As the temperature climbs and the air gets thick every summer, I can’t help but think of camp. I’m something of a year-round evangelist for summer camp, although I haven’t attended one in over fifteen years.
Camp was where I discovered who I was out from under the watchful eye of parents and classmates. It was where I got my first real taste of independence, where I made friends easily and learned that other kids thought I was funny. Although my parents could only afford to send me for one week each summer, that one week consumed my thoughts for the entire year.
Summer camp is a temple for all the joys and dramas of childhood and adolescence. Emotions always run high (for better and for worse), and every experience is heightened. I distinctly remember the first summer I went when I was eleven years old, thinking that this is what it must feel like to be alive.
Camp relationships are consequently intense and fleeting: I recall more than one summer in which the girls from my cabin held each other and sobbed on our last night about the prospect of not seeing one another again, though we had only known each other for one week.
“I just want to say,” I remember blubbering at thirteen, hugging my bony knees tightly to my chest and barely able to get the words out, “I’m not leaving here with seven friends — I’m leaving here with seven sisters.”
The rest of the cabin’s members erupted in an explosion of waterworks befitting the death of a beloved family dog. Again, I cannot emphasize enough: we had only been under the same roof for seven days.
But this kind of melodrama was not uncommon. Camp is a bottle rocket of experiences: Where else can you learn to shoot a bow and arrow, tip over a canoe, sing your heart out every day, and have your first kiss behind the snack shed in such a compressed period of time? Where else can you feel so much?
That bounty of experiences and feelings shouldn’t be limited only to children whose parents can afford it. Every kid deserves to be a camper.
Post-Pandemic, Kids Really Need Camp
Currently, summer camp is a luxury accessible mostly to children of the middle and upper classes. With the exception of a few publicly funded programs, on the whole, it’s expensive.
The average American parent expects to spend about $1,000 per child in summer childcare, and even that figure tends to be low. According to the American Camp Association, day camp rates average between $199 and $800, while overnight camps have exorbitant weekly rates ranging from $680 to $2,000. Again, those eye-popping prices are just for one week.
But camp should be considered a public good, with its potentially transformative experiences and obvious function as childcare during the months when parents need it most. As such, it should be available to all.
We should think of the right to camp in a similar way to how we think of the right to education. Apart from the most heartless libertarians among us, we’ve accepted, as a society, that all children deserve formal schooling, and K–12 public education remains one of the most significant and enduring universal programs the United States has ever enacted. The growing movement for universal pre-kindergarten reflects a growing acknowledgment of the inherent value that communal learning and socialization holds for both children and their parents.
After-school programs are often at least partially subsidized, because, again, we acknowledge that such programs are important in child development. In a world that is both incredibly demanding of parents to work nearly around the clock for basic survival and increasingly socially atomized, such a programmatic void left wide open in the summer months is obvious. In education policy, loss of learning retention over the summer is regularly discussed, but the precipitous drop-off in socialization, which can be equally vital for children, almost never is. Camp can help fill that void.
The past year of physical isolation during the pandemic brought into focus our very real, basic human need for regular social interaction. No demographic felt the loss of such interaction more acutely than school-age children.
Though it’s difficult to say what lasting effects a year of social isolation will have on the youngest among us, we can point to similar phenomena that occur in children who have survived disasters. Sociologist Alice Fothergill has written extensively about the widely accepted but ultimately false notion that children are somehow uniquely “resilient” as an age group, saying, “Children also may hide or have trouble articulating their distress to adults after a disaster. In the disaster aftermath, it has been found that children and youth — no matter how personally resilient — cannot fully recover without the necessary resources and social support.”
Luckily, it seems that the need for such resources and social support for children has not gone entirely unnoticed by some policy makers, as New York City unveiled plans in April to launch a pilot summer school and summer camp hybrid program for the city’s K–12 students, completely free of charge, called Summer Rising.
New York City Schools chancellor Meisha Ross Porter echoed the idea of social opportunities for children as a public good, saying, “Every child deserves access to enrichment opportunities, academic acceleration, and social emotional supports. Summer programs that are designed with both academic and enrichment components have proven benefits.” Camp offers, in spades, exactly the kind of connection and socialization kids have been deprived of for the past year.
Of course, such no-cost programs would have meaningful benefits for working parents as well. With the extortionate price tag for childcare ever increasing, the movement for universal childcare has rightly gained traction nationally in the past decade. But no such programs have been implemented on a broad scale, and poor and working parents remain staggeringly overburdened. The annual three-month period between academic years demands an enriching, affordable childcare solution of its own.
Notes on Camps
Due to its evident potential and actual community benefits, it’s unsurprising that there is a rich history of summer camps founded by leftist and especially Jewish political organizations and unions in the twentieth century. Many such summer camps and colonies were located outside of New York City, offering a chance to both educate the next generation of leftists and provide opportunities for recreation and socialization.
For example, on opposite ends of Sylvan Lake in Duchess County, New York, were children’s camps Kinder Ring, run by the Workers Circle, and Kinderland, run by the International Workers Order. In Westchester County, leftist summer camps were founded by rank-and-file workers who pooled their resources as individuals. This kind of high-minded but ultimately simple utopian social experiment is a perfect encapsulation of the ethos of summer camp that has remained for almost a century.
In a famous 1998 episode of This American Life entitled “Notes on Camp,” host Ira Glass identifies what he calls the “cult-like, mystical connection some people feel with their summer camps.” The episode takes a nosedive in the fifth segment, called “How the Israeli Army is Just Like Summer Camp” (yikes!), but Glass’s observation about that “mystical” connection to camp is correct.
He’s describing the magical world of camp. Every child deserves access to that magical world. Every child deserves to feel the thrill of being part of something bigger than themselves, especially at a young and formative age.
When we think of “human rights,” we think of essential needs like water, food, health care, and housing. But we have a right to the nonessential, too. An indispensable part of childhood and adolescence is play, silliness, and frivolity, and that’s just as valuable. The modern world is hard enough on kids — we should at least let them tip over a canoe once in a while.