Summer camp, or merit badge factory?

Summer camp is one of Scouting’s great traditions. For youth and adult alike, it’s great to get away for a week or more, camp under the canopy of trees, enjoy the fine summer weather (yes, even the liquid sunshine!), and get back in touch with the great outdoors and what’s really important.

However, most camps are set up just like school. Scouts are up and off to breakfast, then fill their days with a schedule of classes. There’s a short break for lunch. Dinnertime comes around, and there are more merit badge opportunities in the evening. If a Scout wants to work really hard, he can earn seven or eight merit badges.

Is that the point of going to camp?

I heard an interview with the director of a different kind of camp – a Boys and Girls Clubs camp – who said their campers do many of the same things as our Scouts do. They ride horses, go canoeing, shoot archery, and hike. But they don’t work on merit badges – they do it just for fun.

One assistant Scoutmaster told his Scouts and parents that the boys should take as many merit badges as they have the time and ambition for. Those who only do four or fewer merit badges, he said, “get bored” at camp.

In the summer before his senior year, my son went to camp, not to earn merit badges, but to enjoy the great outdoors and the facilities at the camp. He did a few merit badges – Scoutcraft, Bugling and Canoeing among them – but not because he needed the badges. He did them for fun. And in the free periods, he sat under the trees and read, or went for walks around the camp. He wasn’t bored – he found plenty to do, or perhaps more importantly, to not do.

Summer camp can be a great opportunity to load up on a Scout’s merit badge count, or to earn some of the harder-to-find ones. For younger Scouts, this can build confidence and satisfaction with the achievement he experiences. And we do have the advantage that a Scout will have something to show for his week besides a suntan. But it is also an opportunity to get back to what’s really important – finding oneself, having fun and just being outdoors.


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2 Replies to “Summer camp, or merit badge factory?”

  1. I’ve really struggled with this the last two years. The camp we go to has tons of activities, backcountry hikes for patrols, troops sailing and boating fishing on hidden ponds. Almost no one does this. Merit badge classes meet five times in the the seven days leaving no time for scouting. It reminds me very much of college up early to class and staying up late working on merit badges. At the end of the week the scouts, and me, are exhausted.

    This year I’m trying something one of the other scoutmasters at camp suggested, having each scout come up with a plan before camp. In the abstract getting five merit badges sounds great but once at camp it is overwhelming. I want scouts this year to balance badges with fun. For example commiting to just two badges in the morning and then spending the afternoon swimming, shooting or hiking.

    My biggest hurdle is parents and the committee who compare total merit badges earned year to year as a metric of success.

  2. Ed,

    I think the idea of making a plan ahead of time is a good one. Some people would see having all that time on their hands as a problem, but if the Scout has a plan for what to do with that time, some of the fears of the parents and adult volunteers that unplanned time might lead to trouble can be eased.

    Also, many are of the opinion that summer camp, along with so-called “merit badge mania” events, are the primary way to earn merit badges. I view these as a convenience in otherwise busy schedules. The traditional way for a Scout to earn a merit badge hasn’t changed in a hundred years – working on their own, individually with a counselor (and preferably a buddy) outside of troop activities.

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