Three years ago, I wrote a blog post about summer. As a spate of articles and advertisements for “self-directed” summer programs has recently found its way into my orbit, I got to thinking about it again.
More and more institutions, centers, and structured environments that promote “self-directed learning” are seeing the light of day. The phrase is being applied to vastly different environments, with disagreement about the results. It’s making its way into public schools courtesy of online curriculum. It’s the backbone for many learning centers that market themselves as alternatives to traditional school. It’s being taken up by institutions that train educators, guiding them in ways to assess student readiness for self-directed learning, and implement and evaluate it.
Is it any wonder that more and more summer camps are jumping on the “self-directed” bandwagon?
I get that summer camp can be a great, even life-changing experience for lots of kids and young people. Coming from a working class background with an immigrant mother who never even heard of summer camp, I didn’t experience it myself, save for one two-week day camp experience I enjoyed as a result of being chosen for an academic prize when I was in fifth grade.
My own kids enjoyed structured summer programs here and there, mostly when they got older and wanted to focus on particular interests like music or drama. These programs were not “self-directed.” Rather, they were self-chosen environments that my kids wanted to participate in because they felt excited about the content, staff, and focus.
Enrolling them in a camp so they could get “practice” at self-directed learning (yes, getting practice at self-directed learning is a selling point I saw on one camp website) — well, that never occurred to me. Enrolling them in a camp so they could go out and play as they chose every day never occurred to me, either. Summers rolled into our lives the same way other seasons did, naturally. Fall meant jumping in leaf piles, apple picking, the resumption of homeschool park day. Winter meant ice skating, sledding, making snow forts and snow people, and the return of homeschool gym day. In spring the unicycles and bicycles re-emerged along with the flowers, and it was back to the park for playing and wading in the brook. When summer rolled around it was time for berry picking in the woods, beach days, camping, and road trips to visit family. In every season, there was play, play, play, and lots of it.
Summer camp has become almost mythological in our culture, a place for magical, incomparable experiences, a rite of passage not to be missed. And yet, there’s much to be said for opting out. In a piece she wrote a few years ago about slowing down summer with her kids, Pam Lobley talks about what she discovered, including the fact that her kids didn’t need much to be happy. She also experienced the phenomenon that a relaxed, unstructured life improved her relationship with her kids. “By slowing down and just hanging out,” she says, “I saw them more clearly for who they were.”
Being together, enjoying the world and each other, working and playing side by side — these are the real fruits of a slowed-down, unstructured, “self-directed” summer, or any season, of play.