Character education is learning to live through a set of core values, including good citizenship and responsibility for ourselves and others. Which is exactly what summer camp was created to do.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, spent eight weeks at camp each summer from 1937 to 1951, first as a camper and then as a counsellor. While there were many formative experiences in her long, rightly celebrated life, camp was the first. She credited it as the source of her independence and her sense of duty. Ronnie Silver, an alum whose mother was at the camp at the same time as Ginsburg, recently said, “so much of the Justice was instilled at camp. It was always taught to us that there was nothing girls couldn’t do. Summer Camp empowered us, and for someone extremely bright and curious, that was important.” Ginsburg would reflect those values within her work on the court, championing women’s rights and gender equality, in essence a more formal expression of that early lesson that there was nothing girls couldn’t do.
Explore how camp helps kids develop these character traits
There’s really the space to maybe try on different hats … you can explore what it means to be you, and your humanness.”
Community, attachments, serving others as they serve you—when camp professionals are asked to define camp, it’s telling that those are the kinds of things they talk about first. “You find yourself surrounded by this new kind of ethos,” says Johnny Wideman, executive director of Willowgrove Day Camp. “It kind of gives a general reset to your values, to what you feel is important.” He sees camp as a window into a new way of seeing the world and our place within it. “I think it’s the most effective way of community building to actually connect with other people, empathetically and compassionately, and to do that outdoors, to build an appreciation and future of caring and protecting the environment. I think that’s basically all of the building blocks we need to make our communities and the world better.”
John Jorgenson , long-time camp director and president of the International Camping Fellowship, agrees. “That’s really the point of growth that camp offers. It’s that transition stage where you really go from a mecentred experience to a we-centred experience: being able to read others, being able to understand the emotional needs of others, [learning] that emotional and social intelligence are the things that summer camp can give at a very critical time in most kids’ lives.”
It’s important. “Today’s children will need a balanced set of cognitive, social and emotional skills in order to succeed in modern life,” says a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Their capacity to achieve goals, work effectively with others and manage emotions will be essential to meet the challenges of the 21st century.” For Jorgenson, “it equipped me to try new things, and that willingness to kind of come to the edge of what I was comfortable with, and to look a little bit beyond that, that’s served me my entire life.”