My grandfather was co-owner of Camp Chippewa, an overnight camp set in the woods along the shore of Mascoma Lake in New Hampshire. He spent his summers delighting campers with stories and puns, while supervising boys and girls in their home away from home. It was rustic living: sleeping in cabins without electricity, showering in shared bathhouses, and canoeing and swimming in the freshwater lake. As a kid, my mother went along each summer grudgingly; she hated the long ride to camp, the communal living, and the bugs. But by the time her children were old enough to attend summer camp, she encouraged us to take advantage of all that camp has to offer.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are from overnight camp in the Berkshires mountains of western Massachusetts: songs around the campfire, muddy hobo hikes in the rain, trust falls at the ropes course, late night cabin chats in our bunks. Going away from home for the first time was scary but also liberating. There were rules — sure — and counselors who provided supervision, but nobody was watching every single thing I did or said or ate the same way my mom did at home. For me — a studious academic generally happy to be left alone to get lost in a book — going to summer camp forced me out of my comfort zone and immersed me in different sights and sounds and experiences. By the time the summer ended my skin was bronzed from being outside all day and my knees were scabbed and bruised from running and playing. I had also made close friendships and established a new-found confidence that would serve me well for years to come.
My children have gotten their overnight camp experiences beside a picturesque lake in upstate New York. Today, most camps require campers to forfeit all electronics, so it’s a detox of sorts for kids used to being continuously attached to their phones, social media, and gaming consoles. Instead, they spend their days playing basketball and soccer and roller hockey, paddle boarding and tubing on the lake, competing in relay races, making friendship bracelets, putting on shows, and singing songs. As a mother used to keeping close tabs on my kids’ daily moods and able to connect via text at any moment of the day, it’s been quite an adjustment for me too. The only way I learn what’s happening at camp is to pour over photos posted daily, trying to catch a glimpse of my children: Are they smiling? Do they seem to be having fun? Have they been wearing sunscreen? (New AI-driven apps that automatically detect specific faces in the photos have greatly simplified this process.) Despite my nerves, my kids have come back with such joyful memories of summer camp: singing songs on the car ride home, laughing about their adventures, recounting the best and worst activities, legs covered in bug bites and grins from ear to ear.
This summer my youngest took his turn at overnight Boy Scout camp, a rugged week of camping, hiking, merit badge classes, campfires, and dining hall escapades. He came back bursting with stories and confidence and excitement that he did something he didn’t know he could do. And my oldest went back to overnight camp as a counselor, now with the awesome responsibility to keep the campers safe and having fun. She witnessed how youngsters develop their own independence, learning for the first time how to care for and advocate for themselves. My daughter exercised her leadership skills, built new friendships with other staff members, and loved being back in her happy place.
Not everyone gets to go to summer camp. According to the American Camp Association (ACA), prior to COVID-19 there were more than 12,000 camps operating in the U.S. — 7,000 overnight camps and 5,000 day camps — providing summer experiences to more than 6 million children and employing 1.5 million adults. In the U.S., about 15% of adults say they typically send their children to summer camp. Campers are predominantly white (~77%), from middle- and high-income families (~80%), with no known disabilities (~79%), and between the ages of 9 and 12.
The first summer camps in the United States opened in the 1870s as a place for boys to escape urban life and build character by “roughing it” and connecting with nature. In 1900 there were fewer than 100 summer camps in the U.S.; by 1918 there were over 1,000. The ACA was started in 1910, establishing health standards and more regimented camp activities. By World War I, camps opened to girls and taught life skills. In the 1920s, distinct camps cropped up for particular racial, ethnic, and religious groups: African American, Native American, Christian, Jewish, and more. For these groups, summer camp helped foster cultural and social identities.
For Jewish kids growing up on the East Coast in the past century, going to sleepaway camp has become nearly a rite of passage. The first Jewish overnight camp was founded in 1893 in New York, and many more soon sprung up to cater to the children of city-dwelling Eastern European immigrants. Some began as a place to “Americanize” the immigrant children; later many focused on Jewish culture and religion. Today it’s especially common for Jewish children to attend overnight camp, where campers build life-long friendships and foster a strong Jewish identity.
Many children who would value and benefit from camp experiences may not have the means for or access to summer camp. Programs like Harford’s Camp Courant (the country’s oldest and largest free summer day camp program, where I was once a counselor) and Project Morry (established with the goal of allowing all children to have the opportunity to attend summer camp) are making a real difference at expanding access to broader segments of our community.
Some other countries besides the U.S. — including Canada, France, and Greece — have popular summer camp programs, but the concept of sending kids away to live in cabins in the woods for weeks at a time remains foreign to many around the world. U.S. camps do attract international campers and staff members, creating opportunities for cultural exchange, though there has been a steep decline in international attendees the past few years as a result of pandemic travel restrictions and visa program changes.
COVID-19 disrupted camp plans during the summers of 2020 and 2021. Many camps reduced enrollment, enacted safety precautions, or closed for the season(s). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance for operating youth camps, which included encouraging vaccination for those eligible, mandating mask wearing for those unvaccinated, and recommending cleaning, screening, testing, cohort grouping, social distancing, and other safety protocols. In New York State, day camps were allowed to operate in 2020 but overnight camps were considered too risky and were banned from opening; more online camps cropped up to fill in the gap and give children (and their struggling parents) an option for entertainment and engagement. In 2021, the NY governor issued a 23-page report with guidance for safe opening of all camps during the pandemic.
Based on an ACA Camp Counts 2020 report, camp enrollment was down considerably in 2020 from the prior year: 61% lower for day camps and 26% lower for overnight camps. Of the 486 camps surveyed, 15% reported at least 1 COVID-19 case. A CDC report investigated the 2020 experience at four overnight camps in Maine, all of which implemented multilayer prevention and mitigation strategies that were successful in isolating three asymptomatic COVID-19 cases and preventing secondary transmission. While we don’t have the full account of 2021 yet, there has been a smattering of camp-related outbreaks, including one in Texas where more than 125 attendees of a church camp tested positive for COVID-19 and another in upstate New York (happily NOT my kids’ camp) where more than 30 unvaccinated campers were diagnosed with COVID-19.
The benefits of summer camp are many. Campers and counselors build self-esteem, independence, adventurousness, leadership, environmental awareness, spirituality, confidence, social skills, responsibility, and more. By the time I went off to college, living away from home wasn’t a scary or new experience. Not so for some peers who struggled to adjust to their new-found independence. The benefits continued into adulthood. I sang my babies to sleep with camp songs, and I relish watching as they grow and thrive through their own summer camp experiences.