Though the summers of my adulthood bear little resemblance to those of my youth, the season retains the alluring aura of possibility that accompanied it throughout those earlier years. Even when summer weather in San Francisco is anything but, even when I find myself engaged in the most un-summerly of activities, those months continue to lend a certain mindset, one where memories of summers past prompt fresh action: opportunity knocks—won’t you answer?
Part of this attitude is surely rooted in my summer camp experience, the gradual accumulation of summers spent first as a camper and then as a counselor in a number of different settings. If asked, I would describe my camp experience as “great,” which surprisingly places me somewhere in the middle of the camper satisfaction index. As an adult I’ve talked with dozens of friends and acquaintances who, like me, had the privilege to attend summer camp; their impressions, for the most part, were lastingly positive. Many conversations revealed not only pleasant memories, but also signs of lasting inspiration: camp didn’t just make summer better, camp made the camper better. This candid enthusiasm was striking in and of itself, as if the camp experience struck a chord untouched by other aspects of contemporary American life.
I wanted to understand what made such lasting enthusiasm possible. I wanted to try to put the magic of summer camp on paper and see what the effort might teach me. So I read, I thought, I talked with friends, I wrote and rewrote drafts, and I asked lots of questions. I’ve come to believe that although good camps come in many different stripes, there’s a shared experience at the core, the result of common elements that are often deliberately, painstakingly cultivated. The list thus far:
- Fun as a way of being – in ways both silly and considered, roundabout and overt, good camps take fun seriously. They promote an idea of fun as joyful being, rather than fun as the leisure of least resistance. Popular notions of fun are often fleeting, little more than a cheap escape from boredom; joyful being is different, less conditional. As one camp director said, “To find the joy in cleaning a cabin or waiting in line or failing at an activity—that’s the kind of fun that translates to more of life.”
- An emphasis on growth and skill building – it goes without saying that camp is a place for practice and improvement, a place for skill development. There are, of course, the activity-based skills—everything from improvisational acting to overhead tennis serves—that easily lend themselves to marketing brochures and help draw kids to camp in the first place. But camp is also a place for building life skills: confidence, independence, leadership, cooperation, risk-taking. For a whole host of learned capacities, camp offers a relatively safe place to reach beyond the comfort zone—and yes, sometime fail, dust oneself off, and live to try again. Few settings offer this mix of challenge and support, not to mention the power, pressure, and freedom of a limited-time opportunity.
- Safety to take risks and be who you want to be – for many attendees, camp offers the first “clean slate” opportunity—that first experience outside the character expectations of school and family, beyond the yoke of cumulative identity that may not reflect where someone actually is or where he or she wants to go. Though by no means an all-accepting bubble, camp affords us a little more leeway to form our own identity, whether that means affirming our own sense of self or venturing outside ourselves for something new.
- Being part of something larger than yourself – we crave connection and belonging in ways that few, if any, can fully appreciate. Camp is a place to belong—to a community, a culture, a wider world around us. From camp legends and rituals to annual competitions, there’s a pervading sense that we’re taking part in something living, something shaped by those who came before us and to be shaped by our involvement. At a good camp, everyone feels like they’re a part of something big, something worth celebrating together, something worth pushing forward.
What strikes me as I explore this subject is that these common elements aren’t simply product characteristics; they’re deliberate community values of profound reach and importance. If I were asked to summarize the magic of summer camp less than ten words, I’d describe it as joyful, inspired, active immersion in something bigger than oneself, which is a decent summation for the good life, in general. If it’s worth noting how well some camps deliver upon this experience, it’s also worth noting how often mainstream culture points us elsewhere. It’s time to explore how we might change that, and how we might harness technology and social entrepreneurship to extend the magic of camp beyond its common bounds of summer, youth, and relative privilege.
Published in the September/October 2013 issue of Camping Magazine