Now and Then: Summer and School Camp

posted by on Apr 30, 2015

The fine art of getting children outdoors and the genuine growth it facilitates has long been known. Aristotle said, “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Shakespeare’s Duke inAs You Like It professes, “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” In the Enlightenment, Rousseau claimed in his 1761 book Emile; “Nature wants children to be children before being men . . . . Childhood has its ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling which are proper to it.” And Wordsworth (1888) tells us, in The Tables Turned; “Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.”


Originally, camp was just camping. It began as a remedial outdoor experience for children in the Progressive Era of the late 1800s to early 1900s. It was a natural experience in a natural setting, with overlapping theory for both location and method. Both summer and school camp programs have similar origins, retain common goals, and often occur on the same sites. Now, school camp, often referred to as Resident Outdoor Environmental Education (ROEE), shares many things with traditional summer camp, but they occur in different seasons and attract different markets. Perhaps they have become fundamentally and markedly different. Or have they?

 A century ago, as people moved to cities, visionary leaders, who were often teachers, recognized that people were unintentionally severing a crucial connection to the real world. The jobs were in urban factories, and education was becoming compulsory and more formal. However, wise education leaders did not want schools to become mere factories. While this trend increased literacy, the task of educating the whole person might imperil critical social and maturational development if the entire process was restricted to books, lectures, chalkboards and a classroom.
According to John Dewey, “Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” He realized that classroom study limits understanding. “Scientific principles and laws do not lie on the surface of nature. They are hidden, and must be wrested from nature by an active and elaborate technique of inquiry” (1920).
Camp shows that true understanding of the way the world works comes through involvement and activity with an emphasis on the outdoors. These principles have proven themselves over time. The theory and practice of traditional summer camp and resident outdoor environmental education have the same roots. They center on a holistic approach. And so it is that we see outdoor programs as a complement, or a remedy to school.
Education reformist Maria Montessori said, “If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?”
 Beginning in 1925, L. B. Sharp championed and grew the Life Fresh Air Fund and its camps for many years (2014). The Fresh Air Camps were (and still are) summer programs. Fresh Air campers were recruited from schools. Myriad summer camps sprouted up all over for a wide variety of purposes. Meanwhile, schools found opportunities to get outside for a few days.

Regardless of where the camper came from, or the time of year, it was all camp: They all held the common value that children needed quality outdoor experiences. Any distinction between activity, class, recreation, playtime, and education was willfully blurred.

 A growing middle class that lived in the city or suburbs with newfound wealth and leisure time provided a major market increase for the summer camp industry (augmented with “camperships”). Churches, 4-H groups, YMCAs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and enterprising families established literally thousands of camps across the country. Most of these operated only during the summer. Summer campers were offered classes and activity periods, which might include nature and campcraft, dance, music, drama, sports, horseback riding, sailing, and more. With common roots, two program trunks emerged in the mid-20th century. In the idealistic and experimental era of the 1960s and ’70s, many teachers with backgrounds as campers or camp counselors, wanted a school camp experience for their classes, and ROEE entered a period of rapid growth. Some rented space at established summer camps; others used state parks and other spaces. Students participated in hiking, boating, archery, basic botany, knot-tying, and lanyard making. Campers helped cook and clean between their learning experiences. There was a nostalgic sort of freedom and creative genius in this time; no guidelines, no standards, just what seemed to succeed.