For the past 20 years, I have enthusiastically endorsed summer camp as a great growth experience for children. At times, I wondered if I might be overstating the case slightly. For the first 17 or 18 years, I suspected that I was too excited about camp. 

I am now convinced that I was understating the power of the camp experience. Why is that? Because of technology.

I understand that this does not initially make sense. How does attending a camp devoid of technology help a child succeed in a world defined by it? Let me explain. 

My basic theory is the following:

1. Technology has transformed the world we live in: markets are global, workplaces are constantly evolving and the technology itself is perpetually changing.

2. This new world requires a certain set of skills in order to succeed in it.

3. Ironically, technology is impeding the development of the very skills needed for success. 

 Allow me to look at each of the three components of my theory separately. 

1. Technology has transformed the world we live in. This requires little explanation, but I will note some of the most powerful changes.

  • Global Competition: Information technology has made the world “flat” so that we are competing with India as much as we are competing with Indiana.
  • Evolving Workplace: Traditional organizational structures are fading and the “office” is changing as well.
  • Products appear (and disappear) rapidly: If you were to understand all the workings of an iPhone, your knowledge would be obsolete in less than 3 years. Compare this to the automobile of the 1940s-1970s. A person trained to repair engines could do so successfully over decades. Now, few can keep pace with the changes. 

2. This new world requires a certain set of skills in order to succeed in it. About 10 years ago, a group of companies concluded that entry-level employees were coming to them without the skills necessary for success. As a result, they created the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (p21.org). The participants in this program include most of the most respected companies in the US: Apple, Dell, Cisco, Microsoft, Ford, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Marriott, etc.

The Partnership has conducted 3 studies including over 2000 organizations of different sizes. They created a list of skills that are critical for success in the 21st Century. Did “Technological Skills” make the list? Yes, but hey do not crack the top 10 skills. Further, employers find that the new employees have sufficient skills in this area. Also, employers are not focused on the “3 Rs” of Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic.

Instead, the list focused the 4 C’s: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. Here is the list of the 5 most important:

1. Oral communication

2. Collaboration

3. Work ethic/self discipline

4. Written communication

5. Critical thinking/problem solving

 I see this list as a love letter to summer camps. Admittedly, we do not improve written communication skills, but I believe that we help children develop the other 4 skills as well as any other experience. Schools are busy teaching math and grammar, so they do not have the time or the format to foster oral communication and collaboration. 

Camps develop self-discipline through rituals (inspection) and challenges (time away from home, trying new activities). 

Some schools encourage problem solving, but the ‘problems’ are usually narrowly defined (like a math problem). What the Partnership is interested in here is the ability to solve unexpected challenges. At camp, this includes finding ways to have fun when all activities are rained out or creating skits at the last minute. Managing the ups and downs of living in close quarters certainly fosters resourcefulness. 

3. Technology is impeding the development of the very skills needed for success. Look at the list again. Communication and collaboration are interpersonal skills. Children develop these skills the way they develop athletic or academic skills – through practice. Learning to persuade another person or organize a group of people happens through experimentation and repetition, just like a tennis forehand or a Mozart piano sonata. 

Interpersonal skills are developed face-to-face, not on Facebook or over texts messages. OMG! That is scary. 

It is scary because our teens are addicted to technology and social media. Consider these two facts:

• The Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American teen spend 53 hours per week interacting with an electronic screen. Where is that time coming from? Hours spent in school and studying have remained generally consistent, but children are interacting and playing less. Simply put, the vast majority of these “lost” hours come from the activities that help them develop and “practice” interpersonal skills.

• Pew Research and the Neilson Company discovered that the average teen sends and recieves 3,339 texts per month while spending 95 minutes a day doing so. 

If, as the Partnership convincingly argues, interpersonal skills are the key to success in the modern workplace, then these trends are deeply concerning. When our children should be strengthening their communication, collaboration and leadership skills (another skill in huge deficit), they are instead turning to their phones, game boys, and computers. 

In short, technology is taking away the very skills needed to succeed in a technological world. 

Summer camp is the only experience I am aware of where children and teens will give up their phones for days or weeks at a time and still enjoy themselves. In fact, I frequently hear from teenagers that welcome a holiday from the demands of social media. Keeping up with social media is time-consuming and often full of drama. At camp, children interact face-to-face and send zero texts. 

When they return home, they will pick up their phones again, but I see three important differences in our campers compared to other children and teens. First, they tend to use them less. They have felt life separated from the electronic umbilical cord and liked it. While they still text, they also put the phones down sooner. Second, they know they can be spectacular without these devices. They learn my favorite “killer app”, called “the off button”. Finally, they are more effective communicators, better friends and more skilled leaders than their peers. Every year, I hear a litany of campers saying that “I am not sure what happened, but I found that I was the captain/drum major/leader” of my organization. 

This generation will never be as good as their grandparents at interpersonal interactions. Of course, they are more skilled in technology than their grandparents. Yet it is these interpersonal skills that are most important and are most in deficit. Our children do not have to as good as their grandparents, but if we can help them be better than those around them, they will be primed for success – in their careers and their relationships.

About the Author

Steve Baskin

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

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