By Alexander Posner
This summer, 29 Chinese students will board a jetliner and travel 8,000 miles around the globe. Their destination: Camps Kenwood and Evergreen, adjacent brother and sister sleep-away camps nestled in the pristine woods of New Hampshire. There, over the course of seven weeks, they will participate in the activities at the heart of the American camp experience. They will swim, boat, and bat, roast s’mores beneath the stars, and cultivate strong friendships with each other and their American peers. At the summer’s end, they will return home with a new tan, a host of indecipherable camp cheers, and a collection of memories to light the way through winter’s gloom.
These 29 Chinese campers are part of the opening wave of what could someday be a major trend. As China’s economy continues its upward surge and its citizens deepen their engagement with the world, an increasing number of Chinese parents are seeking to place their children at American summer camps. Not at academic boot camps, like math or debate camps, but in the hands of traditional American summer programs—hiking, campfires, bunks, and all.
This shift reflects the growing realization in China that its education system, which prioritizes rote memorization, often fails to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century. Instead, experiences like summer camp that cultivate soft-skills—teamwork, leadership, creativity, etc.—are increasingly recognized as essential. A growing number of Chinese parents and political leaders, hoping to emulate the best features of American education, have come to view summer camp as a missing piece of the puzzle.
This past year, China cemented its status as the world’s leading economic power. For the first time in history, its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reached $10 trillion, eclipsing that of the United States. However, despite China’s dramatic growth, little of its wealth has derived from genuine innovation. Instead, Chinese entrepreneurs have mastered the art of producing foreign companies’ goods quickly, in bulk, and at a low price. China still operates what is essentially a copycat economy.
These challenges have not eluded China’s political leadership. In recent years, the government has promoted its “indigenous innovation” initiative, which aims to establish a permanent culture of technological innovation. Political leaders, eager to usher in this change, have reformed the patent system, flooded research institutions with funds, and coaxed tens of thousands of Chinese scientists living overseas to return home.
However, despite these efforts, China has struggled to generate a culture of ingenuity. A full third of articles submitted to a scientific journal in Zhejiang Province, for example, contained plagiarized material and—despite a 50 percent jump in patent applications filed by inventors from China—many Chinese patents borrow substantially from the work of foreign companies. As Alexandra Harney, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations explained in a blog post for The New York Times, “The harder Beijing pushes its companies and scientists to come up with new ideas, the more they seem to copy the work of others.”
Ultimately, China’s innovation deficit cannot be remedied with declarative political campaigns or bottomless pits of government funds. Instead, policymakers must tinker with China’s cultural core, first by reimagining the country’s education system. Summer camp, some believe, will be an essential ingredient of that change.
At present, China’s school system is an unforgiving treadmill of rote memorization and standardized testing. Chinese students begin a rigorous regimen of academic training almost from birth that culminates in a single, national exam at the conclusion of high school. The gaokao, or “big test,” patrols the gates of China’s higher education system. Succeed on the exams and you will be thrust China’s burgeoning middle class. Fail—or place at a low-ranked school—and financial prosperity will float further out of reach.
The overwhelming importance of the single gaokao exam creates an academic culture in China that can sap creativity, smother a natural love of learning, and erode, often dangerously, student mental health. A 2014 study, prepared by the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, found that the pressure of college exams fuel teen suicide; a full quarter of students in Shanghai, a separate study found, have contemplated taking their own life.
On the innovation front, many educators believe China’s schools temper creativity and diminish the country’s ability to compete. The system, many fear, treats a student’s mind as a repository of raw knowledge, not as a resource to be trained—to analyze and interpret information, to collaborate effectively with others, and to engage in creative thinking.
In light of these challenges, a rapidly growing number of Chinese parents and policymakers have set their sights overseas. And the United States, despite its flaws, has been a consistent source of inspiration. U.S. universities are the envy of the world, their commitment to scientific research is pre-eminent, and their track record of innovation—most recently, from Silicon Valley—is without peer.
There are several key ingredients of this success. Among them, liberal arts colleges place a premium on diverse study and creative thinking; U.S. secondary schools shun lectures in favor of discussions and group work; team sports, which teach valuable skills, are a central feature of childhood and adolescence; and summer camps provide unique opportunities for personal growth.
Summer camps, in particular, are a key element of American education. The blend of activities at the heart of camp—bunk living, team sports, hikes, outdoor adventures, etc.—create forums for experiential learning. And for a young person leaving home for the first time, wrestling with the challenges of community life teaches critical social and emotional skills.
“In the buggy woods, icy swims, campfire sing-alongs, and daring adventures, children have emotionally significant and character-building experiences,” writes psychologist Michael Thompson, a leading expert on child development. “They often grow in ways that surprise even themselves.
An emerging body of scientific literature lends credence to this conclusion. A 2005 study, commissioned by the American Camp Association, examined the youth development outcomes of 5,000 campers at 80 different camps. Researchers found that campers experienced growth in four key areas, including social skills, physical and thinking skills, and spirituality. The effects, while small, were statistically significant.
Other studies have found that camps help diminish anxiety, facilitate the creation of caring friendships, and improve goal-oriented thinking. And for camp counselors, who tend to be young and professionally inexperienced, camp helps hone emotional intelligence and sharpen communication, leadership, and problem solving skills. In the words of the 2005 ACA study, recent research has “validated long-held beliefs about the positive value of camp experiences.”
The history and track record of American summer camps is perhaps the best demonstration of their worth. Camping, as we know it today, first emerged at the end of the 19th century with the arrival of the industrial revolution. As the machine economy took root and people flocked to urban centers, many parents sought a summer escape for their children. They feared that the frenzied, polluted cities of the era would ultimately breed physical and moral decay.
Summer camps became a leading antidote to these concerns. As Leslie Paris explained in her book Children’s Nature: The Rise of American Summer Camp, “Camp leaders promised that their clients would be physically and morally invigorated by fresh mountain air, simple food, daily swimming, and group living, and thus better fit for the year to come.” They promised to reconnect children with the rural roots of American identity and to aid in the formation of their body and character.
With time, the skills learned and honed at camp wove their way deeper into the American identity. Competencies such as teamwork and collaboration, creativity and problem solving, resilience, and leadership—skills that camps are particularly suited to teach—became defining features of America’s national personality. These abilities, coupled with robust classroom learning, helped to make the 20th century one of remarkable American success. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a recent speech before the American Camp Association, “Camps are part of the fabric of our national life.”
“When you look at the entrepreneurial and innovation skill set, a lot of what you need are the qualities that people get to practice at camp—creativity, communication, collaboration, and building your own sense of resilience,” said Scott Brody, the owner of Camps Kenwood and Evergreen and the association’s former vice-president. “All of these themes are interwoven with the American dream. And the opportunity to practice these skills is the critical novelty of the camp environment.”
Today, these competencies—now dubbed “21st-century skills” or “soft skills”—are more important than ever. The traits employers eagerly seek, and profess are in short supply, are precisely those skills summer camps can teach. And the data bear this out. A recent survey of leading American businesses identified the most desired employee competencies. And topping the list were a familiar smattering of skills—creativity and problem solving, teamwork and collaboration, leadership, and resilience. These are the benefits American children have reaped from summer camp for years. And this is what the Chinese now hope to emulate.
As the China’s middle and upper classes burgeon, and as segments of its population jettison manufacturing jobs in favor of service-economy careers, 21st century skills have heightened in importance. And for an increasing number of Chinese parents, the benefits of summer camp are coming into focus.
“Chinese parents are sensing and reading that even kids that go onto great schools and colleges are not necessarily workforce ready when they graduate,” explained Brody, “so they are looking for ways to help them gain those skills. And what we call ‘camp education’ in China is emerging as one of those pathways.”
The skills training opportunity of camp, however, is not the sole attraction. For a country with strict family planning policies, camp offers a chance to socialize and form friendships.
“The one-child policy in China has definitely had some ripple effects,” said Brody. “Most kids are not growing up living with another sibling, and there are some Chinese parents who are concerned about that. So an opportunity for communal living is really welcome.”
What’s also welcome is the new wave of business generated by the surging interest in camp. China’s meteoric rise has minted new pockets of wealth, and American camp owners are more than happy to cater to these freshly gilded clientele. However, there are limits to this model. Shipping Chinese campers oversees is both expensive and often impractical. And, even at full capacity, the American camp industry is ill-equipped to meet the expected demand.
To fully embrace American camping and unlock its educational potential, the Chinese will need to construct camps of their own. They will need to invest in physical camp infrastructure, import some of the culture and philosophy that undergird American camping, infuse some their own traditions, and pry open a space in their national psyche.
The early seeds of this effort have already begun to germinate. The Chinese government recently allocated $800 million to build 150 camps across China, and many in the private sector have sprung into action as well. Even American camp owners, like Scott Brody, are moving to capitalize on the Chinese camp trend.
“Once large numbers of Chinese kids get to experience camp, and large numbers of parents understand how much learning is actually going on, I think camp will become one the most popular summer institutions in China, ” Brody said.
In the meantime, Brody and his American peers are looking forward to welcoming Chinese campers to U.S. shores. The 29 Chinese students destined for Camps Kenwood and Evergreen this summer represent the opening wave of American camping’s next chapter. Their presence is helping make camps more diverse while also creating new opportunities for cross-culture socialization, learning, and growth.
“The feedback we have gotten from our American parents has been very positive,” said Brody. “Parents love the diversity and value the cultural exchange. Parents want to build their children’s cultural competency.”
Ultimately, Brody hopes this transition will enable younger generations to recognize the similarities they hold with their international peers. This, in fact, has been of Brody’s central take-always as he’s traversed the globe pitching camp.
“Chinese parents love their kids just like American parents do, and they want to do best by them. And anything that they think will give them an advantage and allow them to be successful in the world is something they find worthy of consideration.”
Alexander Posner ’18 is in Morse College. He was a camper and counselor at Camps Kenwood and Evergreen. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.