I go out on a limb and make the following highly controversial, deeply provocative assertion: Summer Camp Rules.
It’s summertime and my freezer is filled with popsicles and mud balls.
The popsicles are easy enough to explain. It’s July. And as we all know, nothing soothes the soul on a scorching July afternoon like a popsicle, preferably lime.
The mud balls are more mysterious. Grapefruit-sized and as smooth and spherical as marbles, the mud balls began piling up the week my kids started summer camp.
Other kids fill their days at camp with archery or horseback riding, but for my six-year-old daughter, camp is all about the mud. She gets off the bus every afternoon coated in grime and cradling that day’s creation, which must be immediately transported to the freezer for safe keeping and preservation.
This is a far cry from what I imagined my daughter would be doing back when my wife and I went looking for something to fill the interminably long summer break.
Our kids are just entering their prime camp-going years, so it was a relief to discover that summer camp is as strong as ever - in the U.S., 10 million kids attend camp every year, according to the American Camp Association. The fad these days is for “enrichment programs” that give children an academic or creative edge over their recreating peers.
This means more kids are being lured away from campfires and canoe trips for computer camps, fitness camps, language programs and college prep courses. Kids with even narrower interests can enroll in camps specializing in cuisine, robotics or even entrepreneurship.
The appeal of such programs is clear enough. Looked at today, traditional summer camps can seem hopelessly hokey or even backward, relics of a long-lost industrial age when middle class parents sent their kids out of the pre-air-conditioned cities to learn crafts, survival skills and Native American hokum.
But in this highly competitive and anxious new millennium, it’s worth pausing to ask: is camp still worthwhile? Do we really need macrame bracelets, food fights and “Kumbaya”?
The answer, of course, is yes. We absolutely need those things and all the backwards and hokey traditions that go along with them.
This is especially true now, as more kids are coddled by parents, bombarded by pressures to achieve and isolated by new technology. In the words of American Camp Association President Nancy Gibbs, today’s kids arrive at camp “digitally aware” but “less familiar with the ideas of sharing their space, their stuff or the attention of the adults around them.”
Amidst all that, summer camp replenishes an appreciation for nature, play and getting along in a big group. The killjoys who would keep our kids “on track” 12 months a year ignore these deep and durable lessons.
I’d go so far as to argue that camp stands alongside free market democracy and public education as one of the great institutions of the modern world.
I say this as a grown-up whose own hazy recollections of camp include nasty wedgies, horrendous food and the night my cabin-mates stuck my hand in a bowl of warm water to see if I’d pee in my sleeping bag (mercifully, I didn’t). On a happier note, there were unforgettable letters from home, intense crushes and epic games of capture the flag.
Summer camp, in short, was both heaven and hell—or as authors Roger Bennett and Jules Shell write in their brilliant new book “Camp Camp,” it was “where ‘Fantasy Island’ meets ‘Lord of the Files.’”
In fact, I see no reason why kids should get all the benefits of summer camp. Which is why next week when our kids’ day camp year ends, our whole family is packing up and heading to the wilds of Vermont for a week in one of the increasing number of summer camps that caters to entire families.
So while the kids are busy with their fellow campers, my wife and I will be free to roam the camp and make some memories of our own.