06/26/2012 05:57 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

We Love Camp! Can We Love School?

My daughter starts her countdown for her overnight camp the very day the previous year ends. It's a year-long calendar with daily markings on her bedroom wall. She likes school well enough, but she snorts at the notion of looking forward to the fall in the same way. I've asked her to explain, but she rolls her eyes and looks at me as if I've asked why birthday parties are more fun than dentist appointments. "Camp is FUN. School is, well, school."

Why is camp so much more popular? Why can't school be more like camp? My daughter spends just three weeks at her camp, and nine months in school. I want her to wake up thrilled about school, too.

At the risk of sounding like an idiot in public, what's the difference? At camp, she has to get up early in the morning, and at night camp tells her when she has to go to bed. She's told when to eat and when to rest. She's given some limited choice among activities, and given measured time periods to do them. She is generally supervised all day.

Socially, she is assigned to a group of girls her same age, just as in school. In the few minutes I had to meet them, her camp-mates seemed reasonably comparable to her school-mates: nice kids in both places, with healthy doses of eccentricity all around. The potential for feeling included or excluded seems available in both settings.

My daughter will argue that camp activities are more fun, and while I accept the point, I'm not willing to concede that school can't be fun, too. I know for a fact that sometimes she does have fun at school. And sometimes, perhaps rarely, she does things at camp that wouldn't be fun anywhere else: setting and clearing the table, cleaning and sweeping the tent, even making her bed. And just to generalize a bit, I know of popular camps that are academic in nature, full of school-like content: writing camp, space camp, computer camp. As a teen I attended a debate camp.

So why can't my daughter (and other kids) love school just as they love camp? I have come up with two primary reasons, but I'll be interested in readers' comments and speculations.

First and foremost, camp activities are largely non-judged and unevaluated. My daughter's camp employs a "challenge by choice" approach. It recognizes achievement through a system that allows kids to strive for badges or honors in a chosen skill. Her camp does not establish a "permanent record" of her participation that will be used in future camp or school admissions and employment applications. Camp is strictly for fun and growth.

The idea that evaluation is the heart of the problem is supported by the reality that many students (here I shift my focus to my high-school age son) find extracurricular activities and sports the most compelling part of their school experience. My son and his friends love the range of athletics that their rather ordinary public school provides. They enjoy student council, theater, and every other excuse for hanging out together at school. My son frequently stays at school for his activities and to cheer for his friends' teams until 9:00 at night. The enthusiasm and passion his buddies have for these elective, non-graded school activities matches how my daughter and her friends feel about camp.

The second major difference between camp and school is that camp is something kids "get to do," while school is something kids "have to do." Some kids may be forced to go to camp by their parents, but I'm referring to the legal requirement in our culture. Each of my children accept it as a fact of life that they "have to go" to a school (even though I constantly tell them they can start homeschooling anytime), and feel satisfied when their school days are on the better side of tolerable. On the other hand, my daughter knows that going to camp is a family decision based on a range of factors, and she hopes that our schedules and priorities will mean that she "gets to go" to camp for the maximum amount of time possible.

This idea of "getting to" rather than "having to" applies to more than just what school one attends. It also applies to the schoolwork itself. Even when my daughter has seemingly fun school projects to do, I see her enthusiasm diminish when she tells me what she "has to do" for requirements and deadlines.

These observations leave me pessimistic about helping kids love school as much as they love camp. Schools are expected to evaluate children and report the result to parents, future educators, and even the public. Schools are compulsory, and there are many current proposals for longer school days and longer school years. Schools are supposed to give assignments that kids "have to do," with homework extending these assignments beyond the regular school day.

I've reached a rather depressing conclusion: my daughter sees school as a place she "has to go" to receive assignments she "has to do" that will be evaluated to determine her future prospects. No wonder she rolls her eyes at me when I compare school to camp.

Yet, I remain an optimist. I have helped create a learning environment at North Star where teens "get to go," and where they find activities they "get to do" without formal evaluation. I see North Star teens sad to see the academic year end in June, and I know they are already counting the days until the program re-opens in September.

This past year I have spoken with over two dozen visionary teachers and other adults who want to create their own schools or programs. I often begin by saying, "Imagine year-round camp! The more you can build a model like a camp and less like a school, the more you will be headed in the right direction."

My daughter has informed me that she plans to attend camp for as many years as possible, and then become a counselor for life. I'm fully supportive. I simply hope that whatever choice she makes for high school after graduating from her K-8 school next spring will inspire a similar passion and excitement that she has for camp.