S'mores and More

What summer camp can teach us.

Strengthening a Child’s Appetite for Uncertainty

We are creating uncomfortable situations to stretch our children.

This morning, I awoke in Hong Kong. Tonight, I will sleep in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Traveling Asia is not inherently unusual, but this trip is fairly different.

I am traveling with my family: twin boys who turn 15 in 3 weeks, daughters 13 and 10 and a lovely wife (age undisclosed). We will be in Asia for 14 weeks. Earlier this year, we were in Europe for 8 weeks. We are not traveling in luxury, but are instead staying in hostels and backpacking. This is travel, not vacation; adventure, not comfort.

Why would a sane person choose such a journey? OK, I might not be sane, but let's address the question assuming that I am, in fact, mentally competent.

There is a short answer and a long one.

The short answer is this trip atones for summers of missed family vacations. Since we run a summer camp for children, we spend our summers with hundreds of children (which we love), but do not get those lovely private trips that Susie and I enjoyed as children.

The long answer, however, is more interesting.

We want to provide our children a great learning experience. Obviously, this will include information about cultures and history, but this is not the education we are striving for.

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We want to develop their resilience and adaptability. I want to enhance their "appetite for uncertainty".

As I look at schools, I see great emphasis on pattern recognition and memorization. Schools tend to challenge concrete thinking, but not "divergent thinking".

One morning in Shanghai, we woke suddenly to the sound of amplified music and commands. We were next to a large school and its morning assembly had just begun. In less than 90 seconds, 350 students jogged in and formed perfect lines and columns. They stood at attention, saluted the flag and did a 5 minute exercise routine.

We would later learn that every school in China does the exact same morning routine to the same recording.

It was an exercise in discipline, precision and memorization.

I saw one reason Chinese students do so well in tests.

I also saw why China is extremely good at exporting products, but not ideas. In a country of 1.3 billion, there are no Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerbergs. Their system does not encourage divergent thinking. In fact, it seems to discourage it.

Divergent thinking is the ability to think creatively - to see one thing and imagine what it can become. Pixar (the studio that made "Toy Story" and "Cars") started as an effort to create a tutorial for a computer operating system. Steve Jobs realized it could become a company that produces animated movies, and an American success story began. In China, Pixar would have continued to make tutorials - probably the best tutorials in the world - but tutorials nonetheless.

I think divergent thinking has always been important, but never more so than in a world characterized by constant change and global competition.

The US has always been a leader in developing divergent thinkers, but I think we are trending toward becoming more like China. When we focus on test scores and squeeze out creativity, we are going in the wrong direction. I doubt we will ever out-rigor the Chinese. Instead, our students need to become comfortable in fluid and changing environments - to embrace uncertainty and see its opportunities.

I am not saying that we wound not benefit from some additional rigor in our education system. I think we do need more. I also know that we need to address the gulf between students in different socio-economic groups. Much of the current education reform ideas are well-intentioned.

But we need also to understand what engenders creativity and divergent thought.

One thing I love about summer camp is that I believe it is one of the few places that truly cultivates divergent thinking. Campers have moments where they create their own games, attack tasks together and play in environments that are not highly rigid. Each summer, they get to bond with a new group of campers and counselors. I know that children that attend camp are more prepared for college and the world thereafter. They seem more able to roll with unexpected changes and to find opportunities.

Susie and I want our children to be divergent thinkers and to be comfortable with change - to develop a strong appetite for uncertainty.

This trip is certainly providing multitudinous opportunities to experience and embrace uncertainty. Language barriers, errant cab rides, exotic foods and unfamiliar customs all provide chances to experience the unexpected.

I believe that the best way to become comfortable with change and uncertainty is to experience them directly and see that you are successful.

Two days ago, we had to take two separate cabs to go to the "Star Ferry" in Hong Kong. Since no cab can take more than 5 people, our family of 6 split up into two groups of 3. We would learn later that there is a "Star Ferry" and a "Royal Star Ferry" in two completely different locations. I arrived with the boys to the former, Susie and the girls to the latter.

We do not have phones on this trip, so were could not confer on our situation. The separation changed our plans. We would not ride the ferry that night, but we would get the opportunity to talk through contingency plans (what if they are in the wrong place, what if there was some accident), while remaining calm and even upbeat.

Though unpleasant, this ordeal confirmed that our clan is developing a greater appetite for uncertainty each day. They are also becoming nicely resilient.

It is not necessary to do anything as extreme as a world trip to cultivate this appetite in children. Other experiences can help accomplish this goal. Summer camp is one such experience. Having them plan a family outing can help as well. For younger children, simply allowing unstructured play (without parental involvement) helps further this goal.

In Nepal, we will stay in homes of Tibetan refugees, hike for 5 days and
sleep in mountain huts with sparse comfort. Some of this is out of my comfort zone. I guess it is time to whet my own appetite for uncertainty. 

 

 

Steve Baskin is the owner/director of Camp Champions and serves on the Executive Committee of the American Camp Association.

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