From Summer Camp to Lasting Impact: Reflecting on Six Decades of Support for Active Learning

Sixty years ago this summer, in rural southeast Michigan, David P. Weikart founded a summer camp for teens. He and his team of collaborators named the camp High/Scope to represent the high aspirations and the broad scope of what they were undertaking. The aspiration was to design and implement an active and participatory approach for engaging adolescents in learning experiences. The scope of this work would eventually span decades, reaching hundreds of youth-serving organizations in the United States and abroad.

The youth development approach that started 60 years ago at that summer camp continues today through the tools, resources, and training workshops offered by the Forum for Youth Investment’s Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. The Forum for Youth Investment is a national nonprofit action tank committed to creating a world where all young people have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential – in education, work, and life. Through the Youth Program Quality Improvement (YPQI) approach – which originated at Dave Weikart’s summer camp – the Forum has supported hundreds of youth-serving organizations to build continuous quality improvement systems that are rooted in creating opportunities for young people to be actively engaged in the process of their own learning.

The core insights of this work have been affirmed by interdisciplinary teams of scientists studying human development and brain science. The science of learning and development shows that all young people have incredible potential and that that potential is best reached through supportive and relationship rich environments which connect young people to the learning process. These kinds of relational and active practices that support learning can happen whenever young people and adults come together. They are not solely the domain of educators or youth development professionals. All of us can be instrumental in supporting young people to reach their potential. In fact, the critical components from High/Scope Camp are now implemented by youth-serving organizations around the country that are using the YPQI approach to reflect on and improve the experiences of young people in their programs. These five ingredients[1] represent areas that adults can and should support for young people in all types of settings, at all times:

  1. Choice. When young people feel that they have authentic choices, they cultivate their own interests and develop skills related to personal agency and goal setting. Consider the ways adults interact with young people, and all the opportunities to share decisions – big and small – with them.
  2. Active Participation. Young people learn more effectively when they are actively engaged in the learning process. Consider how you can support young people to engage physically, mentally, and emotionally with peers, supportive adults, and the learning process.
  3. Plan-Do-Review. Even the youngest learners can be engaged to reflect on the learning process that involves making plans, taking action, and reflecting on the progress or the outcome. Consider how asking questions and structuring group activities can help young people take on responsibility to plan for, engage in, and reflect on how they approach their efforts.
  4. Cooperative Learning. Having opportunities that support genuine collaboration builds important individual and social skills, including self-confidence, sense of competence, and connection with others. Consider how to ensure that interactions with peers and with adults are more focused on collaboration and teamwork than competition.
  5. Leadership Development. Rather than being only for high achievers, all young people can cultivate leadership skills by having opportunities to let their individual skills and contributions shine. Consider how you can support young people to develop new skills, take on challenging responsibilities, and take the lead!

These five ingredients are critical elements for positive youth development – each building on and reinforcing the other. And all these practices can be implemented and improved when adults also engage in a plan-do-review process to reflect on and improve the ways that they interact with young people.  Skills for actively supporting youth development can be cultivated with practice.

From the earliest days at High/Scope Camp 60 summers ago to now, youth programs that are focused on improving program quality use continuous improvement practices to help them get there. In the briefest terms, this involves adults also engaging in a plan-do-review process to support their effectiveness in working with young people. We can all honor the legacy of Dave Weikart’s research and practice on adolescent development and, more importantly, support the development of the young people in our communities by engaging in intentional action and then reflecting upon how we can improve. This step-by-step journey of acting and reflecting can create lasting change.


[1] Ilfeld, E. M. (1996). Learning Comes to Life: An Active Learning Program for Teens. High Scope Press.