Critical Learning outside the Classroom

Critical Learning outside the Classroom

Think about where you learned some of the most important lessons that have stayed with you your entire life — many took place outside of the formal classroom.

I worry that today, as a result of our angst to help our children "build a resume," we may lose touch with critical, important elements of human/youth development. As parents, we are responsible for providing our kids with opportunities to practice emerging skills in safe environments. Intentional, real-world practice means working with others — where mistakes might be made but where the "teachable moments" are captured with meaning and understanding.

Learning and growing from mistakes is what helps us become resilient. As parents, we need to recognize and secure for our children those environments that are experienced and equipped to help our children be successful in life. Life is much more than a grade.

What we are talking about is the human journey and the essential role we, as adults, play in that development. We want our children to travel from one learning platform to the next acquiring complementary, cogent lifelong lessons that help ensure safe and productive travels in that journey to adulthood.

What is fascinating for me as a professional and as a parent is that the organized camp experience, although 150 years old, is in fact one of the best environments for your child to acquire 21st century skills. We know that critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity will be essential skills in the 21st century. These skills used in tandem with information, media, and technology skills, and the core subjects (reading, writing, and arithmetic) will help your child become a productive and successful world citizen. (See more)

Former Search Institute CEO Peter Benson, who recently passed away, (but not before making an indelible mark on our understanding of young people and the communities in which they live) said, "Plutarch gave us one of the key axioms of human development. And that is that 'youth are not vessels to be filled, but fires to be lit.'" 

Where can our children go to become inspired, have new experiences, learn new ideas, and make new friends?

The camp experience is the essential outdoor classroom designed to meet the needs of children and youth who need to survive and thrive in the 21st century. It is an experience that utilizes nature and experiential education. We know these elements alone inform and advance what many today are calling executive functions.

Executive functions include things such as self-control and synthesizing, assimilating, and adapting information and knowledge. These things are required when pursuing innovation, critical thinking, and problem solving. We can't imagine all the things our children will have to "know" in the future, but we can prepare them to "think" and "discover." We need to light our children's fire — we need to give them a camp experience.

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Written by: Peg Smith, CEO, American Camp Association See other articles by Peg Smith, CEO, American Camp Association
About the Author:

With nearly three decades of experience working with children, youth, and families, Peg L. Smith is the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association® (ACA). With up to 300 health, safety, and programming standards, ACA is the only national association that accredits camps and promotes a safe and fun camp experience with developmental benefits backed by independent research. To learn more about ACA, please visit or