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Teaching the Skills That Children Need to Succeed

By Scott Brody

In his book Homesick and Happy, child psychologist Michael Thompson, PhD, describes the dilemma that faces so many of today’s parents. “I have spoken with many parents, who, out of the deepest love for their children, want only to do more — not less — for their children,” says Thompson. “They believe that the more time, energy, attention, and money they can devote to their child, the better” (2012, p. 9). But as Thompson points out, the real challenge is knowing “what” to do for our children: what qualities they will need to be successful in life and fulfilled as human beings and how to “give” them those skills.

What Keeps Parents up at Night?

In truth, as Thompson points out, there are limits to what parents can and should do for their children, and there are several things that most parents want to do for their children but simply cannot. These include making their children happy, giving them self-esteem, giving them friends or managing their friendships, keeping them perfectly safe, and making them independent (Thompson, 2012, pp.10–11).

For many parents, their inability to give their children these things creates stress and worry in their lives. Compounding this are the many other messages that parents are bombarded with each day.Make sure your child is involved in extracurricular activities with some structured activity occupying every afterschool or weekend moment. Get them involved in sports as a toddler so that they don’t miss out on the chance to play on elite teams when they are older. Average isn’t good enough. Ordinary represents a failure of parenting. Look at your neighbor and try to do even better than he or she is doing as a parent.

Everywhere parents look, they are offered competing models of parenting and no end of advice. Most advice centers on an “all of the above” mode of parenting, premised on the idea of childhood as a race — the faster a child develops skills, the better she does on tests, the more she takes on during her out-of-school time, the better she’ll do in life (Tough, 2013). This pressure has led parents to seek out “enrichment” over the benefits of traditional camp programs and to fill their children’s summer with multiple skill-building, specialty experiences. The race to build a child’s resume has extended into the summer space.

Living into Our Mission: Preparing Children for a Changing World

But this view of parenting is rooted in a model of what is, rather than what should be. When asked about the mission of my camps, I respond that our mission is to help children develop the skills that they will need to be successful and fulfilled in life. It is a forward-facing mission, one that requires us to scan the horizon and take account of the changing world and the demands it places on today’s children, youth, and emerging adults. Our vehicle is the camp experience, and our unique opportunity lies in helping children develop the critical skills that they are not likely to acquire at home or in school. We need to fill in the blanks left by today’s parents and today’s schools.

The world is changing and the pace of change is swift. Our K–12 school systems continue to educate our children with the skills of yesterday’s workforce, while today’s workplace requires mastery of a very different set of abilities. When asked, employers of all stripes identify the same set of critical skills that they are seeking in today’s employees — but are in short supply — and will be even more important in tomorrow’s graduates.

There are many different names for these critical skills. In the business world, they are often called 21st-century skills. This framework includes a variety of “applied skills,” which depend upon mastery of core subjects like the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) but also include higher-order competencies often involving noncognitive skills. When asked, employers consistently state that communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity — the four Cs (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2013) — are among the most important skills for new hires to possess, and they are in short supply (American Management Association, 2012).

How Children Succeed

In his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, author and journalist Paul Tough challenges what he calls the “cognitive hypothesis” that drives the traditional focus of K–12 education in America. “Until recently,” Tough states, “most economists and psychologists believed that the most important factor in a child’s success was his or her IQ. This notion is behind our national obsession with test scores. From preschool-admission tests to the SAT and the ACT — even when we tell ourselves as individuals that these tests don’t matter, as a culture we put great faith in them. All because we believe, on some level, that they measure what matters” (2013).

But the scientists whose work Tough followed for How Children Succeed have identified a very different set of skills that they believe are crucial to success, including qualities like persistence, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. As Tough states, “Economists call these noncognitive skills. Psychologists call them personality traits. Neuroscientists sometimes use the term executive functions. The rest of us often sum them up with the word character” (2013).

Tough comes to these “character skills” by following the work of economists like James Heckman and psychologists like Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth, who have been assessing the importance of these skills to future success for many years. They have worked in tandem with many other psychologists, neuroscientists, and others who have demonstrated that intrapersonal skills like self-control and resilience, and interpersonal skills like leadership and teamwork, can have greater impact upon future success than mastery of basic subject knowledge.

Mapping the Skills and Deeper Learning

Last summer, the National Research Council, at the request of several foundations, appointed a committee of experts in education, psychology, and economics to more clearly define this landscape of complex skills (The National Academies Press, 2013). The results of their work are best captured in Figure 1, which divides these skills into three primary areas: cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. (See Figure 1.)

In addition to 21st-century and character skills, the committee also examined the role of “deeper learning,” or learning for “transfer.” They described this as a process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations. The committee found that deeper learning develops 21st-century skills, and that 21st-century skills can aid in the process of deeper learning at school. Because of this, the widespread development of these skills could reduce disparities in educational attainment and prepare young people for successful adult outcomes in work and other areas of life (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012).

How to Teach for Deeper Learning

Among the work undertaken by the National Research Council was an effort to identify effective ways to develop and strengthen these cognitive and noncognitive competencies in ways that support transfer. They identified the following research-based teaching methods as the most effective ways to teach such transferable skills, many of which will seem familiar to camp professionals, as we use them every day:

  • Use multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks, along with sup-port to help children interpret them.
  • Encourage elaboration, questioning, and explanation.
  • Engage learners in challenging tasks while also supporting them with guidance, feedback, and encouragement to reflect on their own learning process.
  • Teach with examples and cases, such as step-by-step modeling of how children can carry out a procedure to solve a problem while explaining the reason for each step.
  • Prime a child’s motivation by connecting learning to their personal lives and interests, engaging them in problem solving, and drawing attention to the knowledge and skills students are developing and their relevance, rather than grades or scores.

Our Unique Opportunity: Camp as Enrichment

It is clear that today’s children will need to master a set of skills that they are unlikely to learn at home and often unable to learn at school. Yet there are so many skills embodied in these frameworks that it may all feel overwhelming. As camp professionals, we have a unique opportunity to utilize the traditional camp experience to help our campers develop and strengthen some of these critical skills.

In reviewing the lists of 21st-century skills, character skills, and other intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, it is easy to spot skills that camps have been helping children develop for over 150 years. Open up any book about learning at camp and you are almost certain to see chapters about leadership, teamwork, friendship, responsibility, independence, and inspiration. Helping children develop their social and emotional intelligence — their interpersonal skills — involves refining and strengthening their critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities. This happens every day at camps across the country, as does the nurturing of creativity, the growth of communication skills, the building of resilience, and the development of grit. In truth, for most camps, these skills are our bread and butter — our core subjects — and they lie in our traditional zone of expertise as experiential educators.

We now have a unique opportunity. A growing number of business leaders, psychologists, economists, neuroscientists, and others have begun to recognize the critical importance of these skill sets, as well as the fact that they are in short supply among graduates. Today’s parents are overwhelmed by choice and the limits of their own abilities to build these skills in their children. We have a unique contribution to make in the teaching of these skills, and an unparalleled opportunity to reposition the camp experience in the minds of parents, educators, business leaders, and others. To take advantage of this unique opportunity, we will have to do several things:

It is time to retire “the magic of camp.” We understand how transformational, and almost magical, the growth and learning that campers experience can be. That said, calling it “magic” devalues the importance of creating an intentional experience for children and alienates parents who have never experienced camp. To bring more diversity to the camp experience, and to allow others to understand the learning that takes place at camp, we will need to adopt language that is understandable and accessible to everyone.

We need to claim the word enrichment and take our place as educators. If an after-school math program is “enrichment,” so is a summer-long program that teaches critical skills such as leadership, teamwork, communication, and collaboration. We need to explain that while camp activities may focus on athletics, art, and outdoor adventure, the learning that children gain through these activities develops and strengthens their 21st-century, character, and other noncognitive skills. This is enrichment, and we are educators. In fact, in reviewing the guidelines for teaching for deeper learning described previously, many camps utilize those research-based best practices each and every day and have done so for decades. The vehicle we use is the camp experience, and the primary teaching method we use is experiential education.

If these skills are critically important to today’s children, we need to teach them with rigor and intentionality — and measure our results. It is not enough to see ourselves in these skill sets and know that we’ve been teaching many of them for years. Knowing that these skills are criti-cally important for children and that they are unlikely to learn them in other settings, we must teach them to the very best of our abilities. This does not necessarily require us to change what we are doing; rather, we must do it with greater focus and intentionality. We also need to move beyond anecdotes and participate in research at every camp to benchmark the growth of our campers in these critical areas. ACA has tools to help you do this. You can find them

The Time Is Now

In our 150-year history, it is unlikely that camp professionals have been presented with such a timely and valuable opportunity. We teach the skills that are most valued by the business world and that help children succeed in school and life. Yet to take full advantage of this moment, we must evolve. We must let go of old labels and words that have brought us comfort over the years. We must embrace our role as educators. We must promote what we do in new ways, using new terms that resonate with parents and employers. We must practice the development of these skills with intentionality and rigor. And we must prove that we are teaching these skills by benchmarking our camper’s growth and development through research.

If we do all of these things, we will give children the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world, and we will reach ACA’s 20/20 Vision by drawing more chil-dren and families to the camp experience. Now is the time. Don’t let it pass you by.


Additional Resources

Brody, S. (2012). Beyond school time — Summer camps: Building 21st-century skills for 150 years — A presentation to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Institute. Retrieved from
Heckman, J., & Rubinstein, Y. (2001). The importance of noncognitive skills: Lessons from the GED testing program. The American Economic Review, 91(2), 145–149. Retrieved from
Thompson, M. (2012). Homesick and happy: How time away from parents can help a child grow. New York: Ballantine.
Wang, S., & Aamodt, S. (2009). Welcome to your brain: Why you lose your car keys but never forget how to drive and other puzzles of everyday life. New York: Bloomsbury USA.

American Management Association. (2012). Critical skills survey. Retrieved
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2013). 21st century skills framework. Retrieved
Pellegrino, J. & Hilton, M., Eds. (2012). Education for life and work, p. 3–4. Retrieved from
The National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferrable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Retrieved from
Thompson, M. (2012). Homesick and happy: How time away from parents can help a child grow.New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Tough, P. (2013). A conversation with Paul Tough. Retrieved from

Scott Brody is the owner/director of Camps Kenwood and Evergreen and founder of Everwood Day Camp. Contact the author at

Originally published in the 2013 September/October Camping Magazine.

It is the Year of the Horse, Find your connection.

For centuries, throughout the world, horses have played an integral role in numerous cultures.  In celebration of the Year of the Horse children should have the opportunity to experience the countless benefits of having horses in their lives.


Consider the pairing of horse and child… magic ensues.  The benefits are endless as the horse gently and patiently teaches the child and the child eagerly and happily learns from the horse.  Introverted children build confidence and learn trust.  Children who are more rambunctious learn to be quiet, sensitive and respectful.  Caring for a horse is quite an arduous task, one that never ends.  Children learn responsibility and discipline by caring for a horse as well as independence and patience.  But above all children build strong loving bonds to a creature that is nothing shy of sublime.  Let us celebrate, it’s the year of the horse!


February 2014 marks the Chinese calendar Year of the Horse.  Twelve animals symbolize the Chinese Zodiac from rabbit, rooster, snake, sheep, rat, ox, monkey, pig, tiger, dog and dragon.  Above all these is the most beloved and revered symbol… this year’s Chinese Zodiac animal is the horse.  The horse may be one of the most respected animals among the Zodiac calendar.  So respected, that the Chinese never used horses for farm work or hauling, that was left to the ox.  Chinese believe the horse to be a symbol of success and intelligence, unwavering ambition and tireless strength.


The horse is symbolic of many extraordinary attributes.  From the moment a horse is born it demonstrates its strength and independence by standing up and walking.  It is as strong as it is playful, exhibiting intelligence perhaps intuition, not to mention confidence.


If you’ve never looked directly into the eyes of a horse you are truly missing out on something special.  If the eyes are the window to the soul then looking into the eyes of a horse will expose you to something that can’t really be described.  You may never know what they’re thinking or feeling but these majestic creatures with their deep, rich, plum sized globes offer a view into the limitless.  You look into their eyes you glimpse into a vast and gentle soul.

Best Horseback Riding Facility on Long Island

Thank you to everyone who voted for us in the 2014 Bethpage Best of L.I.!

Check out their article about us copied below.

Long Islanders Voted Thomas School of Horsemanship in Melville Best Horseback Riding Facility on Long Island!

Looking for an adventure? Horseback riding is not just for the experienced anymore. Enjoy country life right here on Long Island by checking out our winner for Best Horseback Riding Facility on Long Island.

Thomas School of Horsemanship has been serving the Long Island community for more than 70 years. Their day camp, ride school and parties deliver the utmost in joy and discovery, while simultaneously teaching the ultimate respect for the animals. Their staff is cultivated from their day camps, so that students build on their experience with growing responsibilities, truly fostering a lifetime love and generations of experienced, knowledgeable and gifted horseback riders who recognize and genuinely appreciate this timeless craft.


How To Complete Your Child’s Youth

Often, as parents, we joke about how it would be nice if children came with manuals. They don’t. We do our best to educate them. We provide a loving and nurturing environment, we show them the differences between right and wrong, we try to instill values and morals in hopes of cultivating happy and open minded, kind and caring little citizens. Through exposure we offer them every, and any, possible opportunity. We expose them to everything as we assist them with their search of themselves and their identity.

When I think back to all the activities I have involved my children in over the years, I can honestly say I left no stone unturned. Having a son and two daughters we enrolled our kids in dance, swimming, soccer, lacrosse, football, painting, pottery, baseball, softball, yoga, girl scouts, boy scouts, horseback riding, gymnastics, creative writing, guitar, tennis, piano, violin, archery, voice, percussion, cooking class, ice skating, chess club, and yes… even fencing!

Of all the things I have exposed my children to I can say, without question, the single most valuable and enriching experience my children have ever had the opportunity to enjoy is… summer camp. There simply is no greater exposure for a child than summer camp. Summer camp gives children the chance to make new friends, make new decisions, play, learn, socialize and most importantly grow. You can find endless pages on the internet discussing the benefits of summer camp and even countless categories discussing those various benefits; psychological, educational, sense of leadership and belonging, self-esteem building, and environmental awareness. The list goes on and on. What other forum can a child find such learning, fun, and appreciation for life than summer camp?

I don’t think my children are different than most.  They attend school without too much complaint.  They come home and do their homework.  They have a rhythm to their schedule and fulfill their responsibilities.  They have pressure to achieve.  They have pressure to compete.  Our school systems themselves have tremendous pressure and competition.  American schools currently rank 26th in Math and 21st in Science and 17th in reading (OECD 12/2013).  Our education system is so entirely consumed with testing that much time is dedicated to preparation and memorization.  There is little time for creative thinking and outdoor activity.  Recess time in our district is limited to 20 minutes. Of that 20 minutes some time is taken lining up to be released onto the playground and lining up to get back into the classroom.  A child is lucky to have a solid 15 minutes of free, outdoor time during a typical school day.  Long gone are the days when I was a child and good behavior of the class could earn you an extra afternoon recess.  Maybe this is why when summer comes, homes explode with anticipation and excitement.  Our home is transposed into an entirely different climate.  Summertime!

But, what is happening outside of school?  Between the internet, smart phones, video games, and social networking, today’s generation is constantly immersed in screens.  It is not at all unusual to see a group of young people sitting together at a pizza place or yogurt shop each in their own little world, their young faces inches from the latest smartphone.  It is estimated that young people spend between 40-51 hours a week in front of screens.  This is a generation growing up with such a barrage of technology that new addictions have been outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders 5; “Internet Gaming Addictions”.   Something has to be done to break the cycle.

This is where I would like to talk about my summers as a child.

This is where I would like to talk about how my children spend their summer.

Thirty years ago I spent my summers at the Thomas School of Horsemanship, in Melville Long Island. Now my children spend their summers atThomasSchool.  It is an extraordinary day camp with a sleep-away camp feel.  From the moment you step out of the car onto the  33 magical acres your senses are set ablaze.   For 70 years the family owned camp has served children onLong Island, and their parents and even their parent’s parents.  Families sometimes come from New York City and beyond to the lure of this beautiful place.  The camp director, Nancy Thomas, is an extraordinary woman who has devoted her life to the love of children and horses.  She spends her summer days immersed in campers’ activities.  The Directors of the camp counselors are mothers or fathers  themselves and personally see to the safety and happiness of each camper.

I have such fond memories that I can still name the horses I rode there as a child.  I miss them the same way you might miss an old family pet.  There is no other experience quite like that of grooming and riding a 1,000 pound gentle giant.  The benefits of being around horses are so significant that physical therapists, occupational therapists, and psychotherapists use these magnificent creatures to help their patients.  Horses teach us so many incredible things.  Strength, communication, responsibility, bravery, patience, tolerance, discipline, cleanliness and they teach us to be calm, gentle and quiet too.  For a child there is nothing quite as empowering as controlling an animal that outweighs them 14 times.

My children count the days to the start of summer camp.  They recall their favorite horses, friends, and camp activities over and over.  During those blissful summer days they leave the campus disappointed that the day is done.  Yet, they burst through the door at the end of the day spewing accounts of the wonderful times they had.  Anticipation wakes them the next morning, ready to do it all again.  The last day of the camp season they are reduced to tears, deeply saddened that another summer has ended.

So if you’re considering a new activity for your child, by all means consider the significance and worth of being around horses.  And if, by any chance, you haven’t sent your kids to camp you may want to reconsider.

There is simply no better experience we can provide for our children than sending them to summer camp.  Camp enriches children’s lives beyond measure, altering not only the outcome of their childhood but, the outcome of their adulthood.  How powerful is that?