do not have the time to let students iterate multiple times. This means that it is hard for students to develop creativity or persistence. It takes some time to master content and then to be develop the confidence to move outside one's comfort zone and explore creative solutions. If there is only time to do one iteration and get a grade, there is no time to develop strategies that nurture creativity and persistence.


So what can a parent do?

Here are five separate pieces of information to pay attention to:
  1. We spend less than five percent of our time in school in a lifetime.
  2. We mostly learn about how the world around us works (i.e science), outside of school -- through television, movies, museums, zoos, documentaries, books, digital media (games, apps), after-school programs and summer camps.
  3. Summer camps are a great way to develop a child's curiosity and creativity as they are unhampered by standardized testing.
  4. Today summer camps play a critical role because with the increase in iPads and digital devices, children spend even more screentime than the average seven hours/day in the summer. So summer camps are a great way to get outside, play, get active.
  5. Finally, it is well known that active children learn better and the beneficial effects of being outside last over many years.


So here is what the ideal summer camp looks like:
  1. Where children spend majority of the time outside (in a park)
  2. The children: instructor ratio is low (since children need to have more supervision in large open spaces)
  3. Children get many opportunities to do open-ended challenges. Not all hands-on projects nurture creativity. If a hands-on project is like a recipe that doesn't encourage many approaches, then it will mostly only develop the ability to follow instructions. An example of this is origami type of activities. They are hands-on, but they do not encourage too much creativity since if you make the wrong fold somewhere you will end up with something that doesn't look at all like the original picture you were aiming for.
  4. Children should get enough unstructured time to spend observing nature. Because we shuttle our children from one directed activity to another so much they have very little ability to manage their own time and attention. They do not get enough opportunities to practice being self-driven learners.
  5. Finally, instructors should be trained to provide the right kind of feedback to children (especially girls) that builds a growth mindset.


This is what we have been trying to accomplish over the past two years, running a Curiosity Summer Camp in a redwood forest with little ones. It has been amazing to see how naturally the little ones take to observing, learning from nature, planning their own mechanisms and building them with the help of their high-school "Explainers". We give them plenty of opportunities to iterate and refine the design so that their models work. This is the hardest part since persistence is not something that comes naturally to us. But the physiological feedback and rewards of seeing your design work is enough to reinforce that the combination of curiosity, creativity and persistence leads to success.

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