Camping, summer camps, camp counselors and informal education

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Summer camps, camp counselors and informal education. Summer camps are part of the lives of many middle class young people in the United States. In Britain camps have been associated with Scouting and Guiding, but more recently there is discussion about offering more 16 year olds the chance to take part. Here we explore the history and nature of organized camping.

Contents: introduction · the development of organized camping · organized camping · types of camp · the camp counselor · summer camps and raising educational achievement ·

Camping out is an experience that every girl and every boy should have… There are certain sides of our nature that will be underdeveloped if we have not the campfire for our teacher. The experience that softens the heart and kindles friendship and the imagination is no less educative than the knowledge that instructs the head. Camping intensifies friendship, and friendship furnishes the motive and the reward of most of our efforts. It doubles our strength for achievement. It gives us most of the joys of life. It is the riches of the spirit and quite as worthy of effort as wealth or learning.

Henry S. Curtis (1914: 125-6)

There are more than 12,000 summer camps in the USA catering for some seven million children and young people (aged six to sixteen) each year. Stays can be anything from two to eight weeks. Often set in areas of outstanding natural beauty, they offer a wide range of activities. Campers normally sleep in cabins, and there is usually a range of other permanent buildings including medical and activity centres, a dining hall and a place where the whole camp can meet. Some summer camps cater for adults. Family/resort camps offer programmes of day and evening activities to both children and adults, and special needs camps where the ages of participants can vary greatly.

While various claims are made for organized camping and the activities that have come to be associated with it, the friendships and relationships it helps to cultivate remain, perhaps, the central feature. As Curtis recognized, association is a powerful educative form and is good in itself. But how did the early pioneers come to this understanding, what theory underpins it, and what other claims did they make for camping?

The development of organized camping

Frederick William Gunn is sometimes credited as the father of organized camping in 1861. Responding to the wishes of his students at the Gunnery School for Boys in Washington, Connecticut he gave them the opportunity to live like soldiers (it was the time of the Civil War). They spent two weeks at Milford on the Sound hiking, boating and fishing. He repeated the exercise in 1863 and 1865 and then began to develop different schooling activities at the camp. A few churches also began to experiment with camps. For example, the Reverend George W. Hinckley of West Hartford, Connecticut saw the informal atmosphere of camping as an opportunity to get to know the boys of his congregation (Mitchell and Meier 1982: 17). Later he was to found the Good Will Farm with a schedule calling for a ‘sane and sensible’ religious and educational morning programme followed by afternoons spent swimming and engaged in activities like baseball and tennis. Evenings were to be devoted to singing, talks and various entertainments (op. cit.).

Sumner F. Dudley, the YMCA and boys work. Various private camps were established to meet recreational and educational needs, but it was organizations such as the YMCA that began to see the benefits of camping for the young people they were working with (see Macleod 1983: 233-247). For example, Sumner F. Dudley, the pioneering boys worker, began short camping trips in the early 1880s. His efforts developed into an organized camp – the first experiment being at Orange Lake in 1885. It lasted eight days and Dudley reported:

Weather delightful… Fishing: very moderate. Swimming: called for three times a day. Health: good. Accidents: none. Appetites: ravenous. Hearty, manly fun: any quantity. Good nature: largely developed. (quoted by Hopkins 1951: 205)

Around one to two hours each day was spent in bible study. The group relationship experienced drew Dudley’s attention. He saw two potentialities: ‘a very intimate acquaintance on the part of the leader with the dispositions of the boys with whom he is to work,’ and the value to the participants in learning that ‘pleasure seeking does not necessitate any relaxation of Christian study and work’ (Hopkins 1951: 205). Camping was very much an adjunct of boys’ work (ibid.: 207). It retained a significant evangelical intent, but programmes became more organized and regimented. Boys were subject to continuous surveillance (they were grouped five to ten per tent with adult leader) (MacLeod 1983: 238).

Luther Halsey Gulick, the YMCA and the Camp Fire Girls. Camping for Girls is often linked to the Luther Halsey Gulick (1865 – 1918), the American physical educator. Gulick worked for the YMCA for a time, organizing physical training (Jackson, Michigan and Springfield, Massachusetts). He went on to be Principal of Pratt High School, Brooklyn and was later involved with the Russell Sage Foundation. Within the YMCA he is perhaps best known for originating the YMCA triangle to symbolize the concern for body, mind and spirit.

The triangle stands, not for body, mind or spirit, but for the man as a whole. It does not aim to express these distinct divisions, but to indicate that the individual while he may have different aspects, is a unit…. The triangle stands… for the symmetrical man, each part developed with reference to the whole, and not merely with reference to itself. (Gulick 1894, quoted in Hopkins 1951: 256)

Gulick gave the YMCA a philosophy for its physical work. He was also to apply his thinking to camping and work with girls. In 1890 he organized a camp for is daughter and her friends. He went on to found the Camp Fire Girls with his wife Charlotte in 1912. ‘Anxious to maintain sex differences… Gulick declared it would be “fundamentally evil” to copy Boy Scouting; since girls must learn “to be womanly”, the “domestic fire” became the group’s symbol’ (MacLeod 1983: 50). (Gulick was one of the founding committee members of the Boy Scouts of America in 1910).

Something of the character of the movement and its concerns can be seen from one of their early promises. Before a girl could become a ‘Wood Gatherer’ the first order of Camp Fire Girls) she had to repeat the following

It is my desire to become a Camp Fire Girl and to obey the law of the Camp Fire, which is
Seek beauty,
Give service,
Pursue knowledge,
Be trustworthy,
Hold on to health,
Glorify work. (Curtis 1914: 135)

Curtis (1914: 136) argued that the training given by the Camp Fire Girls was more fundamental and important than that given in most schools.

It is education in the arts of living, in health and strength, in a love for nature, and in skill in doing the things that the housewife is supposed to know – the craft of the home and the mother, and in its later honors, the craft of citizenship as well. Over all is thrown the glamor and romance of the camp fire and ceremonial.

While the domestic agenda is clearly in evidence it would be a mistake to overlook the opportunities and chance to commitment that Camp Fire Girls offered young women and girls.

Baden-Powell and Scouting. Perhaps one of the best known camp experiments was that of Robert Baden-Powell on Brownsea Island, Poole, England in 1907 (Jeal 1989: 384 – 386; Baden-Powell 1908: 344 – 346). This ‘scout camp’ involved 22 boys, mostly between 13 and 16, from both public school and working class backgrounds. The pattern followed something approaching the classic formula of north American camps: physical training followed by prayers and hoisting of the flag and breakfast. After that there was ‘scouting practices’ (tracking, woodcraft, making camp etc.), games and swimming until lunch. In the afternoon there was more ‘scouting’. After tea there was camp games and a compulsory ‘rub down’ with bed at eight. The boys were divided into patrols (with ‘senior boys’ being responsible for the behaviour of the members of their patrol), activities were designed to be stimulating and not to outrun their interest, and there was a ‘court of honour’ to try any offenders against discipline. In the evening there were campfire ‘yarns’. It was a practical test of the ideas Baden-Powell had been formulating and that were later to be expressed first in Scouting for Boys (1908) and later in the development of the scouting and guiding movements.

‘Progressive education’ and camping. Mitchell and Meier (1983: 18-19) suggest that developments such as the above mark out what might be described as ‘the recreational stage’ of camping. Growth had been fairly slow – but significant patterns and traditions had been established. In the decade after the First World War there was a marked acceleration in the number of organized camps in North America. Their educational worth had been recognized by a number of key commentators as the opening quotation from Curtis (1914) shows. There was a shift in the methods and programmes of organized camping. There was a greater emphasis on satisfying the needs of different individuals instead of trying to fit them into one mould. Mitchell and Meier (1983: 19) report that camps added activities such as drama, arts and crafts, dancing and music. There was also an increased use of instruction and classes and an emphasis on competition with quite complex systems of rewards. ‘One reason for this change in philosophy was the development of new testing methods that demonstrated that personality, character and spiritual growth were not inevitably acquired through association with the right people but must be taught and planned for to obtain optimum results’ (op. cit.).

Work camps. In response to growing unemployment and social unrest, many countries introduced systems of work camps during the late 1920s and 1930s. In part the concern was to sustain and return to amore stable social and economic order. As Field (1992: 3) comments, ’Training policy in Germany under the Nazis and the United States under Roosevelt was part of a mass crusade for national regeneration and mobilization; in Britain, training policy reflected desires to fan back into life what were, allegedly, the dying flames of the work ethic’. While there were considerable differences in emphasis these camps there was a common concern for a ‘pedagogy of labour’ (schooling for labour using a minimum of coercion). A second common feature was ‘the closed, remote and residential character of work camps’ and the extent to which they can be described as total institutions, ‘devoted to the observation, education, classification and control of their inmates’ behaviour’ (Field 1992: 17). In Britain, Transfer Instructional Centres appeared in 1929 (some were non-residential, most were residential work camps). By 1938 there were 35 TICs (30 of which were residential) with a capacity of 6185 places (ibid.: 63). In their running, the camps drew selectively upon the experiences of organized camping and military practice. There was a mix of instruction and work (often on the land or on construction projects), but the free time of inmates (in the British camps at least) was largely unregulated.

In the USA, work camps were a key aspect of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Beginning in 1933 some 275,000 young men had enrolled in 1,300 camps four months later. Well marketed and packaged, the programme offered participants relief and the apparent chance to take part in a pioneering, public crusade. CCC participants were involved in schemes as diverse as forest planting, making lakes, building dams, roads and bridges, and fighting floods. Alongside work programmes there was a significant emphasis on education and training and upon guidance. There was a recognition in many of the camps of the need to work with the young participants so that could adjust to the experience of camp life, and so that they could develop (Holland and Hill 1942: 126 – 147). There was also a focus on citizenship and community. The scale of the scheme dwarfed British efforts. In one year (1939/1940), for example, a total of 327,431 enrolees went through the camps.

‘Education’ camps in Nazi Germany. Perhaps the most chilling realization of organized camping was that of national socialism. In the 1930s we see the development of various forms of leisure-time, selection, pre-military training, work and community camps. These forms built on what had been learnt about camps as socializing forms within youth movements. The relative isolation of sites, the creation of distinctive rituals, routines and ways of living (often drawn from the military), and the emphasis on ‘character-building’, ‘spirit and acceptance of the organizers’ vision of the world appealed to fascists. Organized camps could express central aspects of national socialism and function as an agent of indoctrination. In a significant respect national socialism was thus ‘lived rather than taught’ (see Schiedeck and Stahlmann 1997). Camps were ‘Volk communities’ infused by a nazi ideology of ‘blood-and-soil’ (see the discussion of social pedagogy). With an emphasis on experience and emotion, they became ‘total institutions’. They allowed for the subjection of the individual to the whole and the tearing away of ‘habitual forms of social reference’ (ibid.: 71). Their purposes were:

Mobilization. Camps were a way of rousing the masses. Using the ‘ciphers’ of work, education and training they strove toward ‘education through the act’.

Militarization. The soldierly character of the camp and the shaping of camp life into a ‘struggle’ both trained people in military forms, and ‘created the psychological willingness to participate in or tolerate war-like actions’ (ibid.: 72).

Discipline. All national socialist camps had an intrinsic disciplinary nature. Their repressive character was often veiled. Instead of citizenship there was ‘comradeship’; there was a concern with the creation of community (albeit linked to the exclusion and elimination of those thought to be undesirable); and appeals to leadership, pride and self-esteem (ibid.:72-3).

Those who did not give in this social disciplining, who did not buy into the group identification and ‘male-bonding subculture’ were seen as enemies of community or kameradschaftsfremd (hostile to comradeship) (Dudek 1997: 43).

Kurt Hahn, Outward Bound and adventure education. The setting for many organized camps has become a significant, if not the, focus for many initiatives. Outdoor education, the character building or developmental aspects of engaging with the natural environment, has been a key dimension. In Britain and Ireland, it has been the work of adventure education centres that has come closest to the themes of organized camping in North America. Here the work of Kurt Hahn has been of critical importance. His championship of outdoor education first at Gordonstoun School and then through the establishment of Outward Bound at Aberdovey in 1941 also put adventure education on the policy map. Hahn’s capacity to set out a vision, to convince people to fund and sponsor that vision – and to pick the right people to develop the work allowed for a deepening of thinking and practice. Other initiatives such as the Brathay Hall Trust (established in 1946) further strengthened practice and between 1950 and 1980 ‘there was a remarkable expansion of adventure education’ (Hopkins and Putnam 1993: 35). Key features in the UK included the development of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, the opening of a large number of local authority-run outdoor centres (starting with the White Hall Centre for Open Country Pursuits in Derbyshire in 1950) and the establishment of national centres such as Capel Curig (in 1956). The way seemed clear for a better understanding of adventure education and outdoor education.

Perhaps one of the better statements of the character and purpose of outdoor education came later in this period (arising out of the Dartington Conference of 1975).

Exhibit 1: Outdoor education

Outdoor education is ‘those activities concerned with living, moving and learning in the outdoors. This will include survival, residential experiences, and a variety of activities, both physical and concerned with observing the environment. The outdoors will normally be interpreted in terms of situations where self-reliance is required. These activities are selected and designed to achieve objectives within aims which are concerned primarily with developing attitudes and relationships.

The most important aims are to heighten awareness of and foster respect for:

Self – through the meeting of challenge (adventure).

Others – through group experiences and the sharing of decisions.

The natural environment – through direct experience.

Department of Education and Science (1975)

With cutbacks in local authority spending in the 1980s; growing fears about risks (linked to accidents occasioned by poor planning, staffing and training); and a heightened emphasis on basic skills, the more liberal and associational nature of outdoor and adventure education came under threat. As Hopkins and Putnam (1993: 59) put it, while there has been a growing acceptance of experience-based learning, outdoor education has become increasingly constrained by a concern with narrow notions of cost-effectiveness. At the same time there has been a marked increase in commercial, more leisure-oriented, adventure provision for young people (paralleling developments in organized camping in the USA).

Organized camping

So far we have not defined what we mean by ‘organized camping’. Mitchell and Meier (1983: 3) define it thus:

[An organized camp is] comprised of a community of persons living together as an organized, democratic group in an outdoor setting. The related educational and recreational activities are supervised by trained staff so as to meet the personal needs and interests of the participants. The camp program consists of the total of all the experiences or events in the camp, whether structured or not. In as much as possible, however, the activities of the camp program should focus on the natural environment and should take advantage of experiences that are inherent to living out-of-doors. Thus, the natural surroundings should contribute significantly to the mental, physical, social and spiritual growth of the camper.

From this, Mitchell and Meier go on to identify four components or principles that apply to the basic philosophy of organized camping:

Organized camping focuses on the natural environment in an outdoor setting. Hence the concern with woodcraft, nature appreciation, ecology and the beauty of the natural environment.

The programme consists of the total of all experiences that take place throughout the length of the camp. The unstructured and informal aspects of camp life are as significant as the organized activities. ‘Living fully in a camp community leads participants into a complete range of relationships, experiences and activities that are part of social and educational growth’ (ibid.: 4).

The organized camp revolves around group living experiences in an organized community. Camps are organized around working and living in small groups. Co-operation and teamwork are necessary to meet the requirements of daily life. ‘Through this group process campers develop skills in co-operating, sharing, decision-making, and assuming leadership and citizenship responsibilities’ (op. cit.) (see leadership as a shared process). The idea of ‘encampment for citizenship’ (Black 1962) has been a significant strand of practice. As Black put it, ‘It is one thing to teach about democracy and citizenship. It is another to learn it by living it’ (1962: 96).

The organized camp relies on trained and well-qualified staff. The responsibilities involved, and the experiences to dealt with, entail personnel who are ‘mature,… respect and care for others and [are] interested in working with them’. They need a range of interests and skills, and be capable of ‘providing guidance and support to campers so that their personal needs and problems receive the very best attention’ (op cit.)

Types of camp

Mitchell and Meier (1983) suggest that camps can be classified into five basic types:

Resident or established camps. These are camps in which campers live for a period of time (from a few days to eight or more weeks). Classically they are located in countryside – often by a lake or river. There will be a number of permanent buildings set in their own grounds with food halls, activity rooms and leisure areas. Campers and staff may live in cabins or small residences, or in tepees or tents on wooden platforms. The basic unit is usually around 12 – 24 campers with their counsellors or leaders. Established camps will usually have a wide range of facilities for outdoor activities including orienteering courses, climbing, ropeways, water sports and so on. There are also likely to be facilities for environmental education.

Trip or travel camps. This type of camping takes the form of travelling (by foot, canoe, covered wagon, bicycle… whatever) and in making camp at a new location each night. Often these locations are made ready in some way for the campers – and may have a range of toilet and washing facilities. One variation, wilderness, pioneer or survival camping, involves a return to more basic forms. Such trips may last a few days – or several months Day camps. These camps involve participants commuting from home to the site each day – and are primarily aimed at the younger age ranges. Children are typically picked up by bus after breakfast and returned in the late afternoon. They participate in a range of camping activities, for example, preparing food on a fire, and in the sort of programme opportunities that are open to campers in established camps. Sometimes, they may involve the occasional ‘sleep-out’. Such camping can often be found in or near metropolitan areas and has been pioneered by not-for-profit organizations such as the Scouts, Camp Fire Girls and YMCAs. However, there has been a significant increase in private provision in recent years. Day camps may be seen as a response to the perceived need for cheaper forms of recreational and developmental provision during school holidays.

Special camps. Some camps focus on a special interest such as drama or science study. Others may focus on the needs of special groups such as diabetics or older citizens.

School camps. These may well use established or regular campsites but are usually organized by the school (often with help from the local camp staff and instructors). They usually entail educational programmes linked to the school curriculum. Often termed ‘school trips’ they may last just a few days or several weeks. One extended variation of this has been the camp school. One example, of this was the experiment conducted by the McMillan sisters in Deptford, London beginning in 1911. It was unusual in that it was situated in an overcrowded urban area and was combined with a clinic and nursery. The ‘outdoor’ setting was seen as a definite improvement on the housing conditions that many of the participants usually experienced, and it offered a variety of opportunities for education (see Margaret McMillan’s 1917 moving account). Another example is the Forest School experiment (1929 – 1938) near Fordingbridge in Hampshire. Heavily influenced by the thinking of Ernest Westlake and notions of woodcraft, this school had no formal classes or standard discipline. It was ‘a kind of amalgam between a camp, a school and a Scout jamboree’ (see van der Eyken and Turner 1969: 141).

There are a number of variations on these basic types – but this does provide us with a useful framework for analysis.

The camp counselor

Camp counselors have been a feature of organized camping in North America since the 1920s. General counselors are primarily responsible for the overall activity programme and supervisory care of a specific small group of children or young people (around eight to ten in number). They usually live in the same cabins as the campers and eat their meals with them. Responsible for the general welfare of the campers, they will generally have some capacity to facilitate learning in some special subject area and to develop outdoor skill. They help to develop daily, weekly and seasonal programmes. They are often responsible for the condition of the camp grounds and the supplies and materials used in the camp programmes. The counselor is a classic mix of roles – as Wack commented some seventy five years ago:

A counselor is a personal adviser, mentor, guide, prompter, whose function is to direct, guide, counsel, control, advise and instruct individually, either as a member of a governing body or otherwise. (1925: 1927)

The role allows for considerable opportunities for informal education and for the development of specific abilities and skills. Living with a group of people, sharing their experiences of new activities, and of each other, provides a rich diet of material for informal education. Groups have to learn to co-operate to get through the day. Thrown together, there are inevitable tensions. Some counselors will simply want to smooth these over. Others will look to encourage reflection and some thought about how participants might change themselves and their situations. Camps can both lend some distance to the issues faced by participants, and allow them space to think about them in new ways.

Some specialist counselors are also employed to facilitate the development of particular skills, for example, around canoeing, drama, or environmental action. They also have some general duties to perform. In addition, special needs counselors are recruited for those camps catering for those with learning difficulties or different physical needs. Such counselors have to offer care and assistance of a very personal nature – for example washing and taking to the toilet – and able to work with very different abilities and behaviours. Unlike other camps, many of special needs camps also include adult campers who require the same attention and service.

Employment is seasonal and wages are often low – especially for those who do not have specialist qualifications or lack experience. In addition, to having appropriate personal qualities, counselors are normally expected to have some relevant activity skills and to have a first aid qualification. Many camps have training programmes to prepare selected, older campers for future positions as counselors. They also mount ‘on-the-job’ programmes for the many students that work as counselors each year (many of whom come from the UK and elsewhere via programmes such as Camp America). A number of higher education institutions also run more comprehensive courses.

Summer camps and raising educational achievement

Summer camps came to the fore again in English policy debates following a speech by David Blunkett, the then Minister for Education and Employment in January 2000. The concern was to make a connection between secondary and post-16 education. ‘One in five of those who fall outside any learning or work in their later teenage years become disconnected from the mainstream in that critical first summer after leaving school’. What is proposed is a ‘much more extensive programme of structured and challenging activity.’

This will develop confidence, self assured leadership skills, the team working of young men and women and also support an educational experience. We can build on the good work of the past by using summer activities in a way that would positively link young people between school and advanced study, or school and the world of work and further training. We will be working together to look at how, through imaginative links, we can assist with the transition which for children in better off families has always been an opportunity for travel, for new experiences, such as summer camps in North America.

While there has been some sporadic activity around the proposal – little appeared as concrete and substantial work. Some key considerations include:

  • To what extent will schemes reflect the democratic and associational concerns of summer camps stressed by Mitchell and Meier (above)? Will there be a continued stress on individual achievement and readiness for work or study?
  • Previous British government excursions into organized camping such as the work camps of the 1930s have involved a relatively narrow vision of a ‘pedagogy for labour’. Will these schemes be constrained by a narrow vocationalism and demands for the sort of cost effectiveness that has limited adventure education since the 1980s?
  • Are summer camps a further deepening of the growing surveillance and control of young people?
  • Is there capacity to offer all 16 year olds a place on a camp? At present there are only a limited number of suitable sites and skilled instructors. How is the expansion required to be brought about – and who is to run schemes. If, as has happened with other training and employment initiatives such as job clubs, there is to be strong commercial element in provision, then any emphasis.

The English government returned to the idea of residential experience and, to some extent, the idea of camps within its National Citizenship programme.

Further reading and references

Baden-Powell, R. S. S. (1908) Scouting for Boys, London: Horace Cox.

Black, A. D. (1962) The Young Citizens. The story of encampment for citizenship, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing.

Curtis, H. S. (1914) Play and Recreation for the Open Country, New York: Ginn and Co.

Department of Education and Science (1975) Outdoor Education. Report on the Dartington Hall Conference N496I, London: Department of Education and Science.

Dudek, P. (1997) ‘National socialist youth policy and labour service’ in H. Sunker and H-U. Otto (eds.) Education and Fascism. Political identity and social education in Nazi Germany, London: Falmer.

Van der Eyken, W. and Turner, B. (1969) Adventures in Education, London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.

Field, J. (1992) Learning Through Labour. Training, education and the state 1890 – 1939, Lees: University of Leeds, Leeds Studies in Continuing Education.

Hopkins, C. H. (1951) History of the YMCA in North America, London: New York.

Holland, H. (1939) Youth in European Labor Camps, Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Holland, K. and Hill, F. E. (1942) Youth and the CCC, Washington DC: American Council on Education.

Hopkins, D. and Putnam, R. (1993) Personal Growth Through Adventure, London: David Fulton.

Jeal, T. (1989) Baden-Powell, London: Hutchinson.

MacLeod, D. I. (1983) Building Character in the American Boy. The Boy Scouts, YMCA and their forerunners, 1870 – 1920, Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

McMillan, M. (1917) The Camp School, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Ministry of Education (1948) Organized Camping, London: HMSO.

Mitchell, A. V. and Meier, J. F. (1982) Camp Counselling. Leadership and programming for the organized camp 6e, Philadelphia: Saunders College Publishing.

Schiedeck, J. and Stahlmann, M. (1997) ‘Totalizing of experience; educational camps’ in H. Sunker and H-U. Otto (eds.) Education and Fascism. Political identity and social education in Nazi Germany, London: Falmer Press.

Wack, H. W. (1925) The Camping Ideal. The new human race, New York: Red Book Magazine.

Acknowledgement: Picture – Camp – the Ormos Charity | flickr ccncnd2 licence

© Mark K. Smith 2000, 2013