Right now, summer camp is more important than ever.
Right now, summer camp is more important than ever. (Photo: Jaco Pretorius/Unsplash)

We Need Summer Camp More Than Ever Before

You're just as likely to build a robot as paddle a canoe at summer camp today, but the value of the experience is even more important for our screen-addled youth

Right now, summer camp is more important than ever.

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When it’s lunchtime at Daisy Chain Farm, in Belfast, Maine, an old bell rings out, echoing across the strawberry fields and berry briars, through the apple orchards and into the woods, calling multiple generations of the Beale family back to the 1840 farmhouse to eat. “I’ve kind of modeled my life after summer camp in a lot of ways,” says Daisy Beale, who runs the farm with the help of her husband, parents, in-laws, and sister, who all live on the property or nearby. From the lunch bell to the farm to the communal living, there are traces of the ten summers Beale spent at Camp Mont Shenandoah near Millboro Springs, Virginia.

As such, it was never a question that she’d eventually send her own kids to camp as well; last year, when her eldest son was eight, he spent two weeks at the nearby Tanglewood Summer Camp, which is tucked alongside the wooded banks of the Duck Trap River in Lincolnville, Maine. “I think there’s a lot of overlap” between her camp and her son’s, Beale recalls. “The cabins, for instance, look just like they did when I was at camp”—rustic, with screened-in windows. The similarities to Camp Mont Shenandoah, which Beale said was more like a 1960s summer-camp movie than the debauched eighties version of the genre, don’t end there. Tanglewood offers campers opportunities to learn crafts, archery, and outdoors skills, as well as plenty of unstructured time spent playing in the woods and pools and rocks along the river. Like Camp Mont Shenandoah, it’s very much the quintessential summer-camp experience.

With all of the math camps and STEM camps and maker camps and family camps that have proliferated recently, this kind of messing-around-in-the-woods camping experience might seem almost quaint. “The field of camp has really widened and deepened over the years,” says American Camp Association (ACA) president Tom Rosenberg, with about a third of camps now offering a STEM curriculum, for example. But even with all of the different skills being taught at such specialty camps, the experience is still built around “community building, where young people go to camp and become part of a group or cabin experience,” he says. Kids are still learning to take positive risks at camp, whether by building a robot, paddling a canoe, or both.

Today’s kids grow up with little unstructured time, and their social and academic lives are built around digital devices and being online. “The biggest change today I’d say is, frankly, how essential outdoor-camp and camp-life experiences are for the postmillennial generation,” Rosenberg says. Whether that experience comes from a traditional outdoors camp or a more focused camp set in a similar environment, kids simply need more camp.

But if camp has become, as Rosenberg argues, a key part of youngsters’ development, the fact remains that summer camp decidedly is not a universal experience. According to data from the ACA, which is the largest summer-camp-accreditation organization in the country, 71 percent of campers were white in 2017, the most recent year data is available for, a very slight improvement since 2014, when 74 percent were white. There are also economic barriers, with prices running anywhere from $630 a week to over $2,000 a week, according to the ACA.  

“Our goal is to find ways to reach everyone,” says Rosenberg. While nearly all camps offer some degree of scholarships, he says, “We need to sort of redefine the camp experience for cultures that aren’t familiar with it. That’s definitely what we’re trying to do, to diversify both the people who are offering camp experiences—the professionals—and the kids who are enjoying them.”

There are camps that serve minority communities almost exclusively, many of which date back to when camps, like schools, where segregated. Situated on 80 lakeside acres in Worcester County, Massachusetts, Camp Atwater is one of the longest-running such operations in the country, having provided the summer-camp experience to predominately black campers since 1921.

Camp provides many opportunities for kids to have their talents and abilities affirmed and leveraged by both their peers and the adults around them—but that process is even more important to those who are not white, according to experts. “Because once they get out into the mainstream as young adults, and subsequently adulthood, there are going to be a lot of forces—implicit bias-related or direct—that will try to redefine them or give them a narrative that is not theirs,” says Henry Thomas, CEO of the Urban League of Springfield, Massachusetts, which runs the camp. When his grandkids start going to Camp Atwater in the coming years, they will be the fourth generation of the family to attend. “A camping experience—particularly an Afrocentric camping experience—allows us to build on the natural foundation that they came with, that they bring with them from birth.”

While institutions like Camp Atwater were created to address the segregation that kept black kids out of summer camps (as well as schools) up until the 1960s, today there are new efforts to increase access by making camp more affordable—or, in some instances, free.

In Oregon, a ballot initiative known as Measure 99 was passed in 2016 that makes the state’s long-standing tradition of outdoor school free for all fifth- or sixth-grade students, regardless of family income, through the use of funds from the state lottery. While not explicitly summer camp, outdoor school involves traveling into nature for up to a week during the school year and staying at facilities that, more often than not, operate as sleepaway camps during the summertime. There, students learn a curriculum that functions as an extension of what they have been taught in the classroom. In 2017–18, the program’s inaugural year, 30,739 Oregon students—75 percent of those eligible—took part in the program. A number of other states are tracking its successes.

“We know all of the evidence tells us that students learn more and they retain more when they learn in an outdoor setting,” says Kris Elliott, assistant director for outreach and engagement for the outdoor-school program, which is facilitated by the Oregon State University cooperative-extension system. “They’re not only retaining that information in a more meaningful way, they’re also connecting to nature and to a place, and they carry that with them into the future.”

This summer, Beale’s son will be going back to Tanglewood, even if life on Daisy Chain Farm is a bit like camp to begin with. Because even with the bell, camp still has something that the farm does not—something that underpinned her experience at Camp Mont Shenandoah every summer, just as it does the experiences of more academically niche camps, old-school sleepaway camps, and outdoor school alike: “I want them to have access to that kind of experience where you’re taken out of your family and it’s up to you to be the person that you’re going to be,” Beale said.