So, You Want Your School To Be More Like Camp?


‘We should make our school more like camp” has been a popular refrain lately. It is impossible to spend time at a Jewish overnight summer camp and not be moved by the intensity of relationships, depth of spirit, and pure joy that imbues the setting. The off-season is a time for camp memories, keeping up with camp friends, and generally biding one’s time until the next summer.

An important implication of school-like-camp is that it helps us frame the goals of Jewish education beyond “learning about” Judaism, which is often associated (troublingly, in my mind) with schools and their focus on mastery of content knowledge. Like-camp formulates our goals more broadly to encompass knowledge (how-to), connectedness, identity, attitudes, and emotion. While Jewish educators have long embraced this broader set of outcomes, school-like-camp can be helpful in breaking preconceived notions of school.

I am concerned, however, about the actualization of the school-like-camp vision. This approach begs the crucial question, “What, exactly, about camp should our school become more like?” Or, what is it about camp that offers positive outcomes and that can be replicated in non-camp settings?

If we don’t address these questions, we are at risk of importing surface elements of camp in a way that does not change the fundamental experience of youth education. For example, I can paint my car bright red and give it racing stripes, but this won’t enhance its performance. Improvement requires focusing on what is under the hood.

No educator would seriously think that being more camp-like means serving bug juice for snack. But what components are important?

To think about the active ingredients of camp, we can learn from a tradition of research about how educational environments can be structured to promote growth and development.  It is possible to identify five key elements of impactful experiences related to how learning and growth take place that are, at least in the ideal, central elements of camp:

♦ Attention to Social and Emotional Dynamics: Campers learn with and from their peers. They are brought into contact and caring relationships with adults as well as with youth of varying ages. They feel safe enough to take risks and engage the emotions and spirit.

♦ Multiple Entry Points for Diverse Learners: Campers have different ways to shine and a variety of ways to contribute — Jewishly and otherwise — to the community. The diversity of participants — range of interests, preferred learning modalities, special needs — is accounted for in developing experiences. Campers, especially as they get older, help to shape their own learning environments.

♦ Integration of Content and Process: There is (ideally) a blurring of the line between learning and having fun. Activities are shaped to include various Jewish outcomes. Jewish participation feels genuine because it is integrated into the life and rhythm of the setting.

♦ Opportunities for Reflection: Campers have structured and spontaneous opportunities to think about and discuss the meaning of activities and experiences and to draw connections with their broader identities.

♦ Interconnectedness of Experiences: A web of experiences — concurrently and across time — is developed around values, skills, relationships, and knowledge. What is learned is reinforced elsewhere, and can be put into action in different places and at different points in time.

The implication is that making school more like camp is a complex endeavor that involves going beyond planning catchy programs and requires us to ask and address difficult questions, such as: Are interactions — between and among staff and learners — caring and respectful? Do learners have opportunities to engage meaningfully with educators, clergy, and older youth? Is what is learned in school valued in the rest of the community? Do school activities connect to the diverse interests of students? Do activities incorporate content, or is the day structured so that learning begins when fun stops, and vice versa?

It is notable that camps struggle with this same set of questions and have not found the magic bullet. A lot of effort, for example, goes into shaping the social dynamics of camp. Also, content and activity may remain separate, with campers going to “classes” that are seen as an imposition into their day. Try telling a camp director that all that is needed is a bunch of kids and some fun activities… you’ll hear plenty about the hard work that goes into creating environments for growth. Many educational leaders have worked hard to transform their schools and to create new models for education. This requires not only vision and good ideas, but staff training, intensive planning, and addressing these five fundamental elements that make an experience more likely to become an opportunity for growth. Adding an activity, no matter how fun, engaging, or innovative, is not enough.

So … Arts? Sleepovers? Cooking? Planting? Playing? Climbing? Whiz-bang technology? Competitions? Trips? Keep ‘em coming. But remember that the goal is not to have our schools resemble camps on the surface, but rather to capture those elements that are most likely to result in the holistic Jewish growth that we value. If we neglect what really matters, we can look forward to driving around the same circles, sipping bug juice in our freshly painted cars.

Jeffrey S. Kress is associate professor of Jewish education and academic director of the Experiential Learning Initiative, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.