Don’t Just Stand There

By Nicholas Washburn and Zachary Wahl-Alexander

As two high school students walk through the halls together between classes, one laments, “Gym class is so boring.  We do the same stupid activities all the time.” The other responds in short order with overwhelming grievance, “I know, right? It’s always so competitive, and we never have a say in what we do. It’s like, if I didn’t have to have a PE credit to graduate, I would never go. What a waste of time.”

Unfortunately, similar conversations regarding school-based physical education (PE) are all too common among secondary students today. In fact, adolescents’ distaste for PE has been well-documented for almost 30 years (Griffey, 1987). Despite an ever-growing body of literature identifying effective teaching practices (Rink, 2013) and characteristics of highly effective PE programs, the landscape of secondary physical education remains mostly unchanged. The purpose of this article, however, is not to focus on the shortcomings of school-based PE. Rather, the article offers support for the belief that instilling in young people a sense of physical literacy can be supplemented, perhaps significantly, through their attendance at summer camp.

Physical Literacy
Physical literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life (Whitehead, 2013). The operative word in this definition is “motivation.” Prior to an individual’s making the conscious decision to engage in physical activity, a motivation to do so must be present. Eventually, individuals will not be required to engage in the activities offered in PE. The extent to which they will continue to engage in physical activity after graduation will depend on the level of value they place on benefits that such engagement provides (i.e., the means by which their motivation to engage in physical activity is regulated).

Theoretical Framework
Theoretically, this perspective is framed by the literature on self-determination conceived by Deci and Ryan (1985, 2000). According to self-determination theory (SDT), human action is governed by motivation. Rather than being dichotomous in nature, this motivation rests on a continuum. At one end of the continuum is amotivation, characterized by a complete absence of motivation. At the other end is high self-motivation, or intrinsic motivation, whereby a person engages in an activity purely because of the satisfaction derived. Figure 1 illustrates the motivation continuum as held by SDT.

Figure 1. Illustration of the various regulations of motivation, according to Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000).    

Between these two extremes, and in the order of ascending self-determination, are extrinsic, introjected, identified, and integrated motivations. For an extensive review of each form of motivation, refer to Ryan and Deci’s (2000) work.  Ultimately, SDT posits that intrinsic motivation to act is superior to lesser self-determined forms of motivation on the premise that intrinsically motivated individuals will engage in a given behavior after an extrinsic stimulus (possibly in the form of a grade or class credit) has been removed. People are not simply born with autonomous forms of motivation (intrinsic, integrated, and identified), and they are not acquired by chance. SDT maintains that in order for a person to acquire autonomous motivation, three psychological needs that everyone has must be satisfied:

  • Autonomy
  • Competence
  • Relatedness. 

Autonomy refers to having a choice in behavior and the authority to govern one’s actions. The need for competence holds that, for a person to possess a desire to engage in a particular activity, he or she must possess an adequate level of self-efficacy with regard to a competence in that activity. Finally, the need for relatedness is concerned with feeling securely connected to the significant others in one’s social environment. Figure 2 illustrates the relationship between psychological-needs satisfaction and motivation. Summer camp appears to be in a more advantageous position with respect to satisfying these psychological needs in young people than school-based PE, ultimately fostering an autonomous motivation to establish and maintain a health-enhancing level of physical literacy in children and adolescents.

Figure 2.  Psychological-needs satisfaction leads to self-determined or intrinsic motivation.

Children’s experiences at camp are unique from those in other settings. Summer camp fosters a carefree place where campers are not pressured to master motor skills under evaluative circumstances. Unlike the compulsory, extrinsically motivating nature of school-based PE, the decision to attend a summer camp is voluntary, and there is no shortage of options when searching for a camp that peaks one’s interests. According to the American Camping Association (ACA), there are 31,931 summer camps in the United States. Interested campers can choose an experience that is conducive to their own personal comfort level, interests, and beliefs. A camp can be searched for based on factors such as location, duration, sport-based/traditional activities, or religious affiliation. In fact, some camps are organized so the camper is in charge of creating his or her own schedule. Furthermore, unlike potentially lengthy PE units, commonly resulting in waning student interest, summer camp offers multiple activities each day, keeping a camper interested and engaged. While many activities may also be taught in PE, the summer camp context allows for learning to take place in a fun and supportive environment. A few examples of such activities include sailing, hiking, wilderness camping, and high-ropes courses. Often, a camp will outsource to local businesses and experts in the interest of offering campers experiences beyond those available within the borders of the camp itself. Examples of activities that may be outsourced include scuba-diving, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting. It is important to note that many of these activities offered in a camp setting, but not in a PE setting, are lifelong activities, endeavors wherein competence can be established in a supportive, communal environment. The positive experiences that a child develops while attending camp can likely aid in creating positive memories of physical activity, leading to increases in intrinsic motivation and increased future engagement with these activities.

While the acquisition of motor skills needed for successful participation in lifelong activities is an important component of physical literacy and another great benefit of attending summer camp, the camp experience supports the development of the social and cognitive aspects of physical literacy as well. Socially, campers meet new people around their age, providing them the opportunities to make new friends and expand their social networks. Outside of the formal offerings of the camp structure, the conversations between campers often serve as the best teachers, and the relationships developed can last a lifetime. Intellectually, campers are often exposed to activities and knowledge not encountered in school-based PE. Through this exposure, they gain additional knowledge about equipment and outlets for future participation, etiquette appropriate to the activity, and ways in which participation in the activity can be of benefit.

The third and final psychological need requiring fulfillment of autonomous motivation is relatedness. Essentially, people need to feel connected, supported, and treasured. While some camps focus on sports, include a competitive nature, and strive to improve performance, the majority of camps emphasize cooperation, team-building, enjoyment, and self-expression. Many camp activities simply do not include competition but foster an individual’s contribution to the group. Overnight hiking, for example, may require each member to carry an item essential to the group (tents, food, utensils, etc.) in his or her own pack. Sailing may require one person to let the sail in and out depending on the wind, and another to control the rudder. Still yet, campfire activities, such as a group narrative in which a story is developed by each person contributing a sentence and building from the person before, promote bonding to the group in a non-competitive way. The camp experience is not focused on performance and suppressing expression.  On the contrary, creativity through self-expression and finding ways to enjoy the present moment are characteristics of the camp environment.

Further, given the continued rise in childhood and adolescent obesity in the past 35 years, and the well-documented relationship between obesity and level of physical activity, never has the necessity to find ways to get children and adolescents more physically active been so urgent. If children are to become more active once the extrinsic motivation imposed by schooling is removed, according to SDT, they must possess an intrinsic motivation. Motivation can be cultivated if the three psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met. This article has provided support for the notion that summer camps are in a position to instill in adolescents a sense of physical literacy that is superior to that of school-based PE.

Deci, E., Ryan, R. “Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior.” Springer Science & Business Media, 1985.

Griffey, D. C. “Trouble for Sure a Crisis—Perhaps: Secondary School Physical Education Today.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 58(2), 20-21, 1987.

Rink, J. “Measuring teacher effectiveness in physical education.” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 84(4), 407-418, 2013.

Ryan, R., Deci, E. “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.”  American Psychologist, 55(1), 68, 2000.

Whitehead, M. “Definition of physical literacy and clarification of related issues.” ICSSPE Bulletin, 65, 2013.

Nicholas Washburn, M.Ed., is current pursuing a Ph.D. in sport pedagogy at the University of Alabama. An Eagle Scout, he has extensive experience with summer camps both as a camper and a staff member.

Zachary Wahl-Alexander, Ph.D., is a sport pedagogy assistant professor from Northern Illinois University. He has worked at Trail’s End Camp for the past four summers, and currently serves as the boys’ head counselor. Reach him at