Many campers think of camp as just a fun place to make memories with friends. But camps are actually the embodiment of education reforms made over the past 150 years and have grown to offer outdoor recreation that serves as a programmed learning experience, teaching important skills that stay with children for life.
Formal summer camps began around New England lakes in the 1880s, serving boys from elite urban families. Back-to-basics, cook-your-own-meals, outdoor camping experiences were viewed as the antidote to the “femininity” of the increasingly refined, wealthy home. The industry grew steadily, with more wealthy parents choosing a camp experience, including sleep-away and day camp programs, to fill lengthy summer breaks, and organizations such as the YMCA, YWCA and Camp Fire Boys and Girls helping to open experiences to middle-class children. Philanthropists and religious groups organized subsidized camps for the poorest urban children, for whom an escape into the woods offered genuine health benefits as well as experiential ones, given cramped city living conditions.
The educational benefits of summer camp were widely recognized by the early 20th century and advertised through newspapers and magazines such as Good Housekeeping, which described camps as “schools of fellowship and fun” in 1914. As progressive ideals shifted the educational landscape in the 1920s, camps embodied the new vision of “educating the whole child,” promoted by educator and philosopher John Dewey. They were the antithesis of narrow curriculums, coercive disciplinary techniques and rote-style learning that saw schools branded “mere certification agencies.”
Progressive reformers ensured that the importance of relationships, independence and what are called “soft skills” such as teamwork, communication and emotional intelligence, gained societal recognition, and camps’ ability to inculcate such skills drove their stock to the point that former Harvard University president Charles Eliot argued that a few weeks at a well-run summer camp could be as beneficial as a year of “formal schooling.”
Camping became increasingly diverse, reflecting this skill development focus and a desire to produce “good young citizens,” with subject specialty camps being established to mold behaviors and impart a middle-class culture on participants. Even reformatory schools such as California’s Whittier State School operated their own encampments, believing summer camp could help reform juvenile delinquents due to its character-building reputation.
Parents could choose from a variety of focused experiences, ranging from sports to arts. In 1925, more health and lifestyle-oriented camps popped up, including the first camp for children with Type 1 diabetes, which promoted diabetes self-care and independence. Others oriented around religion or political ideals. As late as 1956, there were 27 explicitly communist camps in New York.
Camp was both traditional — promoting the benefits of a return to nature, with rustic architecture to emulate America’s imagined pioneer past — and thoroughly modern, with camps marketing themselves as modern institutions embracing the latest developments in education theory. In the 1920s and 1930s, many camps employed their own psychologists, touting their benefits as scientifically advantageous in their promotional literature.
The Great Depression put the industry under major strains, as parents’ ability to pay tuition was compromised and falling levels of disposable income impacted donations to nonprofit camps that relied on charity. Finances were tight and attendance fell, ultimately motivating the industry to redouble marketing efforts and launch new fundraising initiatives. New Deal programs provided limited federal dollars to renovate and build recreation campgrounds on the proviso that they be used by nonprofit agencies serving underprivileged youth. Survival depended on camps regularly reminding the American public about the important role they played for all children.
This paid off as the economy rebounded in the post-war era and the camping industry professionalized and expanded. The American Camp Association, a trade body founded in 1914, led these efforts by offering accreditations, becoming a voluntary industry regulator. Architects whose careers began with New Deal initiatives designing playgrounds and remodeling national parks played a major role in a camp-building spurt that followed the post-war baby boom.
Camps were sold as an ideal blend of old and new: physical plants at the forefront of design and activities informed by the latest expertise, while still maintaining the spirit of the outdoors in a safe and controlled environment by retaining a wild aesthetic of unhewn timbers. As historian Abigail van Slyck summarized, the mid-20th century camp was a cultivated “manufactured wilderness.” The 1950s saw changes recognizable as best practice today, such as dividing facilities into age-based “villages” reflecting the latest psychological research, while even play-based activities required “lesson plans” to ensure safety, and the meeting of defined learning objectives.
Going to camp became a rite of passage within many families and an established part of American culture. Eudora Welty’s 1949 classic “Moon Lake” used the camp setting to discuss the transitions between childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Allan Sherman’s 1963 humorous song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” will resonate with many parents’ experiences of receiving letters from homesick campers. Since then, the summer camp has been featured in a variety of forms, including R.L. Stein’s “Goosebumps” series, several episodes of “The Simpsons” and the cult-hit film “Wet Hot American Summer” and has continued to form part of a distinct American youth culture.
The selling points of a traditional camp experience have changed little since 1914’s Good Housekeeping article: an opportunity to be outdoors, have fun with other children and learn new skills. The industry has become bigger and more accessible thanks to the rising influence of the nonprofit sector since the Depression era. By 2017, the majority of approximately 5,600 day camps and 8,400 overnight camps serving 14 million attendees offered scholarships, and only a quarter were defined as “for profit.”
Significant research is devoted to understanding outcomes, showing that campers display improvements in problem solving, social skills and greater senses of civic pride and self-confidence. The American Camp Association’s surveys record that 96 percent of children say camp helped them make friends, 93 percent that camp helped them learn to interact with people who are different from them and 92 percent that camp helped them feel good about themselves.
Nonprofit camps and scholarship programs give valuable opportunities to children and are the result of over 150 years of progressive education reforms. While we don’t think of them as schools, camps provide educational benefits to children from every socioeconomic strata. As the industry takes a massive hit due to covid-19, it is important that this remains true and that the nonprofit camps serving the less privileged remain in existence.