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150 Years of Camp… And Going Strong

Celebrating The Rewards of Summer Camp

February 01, 2011
Organized Camp was born in the summer of 1861. The brainchild of William Gunn, headmaster of the Gunnery School in Washington, Connecticut, the first organized camp was a group of boys who journeyed into the wilderness along Long Island Sound for two weeks of swimming, fishing, hiking, games, and more.

The idea spread like wildfire. Parents realized that while their children were having fun at summer camp, they were also learning a positive effect that long outlasted their stay at camp. Eleanor Eells, author of History of Organized Camping: The First 100 Years, detailed in her book that though only several dozen camps were up and running in the early 1880s, several hundred were flourishing by 1900.

In 1922, Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot said, "The organized summer camp is the most important step in education that America has given the world."

In 1929, in Camping and Character, camp standards and leadership training pioneer Dr. Hedley S. Dimock, echoed Eliot's views on the educational benefits of camp, writing: "The summer camp as an educational agency has unusual possibilities. Contrasted to ordinary schools, it can be stimulating and enlightening … Camp is new and at least willing to make fresh attacks on problems of education. Schools tend to have pupils deal with life indirectly, learning from what others have to say. In camp life is an actual process."

Perhaps that's because even in the early 1900s the potential negative impacts of a life without the natural world were evident. Winthrop T. Talbot, an early camp leader, called it the "tyranny of the cities." Characterized by a nerve-wracking instability, constant distraction (even before the days of television, computers, and cell phones) and a maddening lack of silence, the antidote for a child in such a state was camp. Talbot wrote, at camp "gradually he grows into harmony with the calm about him, and cheerful good nature replaces ill-temper…"

In addition to being an excellent educational tool through experiential learning, the early years of organized camp also proved that the industry was at the forefront of social change, and in a unique position to help youth adjust and thrive in the face of such changes as the women's suffrage movement, social and racial equality, treatment of individuals with developmental and physical disabilities, times of economic hardship, and times of war.

Female camp pioneer Laura Mattoon made it her mission in the early to mid 1900s to broaden the horizons of her campers. Eells wrote of Mattoon, "She lived fully in the present and gave freely to her campers and colleagues. But her face was turned to the future in anticipation of what it might hold for her girls and what they might contribute. She understood well the place women were to occupy in the 20th century and the many ways in which the camp experience could provide preparation."

By the 1920s more than 100 camps were devoted to helping shape the hearts and minds of girls across the country.

For both boys and girls, camp was increasingly seen as an equal playing field for all who attended, regardless of social status or economic class. Talbot once said, "In camp, poor and rich lads stripped down to their swimming trunks are on an absolute equality … Courage, generosity, goodwill, [and] honesty are the touchstones to success in camp."

World War II, the Korean War, and later the Cold War, gave camps an additional purpose: teaching campers overall preparedness. In 1951, camping enthusiast C.I. Hammett wrote that it was important "for campers to learn to do for themselves, to practice outdoor skills that teach self-reliance and resourcefulness. This should happen in daily living, not on an occasional hike or outing, and the camper should have an active part in the preparations."

Hammett also believed that, "the goal of camping should be to develop future citizens and provide children the opportunity to get to know and understand other children of different racial, national, religious, geographical and economic groups," — yet another camp vision that has today come to fruition.

More recent years have been marked by children retreating indoors in record numbers. Television, the advent of the computer age, and widespread financial cuts to school funding often resulting in the cancellation of physical education all made the role of camp even more relevant in the 1980s and '90s. And that trend continues today.

Camps in the 21st century are continuing to prove that experiential learning is paramount in childhood development. Peg L. Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, wrote, "The value of camp is resonating with more and more young people and adults — lessons learned, friendships formed, experiences shared, strengths discovered. There is something solid behind what seasoned camp directors have always known, and what parents have witnessed — genuine learning and growth occurs in the unique camp environment."

Today, right where we are, is "an exciting time to be able to influence the direction of our future," Smith said.

Eells wrote, "The pioneers of organized camping were men and women with a vision of the impact of outdoor living experiences on the lives of boys and girls." She also said, "Camp's common bond is the concern for people in their relationships to one another, to the environment and for their sense of community."

Well, it has been 150 years since the beginning of organized camps, and the industry is aging beautifully. Camp leaders are still focused on providing hands-on learning for their campers and the importance of building character. Camps are still fielding children through times of social and economic change. And millions of children each year are still finding themselves at camp — discovering new interests, overcoming challenges, getting inspired, and shaping themselves into tomorrow's leaders.

Happy birthday, camp. Thanks for the trailblazing. Thanks for the memories and the bright futures. And here's to the next 150 years!

©2010 American Camping Association, Inc.

The American Camp Association® (ACA) works to preserve, promote, and enhance the camp experience for children and adults. ACA-Accredited® camp programs ensure that children are provided with a diversity of educational and developmentally challenging learning opportunities. There are over 2,400 ACA-accredited camps that meet up to 300 health and safety standards. For more information, visit www.ACAcamps.org.

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Find A Summer Camp at the 2011 Summer Camp Fair

Indy's Child Parenting Magazine will be hosting the 22nd Annual Summer Camp Fair held at the Fashion Mall at Keystone at the Crossing on February 26, 2011 from 11 am to 4 pm. Touted as one of the oldest and largest summer planning events in the nation, this event brings families together for a day of family fun and exploration as children and parents seek out the variety of summer camps and programs available in Central Indiana and around the United States. Over 100 different camps and programs will be on hand to discuss with you the variety of options, financial aid, specialties and more.

Radio Disney will be providing entertainment, along with health and wellness information from St.Vincent Hospital and representatives from American Camp Association, Indiana will be available to answer questions you might have about finding the right camp.

Don't miss this once a year event to explore the importance of summer camp and the variety of opportunities available. Many offer financial aid assistance and offer camps for children with special needs.

Location: Fashion Mall at Keystone at the Crossing (inside the mall)

Date: Saturday, February 26, 2011

Time: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: FREE

Tags: Camp

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