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At summer camp, a unique blend of nature, education, and good old-fashioned silliness, kids hone the soft and hard skills necessary for success in a loving and welcoming environment.
Text by: Maggie Dickmann
Pictures: Zach Weber, Hannah Anderson, & Rita Ritter
Country: United States

chool’s out for the summer, and children look forward to three months of sunshine, bike rides, swimming, and most importantly, freedom. In the summertime kids don’t have to worry about spelling bees or science fairs. It’s an opportunity for children to free themselves of schedules, work and responsibility.

But every summer, without fail, kids of all ages chatter away excitedly to friends and families about what tasks and timetables might be expected of them over the coming days, weeks, or even months. Why? The answer: summer camp. Summer camp is a favorite pastime for children all across the globe, but it appears to be held especially close to hearts of kids in the United States.

Mebae Murao, from Tokyo Japan, won a scholarship to attend an American summer camp when she was14. She loved the week she spent at the YMCA’s Camp Reed in Washington State.

She says: “I recall being surprised that there were [so] many people and there was [such] a large area. We enjoyed spending time in nature. We swam [in] the lake, we slept in nature, [and we went on a] night hike.”

She compared Camp Reed with her outdoor experiences at home. “In Japan, when we climb mountains, we climb maintained paths which [consists of] steps, a handrail, and so on … [But at Camp Reed], we climbed the mountain path [that wasn’t] maintained.” Murao also really enjoyed playing games, trying new foods, and making new friends.

Siblings Charlie and Maya Moran, ages 12 and 10, respectively, of Evanston, Illinois, are big fans of summer camp. When I asked them to tell me about their favorite camp, they hurriedly rushed into an explanation of what one can expect of a typical day at Camp Echo. They were so eager to discuss this beloved summer adventure that they stumbled over each other’s explanations.

“Every day you have the same schedule where you wake up in the morning and—”

“They ring a bell!”

“Yeah, they ring a bell. Then everybody goes to the flag for ‘Flag Raising’.”

“And they share jokes and riddles!”

“Yeah, they do roll call, and every cabin gets to share jokes and riddles. Then everyone goes to chapel. Well, not the waiters. The waiters go and set the tables for breakfast.”

From what Charlie and Maya told me, I gather that Camp Echo, which is also run by the YMCA, is very similar to the camp Murao attended. When the campers arrive, they are split into cabins in accordance with their age and gender. That means that Maya can expect to spend the week in a simple log cabin with six to 10 other 10-year-old girls, plus one counselor who is responsible for the safety and well-being of the girls for the week.

Camp counselors usually have silly nicknames. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason, but at Camp Reed the counselors name each other depending on their given names. For example, one very clever name for a counselor I knew was “Crouching Tyler Hidden Dragon.” Everyone called him Dragon, and the kids had no idea of his real name. Trying to work out your counselor’s real name becomes a fun game to play throughout the week until it is revealed on the last day.

Of course the primary reason for having rules and schedules at camp is for the safety of the children. At Camp Reed the campers know that if they hear the bell ringing continuously, they are to make their way to the flag pole as quickly as possible because there will be free ice cream. The continuous ringing of the bell notifies the counselors that there is an emergency. This is an ingenious way to quickly gather all of the campers without needlessly worrying them. A few years ago the bell rang out through Camp Reed, so campers and counselors alike rushed to the flag pole. The emergency was that there had been a power outage and all of the ice cream in the kitchen was melting. In that case, the bell really did just mean free ice cream for the campers!

Besides having silly names and secret codes for emergencies, camp activities — or “camptivities” as Charlie and Maya call them — teach the children valuable life lessons and skills. Maya’s favorite camptivities are anything to do with the horses. On the surface, when Maya interacts with the horses she is simply enjoying the thrill of riding through the trees on the animal’s back, or brushing its soft fur; but on a deeper level she is honing soft skills, such as compassion and patience, which will inevitably serve her later on in life.

Morgan Floyd, of Lexington, Kentucky, attended various summer camps as a child and went on to be a counselor as well. As a camper she learned the hard skill of archery. She loved it so much that she sought it out outside of camp. When life got almost too much to bear, Floyd would throw herself into the wholesome sport of archery. She became so proficient at it, in fact, that in 2007 she won the National Archery in the Schools (NASP) female National Archery Championship. Thanks to summer camp, Floyd achieved the level of dedication and determination necessary for success.

When dealing with so many campers in such a large area, it is necessary to have structure, but also keep things light and fun. This delicate balance has been necessary from the very beginning of American summer camp nearly two centuries ago in 1850 when Frederick and Abigail Gunn shared their love of nature and education with about a dozen boys and girls on 50 acres in Washington, Connecticut. The Gunnery, as they called it, was a school that focused on the importance of nature and recreational activities. The founding of The Gunnery earned Mr. Gunn the well-deserved moniker of “the father of recreational camping.”

As an educator Mr. Gunn searched for ways to teach his students, but in an especially unconventional way at the time. On nice days he would alter the lesson plan to surround Mother Nature, and he was a big supporter of sports. He also frequently led the children on marches through the woods and gave lessons in outdoor survival.

Today, the American Camping Association estimates that there are more than 12,000 camps in the United States, most of which are overnight camps. They welcome more than 12 million children annually. There is a camp for every niche, hobby, or interest, and the children are all made to feel welcome. Bob Isitt, a retired school teacher from Spokane, Washington, was recruited to Camp Reed as a camp counselor in the 1970s. When asked about his experience, Isitt, known as “Rapid” at camp, said:

“Well, for me, it was a life-changer. The counselors were all folks who cared about making a difference in the world via helping kids at camp. I came from an together but worked with counselors who were not Christians who were kinder, evangelical background thinking I had it all gentler, more caring than I was … It helped me to become less focused on me and more on others.”

Besides a remarkable improvement in his own outlook on life, Isitt also observed “wonderful changes in campers.” He went on: “So many [campers] came from hard, almost loveless home conditions and became immersed in a culture where virtually everyone was happy, positive, and outgoing. They learned to work out conflicts …They learned there is the possibility to be with people who love them and truly care for them.”


· The first American summer camp was founded by Frederick and Abigail Gunn in 1850 in Connecticut. Now Frederick Gunn is known as “the father of recreational camping.”

· The Gunnery, the camp started by the Gunns was originally a school that both boys and girls were welcome to attend.

· The first girls’ camp in the United States was Camp Kehonka. It was founded in 1902 by Laura Mattoon.

· The oldest boys’ camp in the United States is Camp Dudley. It was founded in 1885 by Sumner Dudley, and was sponsored by the YMCA.

· The first church camp was founded by the Reverend George Hinkley in 1880.

· The American Camping Association is responsible for the American camping movement.

· Today, more than 12 million children and teens attend more than 12,000 camps in the United States.


Summer campers follow nature's schedule

When the last school bell rings, children throughout the United States rush out into the sunshine, forget about their books, and get excited for a traditional summer pastime: summer camp!

Summer camps in the United States are an opportunity for children of all ages and genders to get closer to nature and have some fun. They swim in lakes, sleep in nature, go on hikes, and participate in all sorts of activities such as archery and horse-back riding.

Summer camps must have structure, but they also need to keep things light and fun. Every camp has camp counselors to help keep the campers safe and look after their well-being. But the counselors are also part of the fun. They get silly nicknames and they teach the campers a lot of valuable skills.

The first summer camp was founded in the 1850s by Frederick and Abigail Gunn as a way to share their love of nature and education with children. They called their camp The Gunnery and it was a school that focused on the importance of nature and recreational activities.

Today, two centuries later, there are thousands of summer camps in the U.S. and they can be very specific to your interests. If you like the ocean you can go to SeaCamp if you prefer outer space, you can go to SpaceCamp. Whatever your interest, there is a camp for you!



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Summer campers follow nature’s schedule



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Summer Camps

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