Is traditional Summer Camp outdated?

Sue Lein
Posted by Sue Lein

Date: Friday, 25 November 2016. -  
History, In the Press, Camp News

It’s been over a century since families first began sending their children to summer camp, some for as long as two months at a time. In North America, the very first of these establishments came about in the 1880’s. Victorian society was so concerned with falling birth rates, degeneracy, and boys becoming overly feminized by too much time in the home that summer camp became the antidote to unwanted and disorderly behavior: a way to encourage good health, sound morals and the manliness and discipline the era prided itself upon.


Given how much our world has changed in the past 130 years, some wonder if summer camp, like so many other 19th century traditions, has become outdated. The contents of the typical camp trunk are still, believe it or not, much the same (water bottle, swimsuit, raincoat, flashlight, and a pile of labeled clothes--some of which will inevitably go missing), but what of the custom itself? In a technological world of shifting politics and games like Pokemon-GO, are kids still getting something valuable out of spending their summers at camp--living, playing and learning outside of the home?

We can only know by taking a closer look at what the summer camp experience provides.

Getting Outdoors and Self-Sufficiency
It used to be that adults wanted to make men out of boys by teaching them to build fires. While “manliness” may mean something different these days, self-sufficiency is as important as ever. Building a fire in a virtual reality game will never quite measure up to the experience of building one in the middle of the woods. No matter what era we live in, learning basic nature skills fosters added safety, self-reliance and independence on this planet. The summer camp tradition gives kids of all genders a nature-based hands-on experience, teaching them things modern day amusements still aren’t able to.

Personal Development
While the days of Victorian discipline are gone, the importance of guided personal growth hasn’t wavered. Good manners, sound decision making and independence are important modern-day family values. Summer camp has always been an environment whose foundation lies in three distinct things: structure, choice and mentorship. With consistent schedules, activities, and nurturing adults, summer camp continues to be a place where new skills are mastered and maturity is encouraged.

Health and Friendship
Theories on diet, exercise and psychology have changed significantly over the past century, but in that time, no one has ever stopped advocating for the health of our kids. Traditionally, summer camp has always encouraged a holistic form of well-being by creating an environment where mental, physical, social and emotional health flourish all together. For the twenty-first century child, many of whom are inundated with technology and underexposed to arts education, summer camp offers the chance to run, play, and expand their creativity literally every moment of the day. Meanwhile, children make new friends and live with peers outside of their school or geography. This exposure to diversity and difference is what broadens a child’s horizons and expands upon their capacity to relate. In a world of bullying and social cliques, one could say summer camp is more important than ever.

Tradition and Community
At Camp Emerson we have a rich history. Our camp property has been a summer camp for 86 years. Many camps have similar legacies. Our traditions of color war, gold rush and pillow fights are beloved and tie us through this shared experience. No matter if you went to camp in 1952 or 2012, you can relate. These traditions matter to kids and they talk about their camp community like a second family for their entire lives. The reliability of the camp community is the foundation that allows children to take risks and explore new activities.

Some traditions do not stand the test of time. Others, like the tradition of summer camp, continue to serve some of the most important purposes for raising our children.




Emersonians have come from 39 different countries