Character Education Goes to Camp

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by Rebecca Bauer

As an educational non-profit, we spend most of our time talking about schools, but as summer begins, I want to acknowledge that crucial character development often happens not only outside of the classroom but also outside of the school year.

In my household, camp was always spoken about as a Matt Smith spoke to in his recent blog post, a magical place. My parents met at camp. They returned there to be counselors a few years after. They sent my older brother to that same camp, where he later became a counselor too. When I turned 10, it was my turn.

While some parents might be horrified at the thought of sending their child away for 7 weeks, my parents trusted in the camp and knew it was a safe and caring community. Thinking about this, I realized that the 11 Principles of Character Education seamlessly apply to camp settings. Any principle can be adapted for the camp setting, but for me Principles 2, 4, and 7 stick out when it comes to character growth in my own camp experiences.

Principle 2: The school (or camp) defines character comprehensively to include thinking, feeling and doing.

Actions speak louder than words.

At camp, character education is often indirect, but nonetheless powerful. Counselors may not preach the importance of perseverance, courage and respect, but they certainly expect it. Whether facing your fear by joining your bunk up on the stage at a talent show or just patiently waiting in line to take a shower, practicing these core values becomes a necessity for getting along with others.

Principle 4: The school (or camp) creates a caring community.

All for one and one for all.

Just as we find in schools, relationships make or break a camp experience. Who steps in when you experience your first bout of homesickness? Do campers sense that a friend is feeling down and give them a much needed hug? How does a counselor react when a child wakes them up in the middle of the night? A child remembers their counselor’s compassionate nature, the night they felt sick. Far from their actual families, children learn to build the support network they need and be that support network for others.

Why are these family-like relationships so crucial? Counselors and peers that care make the environment feel safe and that caring community empowers children to take risks and test their limits.

Principle 7: The school (or camp) fosters self-motivation

Aiming high and working hard.

While I do remember being told to write down a goal that I wanted to achieve, as we sat around the first campfire of the summer, motivation, perseverance and achievement are also a natural part of daily life at camp. Just take one look around at any camp’s parent visiting day and you will see beaming campers eagerly dragging their parents to watch them show off their water-skiing skills at the lake or see the windmill they created in wood shop. Free from requirements of testing and rigid curriculum, campers let their passions guide their work and take pride in the work that they do.

Why does it matter? has a Schools of Character program, offers professional development and resources for educators, so why am I talking about camp?

I’m talking about camp as a reminder of the flexibility of the 11 Principles. We target educators because it is helpful to have a strong, organized system, like a school or camp, to support your character education efforts, but really, you can take them wherever you go. The coach of a soccer team, an after school art instructor, the leader of a local youth group or even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, can use the 11 Principles to develop a stronger, more empathetic community.

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