Summer camp: a global look, from barbed wire to books

What to do with the kids in summertime is a universal question, and different forms of summer camp exist all over the world.

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While American kids are singing "Kumbaya" around campfires by night and canoeing the brisk whitecaps of Lake Omawannakani by day, their foreign counterparts are more likely to be caught up in something more sternly disciplined, austere, or outright "educational" during summer breaks.

In South Africa, for instance, school kids whose parents can afford it (which is to say white and black middle class), routinely go to overnight adventures camps that focus on survival training. These are largely held during the warmer months of the school year because, for the most part, South Africans tend to spend their summer holidays together, which fall between December and March. One young fourth-grader who found herself crawling under barbed wire at one camp says she reckons the purpose of camp is "to see how tough you are." Indeed, among South African whites the idea is to toughen up kids from the soles of their feet (Afrikaner farm children are deliberately sent out to play barefoot) to their very souls (this is a country that has faced the hardship of generations of conflict among themselves as well as with tribes). It's also not uncommon in this rough-and-tumble nation that generally scoffs at seat-belt laws to see young tykes riding around on four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles at the same age children in the United States are getting their first push on training wheels.

Kids may be subjected to the danger of camp rigor, but they're still subject to the white South African obsession with security – camp is likely to be surrounded by electric fencing and patrolled by armed guards to keep out criminals.

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In China, there's no swimming-in-the-creek-and-roasting-marshmallows "escape to the countryside," but rather an escape from its memories of poverty, shaped by aspirations to a successful professional life. So that means "summer camp" in China is likely to be school-subject oriented: math, grammar, science. The ideal for summer break is education, education, education.

In Japan, camps arranged by school-organized clubs and private sport, music, and academic schools have a high participation rate. Many organize three- to four-night summer camps, usually to cooler mountain areas in order to escape the brutal humidity of July and August. For elementary school-age kids the focus is on fun, and activities such as hiking and camp cooking are the order of the day. But by the time children reach junior high, the sports camps usually consist of tough training regimens that could put many elite athletes through their paces.

A strong class system exists in the summer camp activities for French children, with kids from middle- and lower-income families going to camps at the beach or in the mountains, organized and mostly underwritten by socialist-dominated townships and districts, as well as by employers, churches, or other groups. These summer camps, organized mainly around nature so that urban kids can be exposed to greenery and fresh air, are typically booked solid by February. In this nation, which averages 20 days more vacation per year than the US (35 versus 15), the elite take a family vacation, usually a month or so, at a residence often in the south.

In Russia, the Soviet system of camps run by the Communist Party's Young Pioneer organization, which provided nearly universal and affordable coverage, is mostly gone. However, some large companies do continue to provide this service to the children of their employees, Soviet-style, at subsidized rates. But millions of Russians have summer dachas – amounting to anything from grand houses to cottages to glorified toolsheds – and children are often deposited there, where life is bucolic and slow.

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