Preparing Your Camp Staff for School-Year Learning Loss

Remember when people thought "summer learning loss" would kill camps as we know them?

I can't remember when it started exactly, but at some point, the idea of "summer learning loss" started permeating the public consciousness. The idea is pretty straightforward - kids who don't keep up with academic pursuits during the summer will regress 2-3 months in terms of their academic progress. This became a leading discussion at many camp conferences, and consequently, at many staff-trainings. In fact, we were just talking about this inside of the Go Camp Pro forums.

And mostly, the whole thing gave me a stomach ache. Now, I don't hate academic learning or anything. My wife and I were both certified to be public school teachers. But the recommendations to combat so called "summer learning loss" just scared me. Spend an hour a day doing academics?Go over the previous year's exams and notes during the summer?


I had grown accustomed to the multi-front war on the free time of young people - from their increased homework levels, to increased pressure to do extra-curricular activities, to the increased pressure to do more "volunteer" work. But summer time, as you can imagine, felt sacred to me.

And what's more, I think the ever-increasing focus on academics is leaving something very important behind. At a recent conference I had the opportunity to sit down with Peter Gray, the author of numerous books on child psychology and development, and the Freedom to Learn blog on Psychology Today. I was asking him about what he's been busy with recently, and he said that he's actually spent a lot of time going overseas to Singapore. According to him, educators there are panicking. You see, they've actually succeeded in reaching the top of the world charts in science and math.

Good for them, right? Not so fast, according to Dr. Gray. He says their educators are panicking because the effort to improve hard academic skills has robbed whole generations of critical time to play, to relax, to socialize, and to be creative. They now have a generation of people who are good at science and math, but don't seem to be happy - and they are still not as successful as they'd like when it comes to solving the world's big problems. Very few large, successful companies come out of Singapore. Few disruptive technologies. Their answer? To bring Peter Gray in and teach them how to play again.

Our role? Combating "school-year learning loss"

So if the country that has reached the pinnacle of human achievement when it comes to teaching math and science is trying to learn how to play again, should we really be so focused on engaging in less play and more academics at summer camp? I say no.

In fact, I think this is a precious opportunity to think about why we are so important. I've brought this up with my staff as an open discussion, and it's gone quite well. I'd love to share how I facilitate this conversation with our summer staff, so you can consider doing the same with yours.

It all starts with a common observation I've heard from staff and campers alike - this whole idea of "being ourselves" at camp.

Let's talk about what this really means. I personally reject the idea that we have these different versions of "ourselves." I think all of these different "selves" are just aspects of ourselves that we let show, or choose to nurture, in different places in our lives.

When people talk about "being themselves" at summer camp, I think they are talking about being what they think are their "best selves." And what makes these "selves" better than the other ones?

Primarily, I think it comes down to how they treat others, and how they view themselves. This is what we do so well at camp - we help people learn how to be in community, to treat each other with kindness, and to view those around us through a lens of love, rather than a lens of competition.

The results are powerful, but if we're honest with ourselves, they don't always stick for a lifetime. This is due to what I call "school-year learning loss." I can remember very vividly the first time this thought occurred to me. It requires a bit of a story.

A young woman, let's call her Elena, came to camp one summer and had a fantastic time. This is nothing unusual, of course, but her mother's reaction to it was. When her mother Patty showed up on the last day of camp, she stood frozen in the parking lot near camper pick-up. I walked over and greeted her, and noticed tears streaming down underneath her sunglasses. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, "Wrong? No! We just haven't seen Elena smile in more than a year. And she's over there laughing. And hugging people! I just can't believe it."

As I thought through Elena's time at camp, it didn't seem spectacular. She started off a little bit removed, sure, but opened up relatively quickly and made a great group of friends. She was fun, willing to put herself out there, and engaged in all manner of activities. As Elena left, she gave me a huge hug, and told me she'd be back the next summer.

Fast forward to the next summer. Elena and Patty walk in to camper registration. Patty gives me a huge smile, but Elena is standing behind her with a blank look on her face. She had head phones on, and didn't even respond to me when I greeted her. Patty, seeing my face, said something to the effect of, "I had to drag her here today. I don't know what's going on. I think she just forgot how much she loves camp."

Remembering the Elena from the previous summer, I kept a close eye on her that night, and into the next day. She sat by herself at dinner, not talking to anyone. Same story at breakfast. But after our first round of activities, she started warming up a bit. I saw her reconnecting with a friend from the previous summer, but not putting herself out there yet. By Tuesday (the third day of the session), she was "back to herself" again. Having fun, laughing, affectionate.

This, my friends, is the face of school-year learning loss.

And Elena's story isn't unique. I've heard staff reflect on this as well - heck, my own camp story follows this exact trajectory. I can remember returning home from camp after my LIT summer, and my parents remarking on the changes in me. I was more thoughtful, kinder, and more engaged with them. But within a few weeks, those changes in me dissipated. I went back to gossiping with my high school friends, engaging in risky behavior, and distancing myself from my parents.

But year after year, I'd return to camp and become that best version of myself again. And year after year, those changes would last just a little while longer. Eventually, it had become who I was. This best version of myself that was cultivated at camp, that had to try and survive the school year, usually with great difficulty.

I was suffering from school-year learning loss.

So what do we do about it?

Well, I think it's two-fold. The first takeaway I have from the school-year learning loss phenomenon is this: what we're doing at camp is important. We're not doing something secondary to academics - we're doing something at least as important, and I'd argue more important. We're helping people learn to live in their own skin. We're helping them learn to love themselves, and love one another. And you know something? The more closely aligned my "school year self" and my "camp self" became, the better my grades became. The more my professors in college liked me.

As I learned who I wanted to be, I was intrinsically motivated to succeed academically. So I did. I didn't need to stay sharp on my quadratic equation during the summer, I needed to know that I mattered. School never did that for me. Camp did. I don't think I'm alone.

So that's takeaway #1. I share this with my staff every year.

Number 2? It's important to help our staff be aware of both their own school-year learning loss, and the school-year learning loss of their campers.

I have our staff reflect on how they are at camp as compared to how they are in college (or high school, or wherever). How are you different? Do you wish you could bring some aspect of your camp self to the rest of your life, or vice versa? What makes it difficult to be your "camp self" during the rest of the year? Let's talk about it. Let's get intentional. When staff are thinking intentionally about who they want to be, they are far more likely to actually be that person. That's a win for everybody involved.

As for campers, our staff need to understand that many campers - and especially our campers from tougher backgrounds - are going to be susceptible to school-year learning loss. They will likely have been surrounded by adults who are very focused on 2 primary outcomes for them - academic success, and obedience. Kids who struggle with either of these things are often going to have tough years. They are going to expect camp to just be a continuation of that tough year, even if they were successful at camp during the previous summer.

The answer, as always, is empathy. If we demonstrate that we understand why it might be hard to slide into the camp routine, kids are a lot more likely to succeed. Kids tend to gravitate to the best version of themselves at camp when given the space to. They need to remember that you're there to love them, not to judge them.

Worse still, many of our campers will have never been to camp at all. Some of them will fit right in, and get the hang of things. But the ones that don't? We need to empathize with them. Imagine showing up to college without ever being taught to read. Maybe you picked some things along the way, but you'd never been taught. Chances are good you'd be behind your peers, and it wouldn't be your fault. And you wouldn't be incapable of catching up, but you might need a little extra hand holding to get to where others were.

Thank you

Thank you for joining me in the fight against school-year learning loss. I couldn't ask for better partners in helping kids to find and become the best versions of themselves, and I'm so grateful that you're out there doing your thing. I hope you're not self-conscious about not having academic offerings at camp. I hope you look potential camper families in the eye, and confidently let them know what summer camp can do for them. I hope you remember how important you are. Thanks again.