What I Learned at Summer Camp

When I was 11, I went to wilderness summer camp for the first time. I didn’t brush my teeth for two weeks. It was fantastic.

Next summer, I made a camp girlfriend. She was 14. I told her I was 13. We held hands for one steamy week. Then she discovered that I was actually 12, and I learned that lying to make someone like you doesn’t work.

A few summers later, I went on the camp’s most challenging backpacking trip. I helped plan the route, pack the food, and lead the group. We hiked to a high elevation river, played on natural water slides, and ate orange drink mix powder straight from the bag. Life was good.

Then, as I did every August, I went back to school―and life seemed to lose its color.

I did well in school. But that didn’t make things better, because camp and school felt like two totally different worlds.

  • At camp, I had control over my daily schedule. At school, it was predetermined.
  • At camp, I could go deep into my interests. At school, I could only skim the surface.
  • At camp, I was a social freelancer. At school, group identity meant everything.
  • At camp, adults treated me like a person. At school, they treated me like my test score.
  • At camp, I went because I chose to. At school, I went because I had to.

At school I learned how to memorize a fact until Friday, alter the margins on an essay to create a higher page count, and study as little as possible for a test.

At camp I learned how to figure out what I want, take the initiative, conquer my fear, own my victories, and learn from my failures.

To my teenage sensibilities, the annual ratio of camp to school didn’t make sense. Why didn’t I go to camp most of the year and then head off to school for a couple months to learn grammar or algebra or whatever else camp couldn’t teach?

Fifteen years later, my sensibilities haven’t really changed. I still love working at summer camps, and I’ve designed a life around running my own multi-week, camp-style education and travel programs for teenagers.

But the biggest lesson I’ve learned? School isn’t necessarily the enemy. Life isn’t about school versus camp. It’s about seeking the engagement, excitement, and pleasure of camp-style, self-directed learning—as much as possible. With this as your mission, school becomes merely an asterisk.


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