International Students Go to Camp: The Importance of Play

When I taught in the US, students went to Outdoor School. The Oregonian children learned to read the age of a tree, the names of major plant species, and experience the Northwest natural habitat.

Imagine my surprise when I first learned that my international school students go to Camp to play. So this is a really long recess? I wondered. I’m sacrificing hot showers, quality food, and personal hygiene so that students can PLAY?

While I admit to Facebook grumbling about ants in the shower, plastic beds, and food representing only the white and brown food groups, I have come to see the value in free play for tweens in my setting.

Here is what I notice:

1. My students get a break from over-scheduled lives.
Many parents in my community buy into the philosophy of Amy Chua, believing that the best way to love children is to push them to achieve. Highly achieve. Lest one think this phenomenon is reserved for parents of Asian heritage, many of my students’ parents are former Ivy-leaguers and/or CEOs of international companies and expect nothing less from their children. The pressure to succeed is enormous.

By adding play time to our annual calendar in the form of camp, sports days, and field days, students develop the skills they will need to run the major companies of the future. They learn emotional control and practice social skills that can make them better leaders.

2. Students practice independence.
While students often have enormous amounts of academic pressure, many students do not learn to do chores such as changing beds, sweeping floors, or scraping dishes. Like students in many international school communities, my students’ families employ domestic helpers. At camp, students make their own beds and clean their own cabins. They are required to scrape plates and pile their dishes.

3. Students don’t miss their electronic devices.
We spend a great deal of time and effort enforcing “screen-free zones” at school. No student has ever verbally expressed missing and xbox. Instead, they play Uno, Spoons, and Blockus.

4. Students return from camp different than when they left.
As I type this, I’m thinking about two of my new students who, until this week, were quite shy. One student was spotted taking leadership in her group’s cabin clean-up efforts. Another one has been given a nickname – and he smiles whenever he hears it. Camp allowed him the opportunity to show off his amazing tennis skills, earning the respect of the other class athletes.

Since returning from camp, classroom group dynamics are different. Students laugh at common memories and shared conversations. One conversation went like this:

Student 1: My sister is 13 now and she acts like a teenager. Grumpy all the time!
Student 2: Yeah, my middle sister became a teenager and it was like death. She locks herself in her room and yells at me.
Student 3: I’m going to talk to my sister all the time so that won’t happen to her.
Student 2: NO! That will make it worse! You just have to act all cute and innocent.
Student 3: But, my sister still gives me gum balls.
Student 2: Not for long.

I’ve always believed that students learn more when they are happy and when they get along with one another. Research on the relationship between workplace happiness and productivity can likely be applied to school productivity.

As I read about the changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more recently known as NCLB, I wonder if students in the United States will be allowed more time for free play.

What are your experiences with student play? Does your school account for free play in the schedule?

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11 thoughts on “International Students Go to Camp: The Importance of Play

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    • Hehe. Most of the 3rd graders have never put sheets on their beds. Teachers report students coming to them and saying, “Can you do this for me?”

      Answer (with a sweet smile): “You can watch me put sheets on my bed and copy what I do.”

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