What Is Summer For? Reflections on the Relationship between Day School and Camp

Wendy Grinberg

Imagine you are welcoming your students on the first day of school after many of them have been at Jewish summer camp. What is going through your mind?

A) I hope they didn’t forget everything they learned last year! Maybe they learned even more in the 24/7 Jewish educational environment of Jewish camp.

B) I can’t wait to see how they’ve matured socially and emotionally after living in community with friends, negotiating intense feelings and close relationships.

C) Summer camp is an adventure! I can’t wait to get to know these kids and see how their new experiences will enrich our classroom learning.

As day school educators and possibly camp educators as well, your hopes for what your students can learn and how they will grow over the summer are tied to your conception of camp, the potential for learning there, and camp’s goals, in particular with relationship to school. The relationship between camp and school is one that has existed and shifted since the beginning of summer camp. The educational goals of camp can be seen along a continuum in relation to the education that takes place in school. Just as you may have wanted to choose more than one of the responses in the above thought experiment, these goals combine in various ways, and there is overlap in categories along the continuum.

Camp in Place of School

On one end of the continuum, camp is meant to take the place of school when school is out, addressing the loss of learning gains that might occur over the summer when assessed through standardized testing (sometimes referred to as the “summer slide”). In the history of both secular and Jewish camps, this goal is a prominent one. In addition to camp’s beginning (most often traced to Frederick William Gunn in 1861 as an outdoor education component of a school program), the rise of camping was in part due to urbanization and industrialization, when fewer children worked on farms and an increasing number attended school with a fixed summer vacation. Camp took hold as part of the educational movement of American Progressivism. In the Deweyan school of thought, camp serves as a laboratory of learning by doing.

Advocates of camp as an extension of school argue that campers can potentially learn more or better during the summer months in the all-inclusive, creative and hands-on environment of camp. For example, summer reading programs have been designed to integrate into the camp day and address any summer learning loss, and recent efforts in Hebrew immersion in day camps seem successful in achieving their goals. Often the promise that camp will give campers an academic advantage is a selling point for parents.

A category along the continuum that exists primarily in Jewish camps but not as prominently in the secular camping world is camp in place of school as a venue for education, that is, the claim that the Jewish education and experience to be had at summer camp is superior to what can be achieved in Jewish schooling. This conception of the educational goals of camp can result in episodes of camp that look a lot like school. Christian and Jewish summer camps describe similar phenomenon, in which the religious learning part of the day looks much like traditional classroom instruction, albeit in a natural setting, what Ramah Director David Mogilner called a “heder under the elms.” This presents a contrast wherein the rest of the camp day campers are immersed in play and experiential learning, but Jewish content is relegated to rather non-progressive educational models.

Alternatively, camps may seek an integrated model in which learning happens while kids are having fun. Here fun conflated with learning comes to mean that learning is less onerous. This stance can cause camps to eliminate time specifically devoted to Jewish learning in favor of an integrated model; this model has been shown to have mixed success. Sometimes the learning is neither broad nor deep—not every topic can be associated with a camp activity, and not much can fit into a fifteen-minute sound bite. At times the Jewish learning segment of an activity still feels like a formal lesson, albeit a shorter one, but one that still interrupts an otherwise fun and recreational day.

Camp as Complement to School

Another goal along the continuum is camp as a complement to school. In this case, camp is for addressing crucial developmental skills that are more peripheral to a formal school curriculum. This kind of learning includes social-emotional learning, such as self-regulating and negotiating interpersonal relationships; leadership development; and experience in the outdoors. Parents of campers and Jewish summer camps also proclaim the many social-emotional benefits of camp: increased responsibility, sense of self and interpersonal skills.

Related to this goal is the idea that camps and schools may be in dialogue with one another, influencing one another through people, scholarship and experimentation. Beyond experimenting with creative curricula and teaching that could make schools more engaging, some camp advocates argue for a shift in emphasis in formal schooling towards the social-emotional goals of education as a result of the educational model that camps provide. These thinkers assert that the positive emotional environment of camp, including close relationships with adult teachers and role models, primes campers for all kinds of learning.

Similar to the way that non-academic growth can complement the academic growth that occurs at school, camp seems to provide a context for Jewish living in a way that schools cannot. Experiential education, learning that comes out of and relates directly to lived experience, could fall under this category, as could Jewish learning that occurs when living a Jewish life in the context of a vibrant, fully encompassing Jewish community. We might call this conception of Jewish education at camp as camp in place of shtetl, family, or some other premodern, all-encompassing Jewish life. In this conception, as the original founders of camp felt that camp was a return to a more pure and holistic way of life before industrialization, some Jewish camp advocates see camp as providing a total Jewish experience that is no longer available in our segmented, modern, hyphenated lives.

Camp in place of family can be found as a goal in secular camping today as well. In his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, psychologist Michael Thompson declares that camp can deliver on many of the things that parents want for their children but cannot actually provide. He argues there are eight things parents cannot do for their children (even though they try): make them happy, give them high self-esteem, manage their friendships or make friends for them, be their agent, manager or coach, be their second family, compete with children’s digital world, keep them perfectly safe, or make them independent. In this view of camp, camp counterbalances and counteracts the over-parenting that is stifling children’s independence and growth, independence and growth that will allow them to achieve and access the eight items above. The unencumbered and uncomplicated relationships of camp are also seen as a psychological benefit and a necessary antidote to inevitably fraught family relationships. Developing these close extra-familial relationships are key to adolescent development.

Camp as Other

A final category could be described as camp as totally other, or unrelated to school. In his list of the 10 elements that make camp powerful for children, Michael Thompson puts “Camp is not school (no tests, judgments, or evaluation)” at number two. According to Thompson, what camp is is even more significant: a place for play and imagination, an opportunity to choose, to be part of a larger community and connect closely with others and nature, and a chance to fully be one’s self.

It is not uncommon in the research on camps to find the word “fun” as describing the central goal of camp. Often the advocates of fun and play explain that people learn through play and object to “fun and games” as a critique or description that minimizes the important growth and learning that takes place at camp. They see this kind of unstructured free living as core to learning and becoming. In contrast to the conception of fun that leads to learning (particularly academic learning, which is usually seen as boring), “fun” may be understood as both an ends and a means. (This outlook is more popular in literature about the importance of play in early childhood, for example.) When fun is seen this way, campers can develop their own theology and practice through interaction and experimentation.

Along these lines, the education that takes place when one is having fun is learning as being, experiencing freedom of self, expression and exploration. “Fun” can be described as fully engaged, free, living of present experience, whereas formal Jewish education could be seen as learning about or preparing for the actual experience of living. Some proponents of camp as a totally different way of being and learning reject the current emphasis in education on measuring outcomes. They argue that this emphasis is contaminating and that children learn when they are engaged in solving problems in community and direct experiential learning. In light of this framing, might a potential goal of Jewish learning at camp be simply the unencumbered direct experience of the world and others? Could this be considered Jewish learning, if the experiences take place in a context of Jewish people and a community informed by Jewish values and rhythms?

At the crux of all of these models of school/camp is really a question of what Jewish education is for. As Jewish educators, are we trying to create more learned and practicing Jews (who perhaps know and practice the way we do)? Are we teaching Judaism in service of a better and enriched life for our students? Are we hoping our students will become creative contributors to our Jewish heritage, even if that contribution leads to Judaism looking different than it does now? If we might want some combination of all of the above, which goals are best met by school, and which by camp? Understanding our ultimate goals, not to mention those of our students, can help us answer the question of what summer is for, and then we will be able to promote or design the kind of Jewish learning that might take place during the summer break in line with those goals.

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