All I Really Needed to Know I Learned At Summer Camp

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
-Robert Fulghum

My first year working as a camp counselor, 1986, was the year a popular book of essays by Robert Fulghum was published. The opening essay of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things shared the simple yet profound concept that much of what we need to know about living, we learn through simple childhood play: sharing, taking turns, cleaning up your own mess, saying sorry when you hurt someone, taking naps, and living a balanced life that includes “learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” The title – and the book – resonated with people, because it focused on important interpersonal skills that are critical not just when starting school, but throughout life.

Does the title of the classic book still resonate like it did in the 1980s? Many children no longer have enough free play time where they learn Fulghum’s “kindergarten” skills. In many schools and homes, high stakes academic demands and structured schedules have led to less of the critical playtime kids need to develop the important interpersonal skills necessary for a thriving life.

There is one institution, however, where the focus consistently remains on the skills Fulghum outlined. Through ample outdoor, unplugged group play and adventure, traditional summer camps offer the ideal setting for kids to grow important social skills and character traits.

During my first summer at camp, I took for granted that the group management skills, as well as basic child development information about what behaviors to expect from kids at different ages, were skills every teacher and parent learned at some point. Now I know differently and have been on a decades-long quest to help parents and teachers rediscover the simple skills we cover during staff training before the arrival of our first campers, including:

  • Team building and “get to know you” games that ensure every child knows the name of every other child in their group.
  • Friendship coaching to help kids learn and practice social skills including introducing themselves, asking questions, listening well, apologizing, sharing, and resolving conflicts.
  • Creating a warm and supportive culture where everyone feels accepted.
  • Positive behavior management techniques where the focus is on “catching kids doing something right” rather than punishing kids for mistakes.
  • Identifying and focusing on strengths.
  • Providing appropriate challenges and coaching kids to expand their comfort zone.

Much like the kindergarten of yesteryear, intentional, established summer camp programs focus on the basic skills kids need to thrive socially. This is why many of the best teachers today were camp counselors during their college years. Teachers and parents alike can learn a lot by taking a page from many a camp handbook and from the examples the best counselors set while sitting around the campfire.

Audrey Monke and her husband, Steve, have raised five kids, aged 15-25, while owning and directing Gold Arrow Camp in Lakeshore, California since 1989. Along the way, Audrey has grown into a well-respected expert, speaker, and consultant on the topics of summer camp, social skills, and parenting and has grown a loyal following for her Sunshine Parenting website and podcast. Her book Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults comes out on May 7, 2019.