By Susan Langlois and Richard Nastasi
Camp owners are always looking to add value to the camp experience. Camps that have added value can easily attract new campers. If the added value is truly delivered, the dividends are usually great pride and loyalty in campers who will want to return year after year.
What is added value, really? The answer to this question is usually in meeting the immediate needs of the campers in ways that they consider fun.
How can you identify these needs? Camp owners can do this by looking at the headlines of the local newspaper to see what parents are struggling with as they raise their kids: violence in schools, obesity, drug abuse, the pressure to get them into a good college, even in the stress of the new SAT format and the scholarship money that is given to students who score in the highest percentile.
When you look at the challenges that your campers and their parents face, it becomes clear that kids need to develop the ability to make good decisions. If you promote that your camp programming develops strong critical thinking skills that can transfer to success in the classroom, people will see that your camp helps campers to develop what is at the heart of being successful in life.
By developing camp programming that improves stronger critical thinking and communication skills, you could be well on your way to 100-percent capacity camp enrollments, season after season.
Education for Life
Too often, the education process is seen as only taking place in the classroom, when in fact, people may learn more when there is hands-on application of a principle.
For example, learning that the lower the center of gravity is in the body, the more stability is created by using a mathematical formula and calculating the maximum force that can be applied before a tipping point is reached, might be more meaningful and easier to grasp, if the center of gravity principle is explored through the golf swing...
A narrow stance makes it more difficult to maintain balance through the transfer of weight that occurs during the back swing. As the stance is widened, the learner can plot how the club plane is improved during the back swing.
Giving learners a chance to experiment to see how the center of gravity affects the accuracy of the back swing and ultimately the success of a golfer at the tee box, can make learning more effective… and more fun!
You and your campers (as well as the campers' parents) may not be aware that many camp experiences already are helping campers to think critically to become good decision makers.
Critical thinking skills involve analyzing a task or a problem and evaluating which solutions would be the best for that situation.
Many camp counselors and instructors who want to invest in their campers' learning give cues that help campers evaluate the important factors that need to be considered to find the best solution to a problem or to improve their abilities to perform a skill.
You may already have staff members who naturally gravitate to the process that researchers have termed "the constructivist's approach to learning."
With this in mind, camp directors might want to examine how instruction is given and the mentoring process that takes place throughout the camp experience.
Are your instructors and counselors doing the thinking for the campers and basically dictating what campers need to do? This teaching approach is not uncommon and can produce immediate results. It is a command style of teaching, and while all the information about a skill or task is given very efficiently, you would be amazed at how little of this information is processed or even remembered by even the most motivated or talented of campers.
Also, even if students so learn enough of this skill to perform it well, they probably won't be able to tell you why the technique works and they view learning as a robotic function.
The constructivist approach not only puts campers in the driver's seat but it makes learning more fun. The instructor's role shifts from the dictator to the facilitator.
The instructor gives the campers a task or a problem to solve and usually gives guidelines that must be followed to ensure that the activity is safe and not completely frustrating for the campers.
As the campers are actively engaged in the problem solving, the instructor might offer advice or pose a direct question that helps campers focus on the critical factors of success, but it is the students who must do the experimenting. They will pose solutions and try them. They will evaluate why something worked or why it didn't. They will adapt an idea that almost worked or discard it.
The key for the instructor is to engage campers in evaluating ideas and assumptions, to help campers believe that they can solve problems if they think things through, become more aware of what is going on and why.
If the instructor can also encourage campers to adopt the attributes of fairness, generosity and empathy while they engage in problem solving, the camp activities can carry even greater power.
The applications in camp setting for the constructivist’s approach to learning and the teaching of critical thinking and communication are virtually endless. Here are some activities that can be easily implemented:
The Moving Play: select a play that has several different scenes and have the campers select the most appropriate camp facility (from a list of facilities that you designate as available) that helps the audience experience the essence of what the playwright had hoped for in each scene. The campers should also consider how the actors could enhance the experience of the audience, as everyone transitions from locale to locale for each scene.
Understanding Exercise Physiology: Have students explore through various athletic tasks which of the three energy systems they are using:
The Phosphocreatine System -- short, explosive bursts lasting only a few seconds
The Lactic Acid System -- high intensity exercise that brings on extreme fatigue that cannot be tolerated after just a few minutes in duration
The Aerobic System -- less demanding, low intensity, sustainable activity that can last for several minutes up to many hours
Give the campers six activities to perform and have them determine which of the three energy systems is the primary energy system being used. The six activities could be the standing long jump, a 50 yard sprint, a five mile bike hike, a springboard dive, a 50 yard swim, and a two mile run around the lake.
Create a New Game: Have the campers develop their own original game. They can be given parameters of how many people can be on each team along with the equipment and space that they can use. Have them write a brief explanation of the game along with a rules list. They can play and modify their game until they think they are ready to teach it to the rest of the campers.
Creating a Court/Field that has four 90-degree corners: This activity can be accomplished a number of ways by using a corner of a cardboard box, a compass, or Pythagoras' Theory, which states that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.
Once they think that they have laid out a field with four perfect 90 degree corners, ask them to find a way to show that they have accomplished the feat.
These four examples demonstrate how campers can construct their own learning and enjoy it at the same time. These kinds of camp activities also take the burden off the instructors to have all the answers or to put out the energy to engage campers in activities.
People love challenges and making their own choices and the camp setting might just be the perfect place to get people engaged in the life skills of critical thinking and communicating.
Dr. Susan Langlois has over 25 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently Dean of Sport Science at Endicott College.
Dr. Richard Nastasi has taught the constructivist approach to learning at Boston University, University of Ballarat in Victoria, Australia, and at his current post of professor at Endicott College. He had developed and directed camp programming for people at every developmental level.