SI Vault
Huston Horn
August 06, 1962
Summer camps are junking regimentation in favor of a relatively new but thoroughly tested concept: a child does best what he wants to do
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August 06, 1962

Easy Livin' And No More Bugle Calls

Summer camps are junking regimentation in favor of a relatively new but thoroughly tested concept: a child does best what he wants to do

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It's summertime, and for several million American parents the livin' is made a good deal easier by the fact that their children are packed away in some of the country's 11,000 summer camps. The livin' isn't really hard for the children, either. That's because the old camp bugle call, the grim regimented "play," and the peremptory stop-whatever-you're-doing routine of summer camps are disappearing. Coming in is the idea that on a summer vacation a child should do the things he wants to do.

Before the season is over about one out of every six schoolchildren will have attended a summer camp of some sort. To keep these 5.5 million campers in camp, their parents will spend more than a quarter of a billion dollars this summer.

Summer camping took considerable time to reach those impressive figures, with only slight increases from year to year. But now there is a real resurgence. Day camps, operating near big cities during the daylight hours, have burgeoned, and the residence camps have suddenly begun showing big jumps in enrollments. But it is not the number of children in camp that accounts for the current controversy and excitement on the subject; it is what they are doing. An astounding array of activities has been added to camp programs. Denounced as gimmicks by some and hailed as creative contributions by others, they have made the summer camp scene more lively, especially for teen-agers, than it has been in decades.

The directory of summer camps (see page 48) lists about 100 different camp activities vigorously pursued now in some of the nation's camps, everything from expert instruction in baseball at the Dodgertown Camp for Boys in Vero Beach, Fla. to desert exploration trips in Arizona or canoe trips in Maine. This suggests the wide range of interests among all the camps in the country, the recent increase in their specialized training, the fanciful nature of some of the programs.

"Instead of remolding the child to fit the camp," said one expert recently, "the camp is remolding to fit the child." A descriptive listing for a California camp in the American Camping Association's Directory of Accredited Camps says simply, "Campers choose each day the program activity they wish. Simple life!" The modern emphasis on letting the camper do what he wants doesn't mean total anarchy; he merely selects his favorite from the available programs but these are broader than ever before, especially in sports. Summer camps always taught swimming, of course, but now they must contend with such vacation rivals as the family-oriented country club, the Little Leagues, home swimming pools, teen-age travel tours and family camping trips. To the dismay of traditionalists, the new camps are teaching everything. Some even are running Little League or Babe Ruth League teams of their own, "doing in the woods," says one critic, "what could be done better in the city. The true purposes of camping are being subverted."

True, the emphasis on providing the children with training in whatever they want leads occasionally to excessive responses. You can find a camp in Maine where a boy is spending his vacation practicing judo, while at another camp a schoolmate is taxing his brains boning up on how to bowl. There is a camp in New York state where children learn to water ski and also audition for a television program, all in a Far Western "ranchy" atmosphere. At a really "progressive" camp these days you won't find any competition, but boys and girls may "noncompete" in pioneering or journalism. Other camps offer star study, sketching, telescope making, trampoline instruction, ghost-town explorations, burro packing, gold mining, covered-wagon trips, marine biology, milking, roller-skating, folk singing and folk dancing. "Boys sleep in Sioux tepees," says the descriptive literature of one camp.

At the opposite extreme one can find camps where Spanish and French lessons are gently spooned out to recalcitrant students as they loll on the beach, or camps that are lodged in converted resort hotels where maids tidy up the beds, adjust the air conditioning and vacuum the wall-to-wall carpeting, and where European chefs prepare the chuck wagon lunch. Typical happening in one of these: the camp nurse was called in to treat a hiker for a barked shin; he had tripped over the doorsill of a gift shop.

Still, the daily regimen for many of this summer's camp visitors is what it has always been: living in the woods or on the beach (there are two acres per camper in the U.S. camp grounds), savoring the simpler pleasures of campfire cooking, tent pitching, horseback riding, hiking, fishing, tree-leaf identification, lariat plaiting and being rained upon. To ignore these activities would seem almost "un-American"; they have provided the traditional program in summer camps for decades, and summer camps are a 100%-made-in-the- U.S.A. concept.

Harvard's great president, Charles William Eliot, said that the organized summer camp was "the most significant contribution to education that America has given to the world." In 1861 a Connecticut schoolteacher, Frederick William Gunn, set up a summer out-in-the-woods camp to supplement the regular school year for boys. Twenty years later came two more, one for "weakly" boys and the other for wealthy boys who were thought to be frittering away their manliness and natural usefulness at the swank resorts to which their parents dragged them. Camp Dudley, the oldest camp in continuous existence in the country, was started in New York state by the Young Men's Christian Association in 1885. The Boy Scouts pitched their first tent in 1910, and the Girl Scouts in 1912. Now nonprofit organizational camps, like those of the Boy Scouts and the Y, account for three out of four camps. Private camps and municipal camps make up the remainder.

From the start every child was supposed to have fun at camp, but the fun was admittedly a sly device to keep the camper happy while he absorbed the lessons of work-sharing, self-reliance and selflessness. Those words came easily in Founder Gunn's time; what is surprising is that they still are true about camping today. Julian Wilder, a camping authority and an assistant professor at Springfield College, puts it this way: "In few places in our way of life is a child exposed to the same situations as in a camp. Camps can crisscross geographical, social and, increasingly, racial lines, and they present a child with 24-hour living among children. Camping is an unapproached way to equip oneself for successful adjustment to the adult world. A child—I don't care if he is underprivileged or overprivileged—cannot be a mere onlooker in a camp."

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