Do you remember your first taste of independence? From an outside perspective, the event is rarely significant. Perhaps your parents allowed you to go to the store yourself, with a few dollars to spend as you liked. Or maybe it happened during school; you could choose between playing kickball at recess or reading in the library.
Throughout childhood, children are constantly required to follow paths adults plot for them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We set rules for our children and schedule their days to keep them safe and to prepare them for when they, eventually, will navigate the world on their own. Schools set curriculum so children learn the critical skills they’ll need to succeed in the future.
But for a child, those few moments of genuine choice are thrilling. “Finally, I can do what matters to me, not what someone else tells me matters!”
Choice as a Teaching Philosophy
Leading teachers and educational theorists believe that, when students are given choices about what they study and how they approach assignments, they engage more with the material. It makes sense when you think about it. Even as adults, we tend to prioritize activities we want to do and postpone those that feel like obligations.
Noted educational researcher Robert J. Marzano gives choice a central role in his list of tips for creating a highly-engaged classroom. Citing research, Marzano writes, “[P]roviding choices to students of all age levels often increases their intrinsic motivation. Choice in the classroom has also been linked to increases in student effort, task performance, and subsequent learning.”
Student choice is the central strategy promoted by former elementary teacher and educational consultant Mike Anderson in his book, “Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn.” In a chapter excerpted by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Anderson writes about helping students enter what psychologists call the zone of proximal development —, “the sweet spot where significant cognitive growth can happen.”
“Because this zone is where learning is most pleasurable, when teachers empower students to choose elements of their work, they tend to settle into this zone on their own. They know their own abilities better than teachers ever can and want to be engaged in appropriately challenging work, so they will self-differentiate when conditions are right.”
Choice at Summer Camp
What does this have to do with summer camp? The school year is dominated by predetermined paths. Lesson plans are geared toward passing standardized exams and catering to classrooms containing dozens of students. Summer can be an escape from all that.
Summer is the perfect time for students to exercise their agency and experience those first early tastes of independence. Educational summer camps are not beholden to state academic standards. Students at educational summer camps do not have to pass tests or worry about grades.
At a high-quality educational summer camp, choice is built into everything.
For example, campers in EXPLO’s summer exploration programs have choices to make before camp even starts. They choose workshops and courses from a catalog of engaging interdisciplinary options. Students change workshops and courses each week of camp; one week a camper may focus on engineering, the next, international cuisine. The choice is theirs.
Summer is the perfect time for students to exercise their agency and experience those first early tastes of independence.
During their educational time, students at EXPLO have more chances to take control of their learning. Courses and workshops are based on hands-on challenges, not classroom-based lectures.
With guidance from expert instructors, students work together to apply their knowledge to fun real-world scenarios. The solutions students devise are their own; even if they don’t work out, students learn and improve — such is the nature of exploration.
Choice doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to academic activities. The best summer camps are safe, supportive communities where participants can try on new roles, expanding the boundaries of their personalities and interests. Choice — from among multiple possibilities curated by expert administrators and instructors — is a crucial element.
For example, a student in an EXPLO program may choose to tell a joke in the evening talent show, or they may choose to cheer on their new friends. Between academic sessions, they may choose to burn off energy with a spirited game of bombardment, or they may decide to keep their brainwaves rolling by joining in a discussion group.
Students even have choices to make at dinner: the vegetarian option or the chicken quesadilla?
As many of us at EXPLO have witnessed, choice can be revelatory for students of any age. Given the opportunity to chart their own courses, students open up to the universe of possibilities within themselves and out in the world. They gain a newfound enthusiasm for learning and build the confidence to take on ever-increasing levels of independence.
Find the summer camp that offers the right choices for your child using our free guide, “10 Steps to Find the Perfect Educational Summer Camp.”