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Summer Camps
of the 21st Century

How Summer Camps Have Evolved Over the Years

In August of 1861, Frederick W. Gunn, along with his wife, Abigail, took his students on a two-week camping trip. After trekking over 30 miles to their destination, the campers had a wonderful adventure boating, fishing, trapping, swimming, and singing songs around the campfire. In a nation torn apart by civil war, the children experienced an idyllic time of bonding, teamwork, and reverence for nature. Gunnery Camp became an annual tradition, a place where children could escape the chaos of everyday life and learn to appreciate nature, and Frederick Gunn became known as the “father of recreational camping.”

Soon, other leaders began to imitate Mr. Gunn’s organized camping trips, and summer camp was born. Early camps were very rustic, with campers erecting their own tents and often digging their own latrines. Activities typically consisted of swimming, boating, hiking, campfires, and survival skills, and were often interlaced with moral teachings. Many camps had a religious or military emphasis. Most of the early camps were for boys only, with camps for girls increasing over the next few decades.

In the first part of the 20th century, summer camp was largely educational, seen as an opportunity for the camper to develop useful skills and to increase academic knowledge. 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.”

Following World War II, summer camp increased in popularity. While still not accessible to all children, the booming economy and post-war optimism triggered rapid expansion in the summer camp industry. While the general focus was still one of strong moral development with activities that taught self-reliance, resourcefulness, and strength of character, camp philosophies began to change following the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Instead of being moralistic, camps shifted toward escapism, giving children the opportunity to get away from an increasingly stressful world and to just have fun, with activities such as games and sports.

Toward the end of the 20th century, summer camps began to decline in number due to lower enrollments, higher property taxes, and greater liability in an increasingly litigious society. Campers (and their parents) wanted shorter stays, so many camps were forced to change their structure – instead of a single summer-long session, camps redesigned their programs to accommodate one- or two-week campers.

Today’s camps are more accessible to low-income children as well as to children with disabilities or chronic illnesses. And today’s camps are more diverse, with campers coming from all over the world and all different racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds. While many camps are specialized – soccer, computers, dance, cheerleading, special needs, religion – the majority of camps offer general programs with a variety of activities: traditional activities such as swimming, boating, and hiking, as well as extreme activities such as high ropes, ziplining, motorsports and paintball. In today’s high-speed, high-tech society, kids want to be challenged and stimulated, so camps are adding an ever-widening range of activities to appeal to every camper.

If you haven’t reserved your camper’s spot for the next summer camp session, call Pali Adventures today.