When you’re immersed in the field of educational summer programming every day (as we are here at EXPLO), it can be easy to forget that, to parents and children searching for their next summertime experience, the differences between camps aren’t all that obvious.

The Secrets to a Transformational Summer Camp Experience for Your TeenWhen you’ve narrowed down your list to a handful of academic summer programs — all hosted on college campuses, all boasting about their access to high-tech equipment and expert instructors, all featuring stories of happy, successful campers on their websites — how do you cut your list down any further?

In our free guide for parents, “The Secrets to a Transformational Summer Camp Experience for Your Teen,” we listed some of the nuts-and-bolts practicalities to consider in an academic summer camp: the staff-to-student ratio, the on-campus dining options, the health and wellness resources, the availability of financial aid, and so on. But let’s assume you’ve already downloaded your guide and made your comparisons in those areas.

Here are three additional ways to tell educational summer programs apart. Each has to do with how a camp approaches teaching and nurturing the curiosity of young minds.

1. Does the Camp Favor an Active-Learning or a Lecture-Based Teaching Philosophy?

As the phrase implies, active learning — also known as experiential learning — is a mode of education in which students participate in the learning process.

We’re all familiar with the traditional lecture-based teaching approach used in most university, high school, and even middle school classes. Students sit in a classroom, listen to instruction from their teachers, take notes, and are later tested on the material.

There is nothing wrong with that learning theory. But it’s only part of the story of any given subject. Decades of educational research shows that students retain information better and engage more deeply with the material when they’re allowed to get hands-on with real-world applications of the subject.

The journal Science reports on one recent study that found, “undergraduate students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use more stimulating, so-called active learning methods.”

Your child will have all school year to sit passively and listen to a teacher. Summer is a time for exploration, discovery, trying new things, and getting your hands dirty (figuratively and literally).

As you compare the educational programming of various summer camps, find out:

  • Do they watch an instructor lecture and do science demonstrations for them or are they debating and researching real world problems and then designing experiments and labs to test their hypotheses?   

  • Do they simply read and discuss political and economic texts or do they build and manage their own island nations -- developing trading relationships with nearby islands, putting in place environmental and health regulations, coming up with a financial systems, governments, and laws for civic life?

  • Do they sit at their desks, silently solving math problems or do they compete in adrenaline-fueled, head-to-head computational challenges focused on teamwork, creative thinking, and finding math in the real world?

  • Do they simply watch and discuss the structure of films or do they take on the mantle of filmmaker?  Do they get to storyboard their narrative and then remix their scenes from their favorite films into wild new stories, editing the pieces together into their own movie trailers?

These are, of course, just a few examples of how camps might use active learning to get students enthused about subjects like engineering, science, and the arts.

How can you be sure a camp takes an active learning approach? Just ask. When educators believe in active learning, they’re usually more than happy to tell you all about it.

Is all active learning created equal?

While many camps use active learning methods, their approaches (and success) can vary wildly. The best camps are not just project-based: they are active, social, meaningful, and carefully-architected. A curriculum designer is like an architect. A house that has been designed by a knowledgeable and experienced architect is much different than one designed by a contractor; the latter provides you with the essentials, but when you enter a well-architected home, it just looks better, feels better. Good curriculum designers have mastered the art and science of designing projects, and train and employ teachers who can maximize the impact of a project. Perhaps most importantly of all, they design their camp to enable students to hone their strengths and improve upon their weaknesses. 

2. What Options Do Campers Have During Their ‘Free Time?’

During the course of any camp day, there’s going to be downtime, or at least, time that is less focused on academics. You may not think much about it, but this time off from (formal) learning can be just as memorable and formative to your child as their class time.

Wellesy Band

Camps and summer programs can take vastly different approaches to filling in the non-academic portions of their daily schedules. Some simply schedule nothing. Campers can hang out in their rooms, socialize, or wander around campus. Older campers may even be allowed to explore the surrounding city or town on their own, unsupervised.

There’s nothing wrong with children socializing. Downtime is the perfect opportunity for participants to get to know other children from other regions and countries, representing cultures and perspectives that are different than their own. And the freedom to choose your path and manage your own time is one of the hallmarks of a transformative summer program.

But some programs are committed to not letting any time go to waste. They look at free time as an opportunity for campers to socialize, unwind, and broaden their experiences, but within the framework of high-quality programming and adequate, supportive supervision.

When kids are encouraged to discover and pursue new interests, they are able to build connections with other students through these mutual interests, and it further expands their horizons.

In this model, campers may find themselves using their downtime to:

  • Tinker in an open robotics studio.

  • Attend a performance by a local theater company.

  • Participate in pickup games or competitive league sports.

  • Practice an instrument or join a jam session.

  • Hang out with new friends at local cafes or restaurants (or on-campus locations for the younger students.)

  • Browse a local art gallery.

  • Join a club or discussion group organized around an academic interest.

The art behind this approach is that campers are given lots of choice in which to exercise agency. Though you are not forced to go anywhere in particular, you are constantly being encouraged to participate in something.  You learn to take advantage of the rich opportunities around you. 

Free time, in other words, can be “free” without being unstructured.

This often leads to discovering new interests and connecting with a wide array of people.  When there is very limited programming, too often students have a small peer group that they become cliquey with and they don’t expand their horizons. It’s easy for students to make a few friends on day one, and then latch on to those students for the rest of camp.  But when kids are encouraged to discover and pursue new interests, they are able to build connections with other students through these mutual interests, and it further expands their horizons.

3. Does the Camp Hit the ‘Sweet Spot’ With Academic Time?

One useful question to ask an academic summer camp is, “How do you define ‘academic?’”

Some programs have a couple of hours of academics in the morning and the rest of the day is devoted to informal recreation and free time.  Particularly for a residential program, that’s a lot of unstructured time.

Not that there’s anything wrong, per se, with recreation. But when your objective is to provide your child with an immersive learning environment, you don’t want a camp that sees “educational time” as just another box to check off.

On the other hand, some camps are all academics, all the time. Many of these types of programs are hyperfocused on a single subject.  

The morning-to-night learning model may be a good fit for some students, but at some point, all learners need a break. A young mind benefits from the opportunity to relax, have fun, and let the day’s lessons sink in.

The best camps find a balance between academic and recreational time. And they provide opportunities for learning even during recreational activities, should the students choose them. For example, there may be an instructor on hand to help you build something in a maker space. A coach down at the basketball courts or soccer field to give you pointers. An instructor at the music studio to help your trio think about what to do for the talent show.  Or there may be an instructor keeping an eye on the robotics lab, ready to answer questions.

Learn More Ways to Whittle Down Your List of Academic Summer Camps

Educators and researchers are finally starting to realize what children have known for a long time: an immense amount of learning can occur in the summer when minds are allowed to roam free, experiment, and experience what the world has to offer. So choosing an academic summer camp for your child is no minor decision.

In this article, we’ve covered three ways to tell educational summer programs apart. But with literally thousands of options in the U.S. alone, you may need more guidance. 

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