Summer camp: Sunset for an American tradition?

The great American tradition – the sleepaway summer camp – is under siege by the pace of modern childhood, from longer school years to the quest for a 50-point bump on the S.A.T.

By , / Correspondent

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    Tug of war is one of the classic activities of the sleepaway summer camp – a great American tradition aimed at character-building.
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    Campers in 1916 attended a Salvation Army camp in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Sleepaway summer camp is a long-standing American tradition.traced to William Gunn, headmaster of the Gunnery School in Washington, Conn. He and his wife took the schoo's students on an outdoor character-building trip in 1861 – it became the model for today's camps.
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    Can archery – a part of the great American tradition of the sleepaway summer camp – compete with the skills parents increasingly seek at specialized summer camps?
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    Canoeing is a classic part of the great American tradition of the sleepaway summer camp.
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    Water games are big part of summer camp. The great American tradition of the sleepaway summer camp is under siege by the viral pace of modern childhood which places higher value on specialized camps such as computer camp, drama camp, and skills-building camp for the S.A.T.
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Nearly 300 boys will make their way through the Poconos to Camp Shohola this summer to be welcomed by the coolness of the lake, the earthiness of the woods, and the zany good humor of the college-age counselors.

Here, a settlement of cabins encircles a flagpole, where the days begin and end. Here, surrounded by shade and serenaded by streams, there are stables and playing fields, boats and docks enough to launch every relay and stage every drama. The well-worn, hearth-centered dining hall is layered with artifacts from campers past, the flags and photos so thick from the 66 summers the camp has operated that new hanging space always needs to be added.

Most campers who come to the all-boys Shohola have been here before, says Duncan Barger, whose family has owned Shohola since 1943. And over the weeks, they'll tell, perhaps, of the night campers escaped their cabin through a trapdoor they'd made in the floor, or the time the GaGa pit disappeared as they slept, replaced – as if by aliens – with a miniature woodshop-made version. The new guys will hear about the time somebody's bed found its way out to the floating dock and the bolder among them will begin to envision their own addition to the camp mischief.

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Sure, there are other places where young people can learn the stout virtues of confidence, teamwork, and resilience; of independence and friendship; of love of nature. But few disguise the lessons quite the way summer camp does – as pure fun.

Yet spending the summer at camp is a fast disappearing tradition. It's being elbowed out by the viral pace of childhood, where the school year starts earlier and earlier, where high school sports – and their very specific skill sets – now dangle the promise of a free ride to college. Where the opportunities for travel are unprecedented. Where many kids need to make visitation time for a noncustodial parent. And then there are the alternatives: Video design camp. Chess camp. Robotics camp. Zoo camp. Engineering camp. Dancing with Disney camp. Pampered camper camp.

"The biggest area of growth is the day camp area," says Bette Bussel, executive director of the American Camp Association, New England. The association's website recently suggested that day camp growth has doubled in the past 20 years.

The result of all this competition, say camp directors, is that there's less of a market for traditional overnight summer camp. "Private camp sessions used to be seven or eight weeks long," says Carol Sudduth, director of Wyonegonic Camps in Denmark, Maine. "Now they tend to have two sessions of 3-1/2 to four weeks. At not-for-profit camps, where there were maybe two-week sessions, they're down to one week."

Beading a bracelet for a cabin mate simply doesn't make the cut on many family priority lists. But maybe it should, say experts.

"The opportunity for kids to experience these wonderful communities is an old idea now being replaced by specialty camps and the just-for-fun camps," says Tufts University child development expert W. George Scarlett. "So many [of the new] camps are just an extension of our exaggerated focus on achievement,"

The to-the-woods model of American overnight camp is attributed to William Gunn, headmaster of the Gunnery School in Washington, Conn. He and his wife took the school's students on an outdoor character-building trip in 1861 that included hiking, fishing, boating, and sleeping in tents. Today's advocates consider this same model the ideal antidote to the too-fast, too-stressed, too-wired world of clinics and skill-building – a world many say is threatening childhood. They see camp as an incubator of personal resources that prove far more useful than a 50-point bump on someone's SAT score.

"Real" camp, its advocates say, may at some time involve the perfection of a plié or a jump shot, but that's not the point. The point is the change in a child who hunkers down for a week's worth of rainy nights outdoors, followed by singing for the entire dining hall despite paralyzing stage fright, all the while making his bed unreminded and growing to appreciate bugs, if not bug juice.

"You get kids in a rustic setting, away from being mothered, and also away from modern devices ... so they're connected to the natural world and thrown back for the first time on their own instincts," Professor Scarlett explains. "You're also looking out for your cabin buddy. Everywhere you look, camp stresses caring – not a phony kind of care, but a very deep caring for the group. It takes time to develop that sense of community."

Day camps are an easy fit for families already in a child-care mode, says Thayer Raines, professor of recreation and outdoor studies at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt. But he suggests that parents should take a broader view of their children's education. Consider the Greeks, advises Professor Raines: "The Greeks had it all – sound body, sound mind. You eat right, you sleep right, you laugh a lot, you spend a lot of time out of doors." The idea, he says, is that the camper emerges "a Renaissance person" with broad understanding and experience, comfortable with nature. "There's art, there's drama, there's creativity," he says, all removed from the achievement-centered, peer-critiquing setting of school, all coming together to give young people "a reason to live."

The American Camp Association (ACA) estimates that approximately 10 million children attend camp annually and that there are 12,000 traditional camps in this country – 7,000 of them overnight and the rest day camps. Though the recession has affected enrollment at some camps, the association says that 70 percent of members anticipate enrollments this year to be equal to or better than last year's. But last year, says Ms. Sudduth, "I was hearing camps report enrollment off 15 percent. This year, I'm hearing camps are even with last year."

Recession dips in enrollment notwithstanding, interest in specialized camping has been up across the board. The ACA's 2007 survey found that about 20 percent of camps focus on a single activity, while 71 percent specialize in one activity or more. Three- quarters of camps added new programs that year. "The biggest increase is in science programming," says Peg Smith, CEO of the ACA.

A movement toward shorter sessions lets wary newcomers put a toe in the water of summer camp, and allows directors to fill bunks. Steve Hallowell, a former corporate executive, used the trend to his advantage when, in 2007, he bought Camp Netop in Casco, Maine – the camp of his own childhood. He began to offer sessions of 10 days, 2-1/2 weeks, and 3-1/2 weeks.

"After my first year, I found that you can really have a great experience in a short amount of time," he says. Today 80 percent of his campers stay 3-1/2 weeks, while 20 percent stay the summer.

In New England, the tradition of staying the summer has always been strong, says Ms. Bussel. Her region has the most ACA-member camps. Most camps are privately owned, but virtually every religious denomination, and many nonprofit agencies, offer a version. There are even camps for children of atheists.

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The American-grown notion of camp has expanded internationally, as well as across the United States, and a great number of counselors here come from abroad, reinforcing another camp staple: It's good to learn about people different from yourself.

Fees run $1,000 a week and more at private camps, while the nonprofits may cost as little as half that. The ACA says the weekly average is $325 to $780. The bigger number may buy perks such as better transportation or laundry service and a formal portrait of cabin mates, but facilities are often comparable at nonprofit camps, experts say. There are innumerable agency programs and resources for kids in need, for those who are ill, and for children of deployed members of the military. At private camps, alumni often underwrite scholarship programs.

Parents who went to camp themselves understand that being away from Mom and Dad is part of the growth process. For children who are new to camp and leery, precamp programs help with the separation. But don't worry too much, says Tufts' Scarlett: "The first time you get a home run, you're suddenly not so homesick."

In the end, the apron strings may be tighter on Mom and Dad than on Junior – not that a "yippee!" hasn't been heard once or twice from cars headed home on drop-off day.

Phoning-home policies vary from camp to camp. At the 102-year-old Camp Oneka in Tafton, Pa., director Barbara Dohner generally keeps to the no-phone-calls policy of yore. Shohola's Mr. Barger is more lenient, unless frequent calls from home seem to be making homesickness worse.

Cellphones are a different animal, as are other devices that allow Internet access.

"There are no camps that I know of that allow cellphones for campers," says Bussel. Imagine the e-havoc that could descend upon a camp with the latest tricked-out smart phones and the Internet access and photo transmissions they afford. Food is also contraband in many camps, what with food allergies, wild things, and the ability of someone with a mean streak to lord it over an entire cabin with a bucket of caramel corn.

E-mail policies vary: Some places allow e-mail exchanges with parents, but many still insist on the "real letter on real paper," as Ms. Dohner of Camp Oneka puts it.

Perhaps the most telling innovation is the posting of campers' photos online.

"Parents demand to see photos of their children within 48 hours after their having arrived, and every day after that," says Barger, calling the new practice "a tiny bit neurotic." Parents have been known to spot their momentarily unhappy-appearing children online, and call their camps, upset. Barger takes the practice in stride: "They enjoy it. And we get a lot of good photos."

Tradition and innovation continue their push and pull in camps everywhere. At some places, the requisite all-camp "Color Wars" is now "Color Day," a concession to the peace movement sensibility. At some places, the customary "Apache Relays" are now simply the "Relays" or the "Olympics." Midnight raids and pranks have disappeared in some camps, the victims of a litigious age of risk management.

Now, there may be "official" or staged pranks: Instead of sneaking out under a counselor's nose, a counselor may sneak a cabin out for an ice-cream raid on the kitchen after lights out. In places where hiding someone's shoes is still allowed, it's generally because that camp has an established culture of respect that can absorb the prank without it being seen as bullying; having your stuff missing may actually be a badge of honor. As for the "Ghost of the One-armed Hunter" stalking those who would venture out at night, well, the spooky spirits tend to be friendly ones these days, lest a terrified child stay home next summer.

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Spiritual growth is common – if perhaps unspoken – at camp, rooted, as the experience is, in the outdoors and often in native American lore. Summer nights spent tending a campfire, listening to the lessons enveloped in camp culture, singing, is "like a retreat from the modern world," says Scarlett. "That doesn't mean it isn't about baseball and knives and canoes. That's all part of the mix. But the experience of connectedness to the community and the natural world give a deeper meaning to life."

Middle- and high-schoolers are especially primed for a lasting leap of growth on the spiritual front, he says. "In adolescence, especially, you are ready to define yourself in terms of something larger than yourself."

At secular camps, the overtly religious is not on the calendar, but the big-time values are often reinforced at a weekly service or campfire, where ideas like friendship or forgiveness or respect get addressed. The spiritual side gets more attention at church-run camps. Here, the smaller group functions as part of a larger faith community and values may be articulated in more theological terms.

In the Northeast, especially, Jewish identity-building has long been linked to its summer camps. Though they vary in the extent of religious programming, they typically mark, with special music or worship, Shabbat as being different from other days of the week. An arrow reading "Israel" may share the signpost with markers pointing to the dining hall and the lake. Religious education may take place.

Interest in Jewish camps has been on the wane in recent years, and concern about perpetuating Jewish identity has risen. The 150-camp Foundation for Jewish Camp, armed with an anonymous grant, decided several years back to draw in first-time campers by discounting their camp fees. This year, 7,000 of the foundation members' 70,000 campers will get up to a $1,500 break as long as they stay at least three weeks, says Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy organization. A second program specifically for the western US is under way, again with the aim of fostering the Jewish leadership that donors believe comes out of the Jewish camping experience. But Mr. Fingerman, himself a camp alumnus, says that for all its serious intent, the prevailing culture of camp remains primarily one of fun. Suffice to say that random undergarments will find their way up foundation camp flagpoles this summer.

[Editor's note: The original version misstated the amount of the grant and how much aid campers get.]

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Like many of the traditional camps, Camp Shohola offers a little niche specialty, in this case a well-respected communications and technology center run by a college professor who has spent more than 50 summers at the camp.

But, says Barger, "nobody comes here just for one thing." He smiles ever so slightly at the notion of the excursions to places like ESPN Zone run by some competitor camps. Though camper interest drives Shohola, its many trips and overnights remain rooted in woods and water – rappelling, rafting, and such. Barger's concession to fads is more on the order of turning a couple of the lesser-used tennis courts into skate parks. That, plus he instituted two two-week June sessions back in 2003.

Whether he had shorter sessions "was the most common question I was ever asked," he says. Now, 20 to 30 percent of his boys stay two weeks, while 20 percent stay the full summer. And his regular season now runs seven weeks, not the traditional eight.

Experts say camp's benefits increase exponentially with time. "In my own interpretation, it's not double the value if you stay seven weeks [rather than four], it's triple the value," says Sudduth. Take conflict resolution, a high priority on every camp director's list of skills to be developed. Need to bunk with someone for a month or two? You learn to work things out. Leaving in a couple of days? Maybe waiting it out is easier, and the lesson is missed. Camp identity, too, is a strong motivator. For Dohner's Oneka girls, for example, nastiness is corrected simply by calling it "not Oneka-ble." But caring what Oneka-ble is takes time.

Loyalty, another biggie, is also not a calendar item to be scheduled in between the service week and the Italy trip. You've got to experience the culture first. And thus, there's your team "color." At Oneka you're a Red or a White. Once a Red, you'll always be a Red, and every other Red is your friend forever. If your mother was a Red, you'll be one, too, and so will your sister. Community is built, Dohner says, when you spend a summer "being cold and wet" – and Red – together.

Even the best communities need marketing, however, Barger explains, standing in the center of his rec hall, anticipating the season ahead. Here, the wall sconces are still trimmed with their 1940s tepee shades. A pile of boats waits to be moved down to the lake. Echoing the early enrollment experience of other camps, he says that things are "a tiny bit up" over last year. Last year, of course, was way off from the year before, though at Shohola, 2008 was so successful it had to add bunks. Parents now shop for camp online, Barger explains, making winter trips to camp fairs less productive for him. So this year, he brought in a private e-marketing consultant to help build his summer community.

Say what? Search engine optimization driving kids away from it all? Pay-per-click connecting them with the stars?

Yes, apparently.

"The phones have been ringing," says the camp director with a smile.

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