It’s the season when many parents are signing their kids up for summer camp. For many of us, summer camp looks like an antidote to the ills of modern life, a chance for children to put away the iPhones and computers and immerse themselves in a simpler world. In a 2006 paper, Michael B. Smith looks at the way summer camps have always presented themselves as an alternative to an overwhelming society.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the first summer camps promised boys a chance to escape increasingly urban modern life. Roughing it would build character, and, as one early camp founder put it, save humanity from “dying of indoor-ness.”
Summer camps won an intellectual stamp of approval in 1904, when psychologist G. Stanley Hall published the book Adolescence. Hall argued that child development imitates the historical formation of civilized society. Children, therefore, should spend time in nature, “in this wild undomesticated stage from which modern conditions have kidnapped him.” They should learn to build fires and shelters like the pre-civilized people they were.
Summer camps flourished in the years that followed. In 1900 there were fewer than one hundred camps in the country. By 1918, there were more than 1,000.
But as camps became more popular, their commitment to “natural” living faltered. Camps began to feature movies, radio, and tennis lessons. One leader of the camp movement complained in the 1930s that “Every activity we can find to fit into the daily program is put in, but there is a notable lack of camping—living out in the open—the very thing that gave the movement its birth.”
While some camp advocates bristled at the growth of civilized pursuits at camps, others began to construct a new vision of their purpose. Rather than retreats from civilization into nature, camps might be tiny societies of their own. Children would learn to balance the needs of individuals and the group, and to be helpful citizens.
Smith writes that World War II highlighted the difficulty of making camps into either a pastoral Eden or a civilized utopia. While camps emphasized their value as refuges from the terrors of life in wartime, they couldn’t really protect children from the larger world. Camps even made adolescent fitness for combat a priority in their recreation programs.
In the post-war years, some summer camp leaders critiqued the value for children of escaping from society into a supposedly more authentic setting. In 1947, child psychologist Fritz Redl noted that the natural world could be frightening for city kids used to “the protective comforts of the mechanized urban environment.” Redl believed that summer camp could have therapeutic value, but he also worried about idealizing some vague, romantic past—particularly given that, in the fall, kids would be headed back to the modern world that the camp mythos urged them to distrust.
Or, to update that insight for the modern age, it’s worth remembering that eventually you have to give the kids’ iPhones back.