Forget coding and business pitches. What kids really need to learn at summer camp is the basics of life.
“Are you ready for the summer?
Are you ready for the good times?…”
Those unforgettable song lyrics, burned into my subconscious when I first saw the summer-camp movie “Meatballs” almost 40 years ago, go through my head on a constant loop when I visit my son Charlie at day camp. We’re from Chicago, but my wife and I enrolled him in a small summer camp in northern Michigan, just north of Traverse City. We wanted him outside, away from screens and anything that felt like a city.
I’ve tried to stay away—we’re living with my mother at her summer cottage down the road—but after his third week of coming home wet and shoeless, a big sloppy grin on his face, my curiosity got the better of me.
“Cannonball, baby!” Charlie screams as he plummets off a dock into Lake Michigan.
I’m not sure when the word “baby” entered his vernacular, but it definitely happened here. There are only 20 campers, ranging in age from seven to 17, and the agenda is more or less what I remember from the summer camps of my youth. His days are filled with swimming, canoeing, hiking, capture the flag, crafting, and navigating how to coexist with a group of hyper and sun-baked kids.
Jack McKenzie, a tall 18-year-old in an orange staff T-shirt, is one of a handful of counselors. He’s the third generation of his family to attend and work at this camp — his mother, Linda, is the director — and he exudes a laid-back confidence that’s suited for the job. Just the way he holds himself suggests he could find his way through a forest without a compass and then make a perfect s’more.
“We’re kayaking today,” Jack tells me while holding a hula-hoop that campers jump through after successfully tying a boat slip knot. “Then there’s a pickleball tournament, tie-dying shirts and, at some point, we’ll have a whipped cream fight and then everybody jumps into the lake.”
Traditional camps like this one, where learning often takes a back seat to letting kids be kids, were once in the majority. During the 20th century, the most parents expected from a summer sleepaway was that their children played outdoors and didn’t drown. But over the last couple of decades, the camp experience has become more specialized. It’s not enough that kids live in cabins and survive for weeks without screens. Modern camps — which have grown into an $18 billion-a-year industry, according to the American Camp Association — are offering, as one Pennsylvania example promises in its sales pitch, “a competitive edge when [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][kids] return to school in the fall.”
Some fear it might be doing more harm than good. “I see parents these days misunderstanding the purpose of childhood experiences,” says family therapist Michael Ungar. “There has become this insane rush to teach children skills all the time when what they need more of is general resilience. Too many young people, especially from privileged backgrounds, are becoming ill-prepared for life.”
At some camps, children can spend the summer getting hands-on training in everything from computer coding to sustainable design, firefighting to forensic science, marine biology to stand-up comedy. Of the more than 14,000 days and sleepaway camps in the US, many seem more like college internships than summer escapes.
Kids are instructed on proper handshake etiquette at Civil Savvy Camp in Palms, SC, introduced to the intricacies of personal finance at the Moolah U day camp in Austin, Texas and coached on creating viral videos at iD Tech Camp in Campbell, Calif. They can practice their “Shark Tank” business pitches and “dream map” their careers at the From One Hand to AnOTHER (with locations across the country, including in the Bronx), curated by pop star Pharrell Williams.
If you grew up in an era when summer camp wasn’t so structured and educational, it’s enough to make you want to break into that classic Bill Murray monologue from “Meatballs,” yelling at overachievers that “It just . . . doesn’t . . . matter!”
Indeed, there is a growing backlash. Traditional summer camps are on the rise again. Dan Weir, the Director of Camping Services at Frost Valley YMCA in the Catskill Mountains — which hasn’t changed much since it was founded in 1886 as Camp Wawayanda — says business is on the upswing.
“We’ve been enrolling faster than ever before,” he says.
Liberty Lake Day Camp in New Jersey has a back-to-basics experience that was in the minority when Andy Pritikin founded the place in 2002.
“But it’s gone from a competitive disadvantage to a total competitive advantage,” Pritikin says. “The ‘traditional’ camp has become the new ‘specialized’ camp. It’s what the new wave of parents want.”
Kathryn, a mother from Eastern North Carolina (she asked that her last name not be used for privacy reason), sent her 13-year-old to nearby Camp Green Cove “because it focuses on traditional summer activities like canoeing, swimming in a lake, making friendship bracelets and telling stories around the campfire.” Pittsburgh mom Kristy has only one expectation for her daughter Maddie this summer: She wants to pick up the 15-year-old from Camp Kon-O-Kwee in Fombell, Penn., and find a girl with “unwashed hair and clothes, skinned knees [and] sun-kissed skin, covered in bug bites, buzzing about new friends and [with] her voice a raspy whisper because she’s lost it yelling and laughing.”
Even parents who opt for something more educational — like Katherine Crawford of North Carolina, who sent her 8-year-old daughter to a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) camp this summer to study robotics — are supplementing with less rigorous camping options.
“She’ll also be attending a week-long traditional summer camp in August,” Crawford says, adding that she and her husband attended more traditional camps as kids, “so we know what wonderful stuff can come from time in the woods.”
The American Camp Association keeps tabs on attendance — more than 14 million U.S. kids are going to camp this summer, up from 9 million in 2000 — but not on the types of establishments getting the most enrollment. But the price of camp — which jumped by 95% between 2005 and 2015, reaching an average cost of $768 per week — is starting to come down. The average cost of a weeklong sleepaway camp is now $630, which means either the no-frills and less cost-prohibitive traditional camps are coming back into favor, or the specialty camps are offering some steep discounts.
What parents are paying for, in more and more cases, is a summer camp that reminds them of their youth.
“Parents want their kids to have a real childhood like they had,” says Pritikin. “The families [who attend Liberty Lake] live in McMansions, in perfect neighborhoods on cul-de-sacs, and nobody is outside playing. Kids are inside staring at screens, not learning how to talk to one another or deal with challenges. Parents want their kids outside, scraping their knees, getting wet in the rain and being uncomfortable occasionally.”
Lisa Bradley from South Carolina recently enrolled her daughter, Celia, in the same summer camp, Camp Cherokee, that she and her husband Chip attended during the ’80s.
“They still sing all the same songs,” she says. “If you put your elbows on the table, you have to run around the mess hall. I love that she’s experiencing the same traditions that we did. Back in the 80s, we played Capture the Flag but we called it Rambo. And they still call it Rambo at the camp! I don’t think any of the kids have even heard of that movie.”
There’s a growing belief that young millennials, now in their 20s, were over-programmed and immersed in technology, and today’s parents of young children view them as canaries in a coal mine.
“When I talked to parents in 2004 about the benefits of a traditional camp, and how the activities aren’t as important as kids bonding with each other outside of electronics . . . I’d get a lot of disinterested head nods and ‘That’s nice,’” says Weir. “But now, when I bring it up, I mostly hear, ‘My child really needs that.’ ”
When Ernest Balch founded the country’s first camp in 1881, he worried that the modern school system, where kids sat at desks all day, was making young men “soft.”
Camps promised to give boys “the much-needed opportunity to express [their] inherent savagery,” as a 1928 brochure declared. “Just to be free, to run, to climb, to shout and yell like a wild Indian on a war-path!”
The modern traditional camp may not encourage savagery, but it does provide “a bunch of opportunities for children to experience the building blocks for lifelong resilience,” says Ungar. Which has become especially important, he says, as the rate of anxiety among children has spiked in recent decades, and university counseling offices are full of students “who can’t cope without phoning home three times a day.” But when children are exposed to manageable amounts of risk, adventure, and responsibility, “they’ll develop what I’ve termed the ‘risk-takers advantage’,” says Ungar.
Tori Horowitz sent her two boys, ages 12 and 14, to Jameson Ranch Camp in Southern California, because it offered “a genuine analog camp experience,” she says. “The kids sleep outside in open covered structures, completely exposed to nature, on cots with sleeping bags.”
Living conditions at the camp aren’t just rustic by 2018 standards — no phones or tablets are allowed — but are straight from the 19th-century camping playbook.
“The bathrooms are outhouses. There is no electricity outside of the mess hall,” she says. “You have to eat what you take or you don’t get dessert. Candy is not allowed. [Once] per session the entire camp does a silent hike to the top of the mountain to watch the sunset — no talking on the way up or down. Mail is delivered daily to campers via pony express. On a real horse!
“It doesn’t get better than that, as far as I’m concerned,” she added.
In general, camps just might be “the last best hope for our children,” says Renee Flax, director of camper placement for the American Camp Association. “You find yourself in . . . a bunk with 10 other kids that you don’t know and counselors you’ve just met, and you have to figure out how to get along with these strangers. It’s the last place where kids can go to be in a safe environment where their parents aren’t breathing down their necks. They have to learn how to advocate for themselves, without Mommy or Daddy setting their schedule and making sure they’re OK.”
Horowitz’s oldest son suffered from anxiety for years, which was so debilitating that “he missed most of the 5th and 6th grade.” He never slept in his own room — “the best he could do was sleep on a mat on the floor at the foot of [my and my husband’s] bed,” she says. Going to a sleepaway camp was his worst nightmare, but when his parents picked him up several weeks later, “he was a different person.
“He was confident, proud and grounded,” Horowitz adds. “ After that first summer at camp, he slept in his own bed in his own room and never looked back.”
It feels too soon to say whether camp will have any lasting impact on my son Charlie. Before long we’ll be back in the city and back to his usual routine, and those carefree weeks of sailing and diving off docks and flirting with pretty counselors will feel like a distant memory.
But as I write this, I’m watching him out on the lake, sitting with his camper buddies on a capsized Sunfish — something that used to terrify him but now he can’t wait to flip the boat — and it feels like bringing him to traditional camp just might be the best thing I’ve ever done as a parent.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the August 5 issue of the New York Post.][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]