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Rethinking Summer Camp Merit Badges

summer camp merit badges

What are your expectations for summer camp merit badges?

To most of us and to nearly all of our Scouts the central feature of the week at camp is earning merit badges.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if Scouts exchanged earning summer camp merit badges for learning and doing the things that actually interest them, the kind of things that Scouts do, instead ?

Want to take your patrol on an overnight hike in some remote part of camp? Want to learn to swim, shoot a rifle, how to identify plants, learn about the stars, cook in a dutch oven, learn to tie a dozen knots, cut and split a half a pile of fire wood, make a sheath for your ax, a belt, or a candle lantern? How about studying the interrelationships of the natural environment or how to find your way with (or without) a map and compass?

I could go on and on, but you get the idea, right? I served as a camp staff member and camp director for a dozen years and I’ve spent nearly thirty summer camp weeks as a Scoutmaster. Like most troops we’ll be headed for summer camp soon.

What if  our troop of 25 Scouts came home with  ten or fifteen completed merit badges and a big pile of partially completed ones. What would happen then?

Calm down, now, play along with me for a bit.

We adults have pretty much decided that anything less than ‘x’ number of completed badges is a failure on the part of the Scout, the camp, the counselor or all three.

Scratch the surface of any conversation about a camp’s merit badge program and you’ll hear the same old chestnuts that have been topics of conversation for at least the last thirty years I have been around (and I would guess even more);

  • There aren’t enough Eagle required badges to attract older Scouts.
  • There aren’t enough ‘easy’ merit badges for younger Scouts.
  • Younger Scouts shouldn’t be allowed to do some merit badges.
  • Younger Scouts should be required to do some merit badges.
  • Counselors are too young, too old,  too demanding, too easy, don’t know the subject well enough, don’t do the requirements properly.
  • The camp doesn’t have the right, proper or sufficient equipment or facilities.
  • There’s no ‘quality control’ (as if we were manufacturing widgets of some kind).
  • There’s not enough time for ‘classes’, there’s too many Scouts in a given ‘class’.

Some adults even end up hollering at a sixteen year old counselor as if he’s a tenured professor. They  complain to the camp director, the program director, the area director and through around plenty of snide remarks about ‘merit badge mills’. Let’s face it we adults can make a real mess of things because (to my mind at least) we have totally missed the point of merit badges and the possibilities of a week at camp.

The really frustrating thing is that the expectations of  adults  drive the very problems that upset them!

Because we adults insist that our Scouts leave camp with ‘x’ number of badges (and no partials!) we pressure the camp staff to produce. Under this pressure the staff does everything it can to meet these expectations. One marker for success becomes the number of blue cards they sign. This makes counselors focus everything they do on getting the dang-nab merit badge work done.  When this happens Scouts become a grubby little hand reaching out for a blue card with the implicit threat of an over-tired, stressed Scoutmaster demanding explanations and hollering.

As a counselor I know that this pressure can turn something you love into something you learn to hate. Once a counselor passes this point their instruction becomes perfunctory and Scouts become an onerous burden rather than a welcome challenge. A counselor with a merit badge that is popular, or otherwise looked on as ‘important’  can end up with thirty or more Scouts in a merit badge session and has to default to impersonal academic practices to have any chance of getting this crowd of Scouts through the badge.

All of these problems are  a result of the expectations imposed upon a camp staff  by adult Scouters. Scouts don’t know any better, they know what we tell them and, by and large, we tell them that summer camp is all about earning merit badges.

Scouts love Scouting, they love the outdoors and they love a challenge. What if we disconnected the things they want to do from the requirements for merit badges? What if we let them map out their own week at camp?

Why should  they only do things that are requirements for a badge on a schedule with twenty or thirty other Scouts and an over-worked, over-stressed counselor who spends the lion’s share of their energy trying to maintain order? Why must they do all the requirements for the badge at camp even if they aren’t particularly great things to do at camp? Why spend any of those precious hours at camp attending classes, writing reports,  filling out work sheets, and taking tests?

I think advancement is important, merit badges are important, I think they are a great way to learn about the many different subjects that they represent. I wonder, though, have we lost the spark of inspiration that created them? Have we regimented and legislated that spark out of the process altogether?

What if, instead of emphasizing  earning badges we started thinking about inspiring the love of learning and inquiry? What would our Scouts do with an opportunity like that?