The lengthening days of summer bring with them a brief reprieve from normal routines for many parents and children alike. Every year in a time-honored tradition, little John and Sally pack their backpacks and head off for a week or two at summer camp. Worldwide, thousands of facilities offer everything from wilderness adventures to space camps for the entertainment and personal development of their guests. But although this is now an international phenomenon, it originated as a uniquely American experience. According to the American Camp Association, the first summer camp was founded by Frederick and Abigail Gunn in 1861 in Washington, Connecticut. The Gunnery Camp evolved from the Gunn's home school for boys and focused on outdoor activities, such as hiking, camping, fishing, and canoeing, a model many camps continue to use today.
Like the Gunnery Camp, many of the early summer camps catered to boys and were designed, according to an article by Leslie Paris in the Journal of Women's History, to bring elite Christian boys into close contact with nature and mediate the effects on them of an increasingly industrialized world. The American Camping Association identifies some of these early camps as the North Mountain School of Physical Culture established in 1876, the first YMCA camp founded in 1876, and the first Boys' Club camp organized in 1900.
But girls have not been left out of the summer camp experience. Leslie Paris notes that some of the early camps, such as the Nature Science Camp established in 1890, served both boys and girls, albeit in separate facilities. Other camps, like the vacation houses for older working girls operated by the YWCA, served girls exclusively. The American Camping Association identifies the first YWCA camp as Sea Rest, opened in 1874 at Asbury Park, Pennsylvania.
Today, the majority of American summer camps are co-ed, reflecting changing perceptions of gender roles in American society. For example, Camp Kennedy Space Center offers both boys and girls aged 8 to 14 years old a hands-on experience at NASA's Cape Canaveral facility in Florida. Guests participate in space shuttle mission simulations, design space vehicles and habitats, and meet with astronauts. Similarly, athletic training camps like the Kanakuk Kamps in Branson, Missouri, are breaking through old gender stereotypes. Offering training in over 70 sports, the facility is open to girls and boys ages 7 to 18.
These examples illustrate the adaptability of the summer camping experience to the changing needs and interests of society and explain in part why it has endured and become a traditional facet of American life. Chances are the children we send off to camp this summer will one day help their own children decide which camp offers the most opportunity for summer adventure. Whether those adventures involve a space shuttle simulation or a visit to a space station is anybody's guess.
Copyright 2006© Linda Stanley
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Friday, 30-Jun-2006 16:06:34 EDT