My father grew up in the heart of Yonkers, New York. He was a hopeless athlete, a brilliant communicator, a social butterfly, and an often distracted student. Even back in the 50s, he had qualities of what we would now call a “renaissance man:” little interest in the frivolities of small talk and sports scores and a genuine interest in the arts, magic, books, deep conversations, and connections. He didn’t necessarily fit in at Camp Skylemar, the all-boys camp in Maine, in existence since 1948, where he spent two months each summer from the ages of 7-16.
This was an era of “boys will be boys,” and much of the camp program centered on athletics. As a self-proclaimed “athlete-phobe,” my dad was the last to be picked for every team and, despite all efforts by caring counselors to help build his athletic capacity, struck out again and again. Eventually, recognizing the law of diminishing returns, the camp decided they had to take a different approach with my dad. Aware of his “gift for gab” and deep baritone voice, they put him in charge of the public-address system. Each day he had the responsibility of the morning wake-up call, playing music throughout the day, and sharing announcements and jokes. This role transformed my dad’s summer camp experience, connected him to an unknown passion, and set him on the path to an incredibly successful career in public radio.
After my dad’s life-changing experience, it was a given that I would go to summer camp.
I grew up in downtown Toronto, and at the age of eight, my parents began researching options. I can still remember the grainy movie shown on a wobbly portable screen by camp directors in our living room. From the ages of 9-13, I spent the most defining months of my life at Camp Tanamakoon, a rugged all-girls camp in Northern Ontario. I cried with homesickness every night of my first summer and cried even harder when it came time to return to Toronto. I had fallen in love with my summer home, my camp family, and the peacefulness of waking and sleeping to loon calls.
Camp was my introduction to a different kind of education than I was receiving at school—one where I felt truly independent and competent and had complete agency in my learning.
It was pure experiential education. All learning came from doing, and my engagement in that learning skyrocketed. There were real consequences to mistakes; you leaned too far out when doing a draw stroke in a canoe and you tipped into the water, you left the door of your cabin open, and you spent the night being munched by opportunistic mosquitos, you were a slob and your cabin mates were impacted. My decisions mattered, my voice mattered, and I bore the full responsibility and accountability for how I engaged in my experience. The accomplishments and the failures were all mine. My connections were real and deep and sustain me even today. Camp was a game-changer for me as a student and now as an educator.
Like my dad, camp also created the pathway to my career. I fell in love with being in the wilderness and the feelings of self-sufficiency that came from living and thriving with so little. I chose to deepen these experiences at the age of 17 on a different kind of summer camp experience—a three-week Outward Bound course, canoeing and portaging for weeks in the rain, wind, and mud with a group of total strangers through Ontario’s northern lakes.
Towards the end of the course, we sat down with our two instructors to receive feedback. They spoke of my ability to create connections within the group, maintain optimism and enthusiasm in the face of both incredible highs and extreme moments of rigor and challenge, and help my peers develop and work towards a shared vision.
They encouraged me to seek out a career that would foster and further develop these leadership skills. This conversation set me on the path that I have been traveling ever since—from leading and running outdoor education programs, creating and managing a successful educational non-profit, growing into various leadership roles at independent schools, to now being the Head of School at Bosque School in Albuquerque.
Whether it is an overnight or day camp, the benefits of summer camp are well documented and compelling.
Extensive research speaks to the resiliency built from spending time outdoors along with the essential social, cognitive and developmental skills built from time in nature and a critical break from technology. Camp provides children with confidence, social connections and communication skills, emotional intelligence, and independence. It helps them feel part of a community and experience true teamwork. It builds creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking—skills needed to thrive in today’s world. It also teaches coping skills and flexibility, necessary tools to step into a world of constant and rapid change.
Many parents and experts familiar with the benefits of summer camp have asked the question, “Why can’t school be more like camp?” As an educator, this is something I have also pondered and actively work to foster at Bosque School. The same things that make summer campers come alive as learners can and should be active elements of the school year- learning being meaningful and relevant, the chance to experience and learn from failure, opportunities to find your flow (and the subsequent intrinsic motivation and passion identification that follows), feeling included in a community, connecting to caring and healthy role models, the power of play, exposure to the outdoors and nature…The list goes on and on.
As you consider your child’s upcoming summer, I encourage you to consider the transformative gift that summer camp, whether it be a day camp, or an overnight camp, can provide them in enhancing their capacity as a collaborator, a communicator, a creator, a critical thinker, and a community member. Camp will never be time wasted and could set your child on their path to identifying their passions and future career path, while building memories and connections they will cherish for their lifetime.
About Our Guest Blogger
Jessie Barrie, PhD, is the head of school at Bosque School, a co-educational college preparatory independent school serving students in grades 6-12 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bosque School’s summer camp, Bosque Summer, was rated Best in the City by the Albuquerque Journal’s Readers Choice awards in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and registration is currently open for summer 2021. Jessie can be reached at [email protected]