While school remains in session across most of the country, the days of lessening homework, field days, class trips and after-school dips in the pool have begun. Summer’s promise of freedom and the anticipation of new adventures can put a twinkle in the eye of even the most jaded kids, tweens and teens.
For today’s youth, much has changed about the months between the school year’s end and the next year’s beginning. Nearly 4% of students in the U.S. attend school year-round. Three weeks on, one week off throughout the year means that the long summer stretch isn’t quite so unencumbered by classes and schedules. For households with two working parents (a majority of those that include children under 18 years old), summer vacation necessitates a scramble for back-up childcare, and sometimes, for creating a schedule that keep kids, tweens and teens occupied without eliminating all their control over those traditionally “self-governed” summer days. And for emerging athletes, summer is a time for training and preparing – for getting a leg-up on the competition – as much as it’s about taking time off.
But one tradition continues to define the summer months of many youth in the U.S. According to the American Camp Association, more than 12,000 day and resident camps exist in the U.S., accommodating the needs of more than 11 million children and adults. An additional 1.2 million adults relive their childhood memories as camp staff and counselors. The group estimates that the number of camps in this country has increased 90% across the past 20 years.
Camp has always represented a space where youth escape from their everyday lives, and feed their biophilia (their natural affinity for the outdoors). Growing up in a world where one is constantly connected, time to put down the mouse, allow the apps to take a break and turn off the 3D TV in your living room might seem like a prescription for happiness. But camps are also a place where kids, tweens and teens take charge. They’re not merely fed an alternative set of values (e.g., to take time out versus to plug in), but they engage in active negotiation of what a world of their own might be. According to Leslie Paris, author of Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, the very first group of youth exposed to film pushed to bring their new favorite form of entertainment into the “wilderness.” We would hardly balk at the inclusion of movie night in a residential camp’s weekly agenda, but how about dedicated social networking time? What about cabins equipped with wireless? Can these new forms of technology co-exist with canoeing, hiking and cooking up a few s’mores?
Camps, in some ways, represent the ultimate testing ground between adult desires for youth and youth’s wants and needs for themselves. Perhaps the bigger question is should camp be a place where they are exposed to things we value, or a place to define what matters in a world ruled by them (the ultimate fantasy for not only kids, but also tweens and teens)? Camps often expose youth to experiences that they never knew they craved. Urban kids continue to represent a significant sub-set of residential and day campers in the U.S. According to a 2007 survey of camp directors, many feel that the need for a connection with nature has increased in the past 20 years due, in part, to decreased access to natural environments for most children in the U.S. but can we teach youth how to use technology responsibly, in moderation, and in ways that enhance their lives – not compete with its non-digital joys? Or are we, as adults, forcing youth to choose (technology or nature) when we should be encouraging them to integrate nature into their connected lives? Perhaps wrestling with these questions will help camps continue to remain relevant but will leave kids, tweens and teens something they can take back to the real world with them when the summer starts to fade.