If School and Camp Both Help Kids Learn, Why Is One So Much More Fun?

Monday was the first day of summer camp at our house.  My daughters returned to a camp they went to last year, one where they get to choose from an array of options on what they’re going to do each day.  And I do mean an array – soccer, video games, cooking, sewing and lots of iterations in between.

The day began at a similar time to a school day – and yet they both popped out of bed instead of dragging the blankets up over their heads as they do most school days.  They were buzzing with excitement at breakfast, talking about which activity they wanted to do that day and how they might map out their choices for the week. It was, to say the least, a marked difference from their excitement level when they were headed off to 4th grade all year.

So on the way to camp I asked what they were excited about.  One of them said, ‘we get to learn lots of new things.’ I did my best, with considerable effort, to hold my New Jersey sarcasm at bay and not point out that learning is pretty much the point of that whole school thing.  I’ve learned that sometimes with them silence lets more ideas flow out, so I kept my mouth shut and out popped a few more things they love about camp.

Learning to Think, Not Just Do

‘There are lots more decisions to make.’ For instance, one told me, ‘if I want to choose sewing, then there are still more decisions to make – what do I want to make?  A scarf? Other things? Or if I want to go to the video game area, do I want to make a video game or add onto one or play one?’

The skeptic in me went straight to all the reasons that camp learning doesn’t count. But then I thought about it for a moment.  A few years ago they’d gone to a few cooking camps, and now they regularly make us dinner, dessert and pretty much always their own breakfast and lunch. These aren’t their chores (I’m still searching for the camp that will endear them to folding laundry, drop me a line if you know of one) – they genuinely enjoy cooking. They also learned to sew last summer and already surpass my sorry attempts at reattaching the severed limb of a favorite stuffed animal. That job is now theirs.

I’ve just finished reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  The simplified premise of the book, which I highly recommend, is that intrinsic motivators – the things we do because we find them interesting – are more effective in driving behavior than are extrinsic motivators – which are rewards or praise from someone else. And as I thought about why camp vs school got the big thumbs up, I realized I was seeing the value of intrinsic motivation play out.   

It was a reminder to me that the more often we let people choose what project they want to take on, what role they want to play, or what mentor they want, the more personally invested they are in the outcome. School is often heavily weighted toward extrinsic motivators and can cloud what it is that’s truly an intrinsic motivator for any of our kids.  Having learned at the end of the day that my daughters chose to play soccer and sew, I made a mental note to remember their intrinsic motivators. And will see if I can convince any of the counselors to offer laundry folding as a fun activity. You never know.

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