Camp as Educator: Lessons Learned from History

Lance Ozier

By the time Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard University, reportedly claimed in 1922, “the organized summer camp is the most important step in education that America has given the world,” camping in America already had a long history of embracing the educational value of the camp experience (Sharman, 1938). Now, almost a century later, the camp experience is once again at the precipice of education reform, standing at the crosssection of experiential learning and institutional schools. Now, as then, the rich tradition of camps as educational landscapes is our most likely tool for demonstrating the power of our values and the outcomes of the camp experience.

In the Footsteps of Pioneers

From the Old French word peon for foot (from Latin pedo), we literally find pioneering footprints across the West of early Americans who forged communities in frontier and rural settings. Camps can trace their roots back to these longstanding national ideologies and iconography, modeled after Native American and even more prehistoric cultures, who "for thousands of years, slept, ate, worked, and carried on practically all functions of life under the free heavens . . . making camping as old as the human race itself" (Lehman, n.d.). By the 1840s and 1850s, men and women of all nationalities and religions camped out in prairie schooners as they made the dangerous journeys over the Santa Fe Trail and across the Laramie River, passing Fort Van Couver to reach the almost mythical land known as Oregon (New York, 1948).

In the early days of organized camping, most children in the United States lived in rural areas where the situation was natural and even primitive. There was little occasion for providing summer camps for their enjoyment and education, since the family was the significant social unit, and children enjoyed a variety of outdoor work and play experiences under the supervision of their parents or neighborhood leaders. However, as the majority of the population gathered under crossed conditions in urban centers, the social unit expanded until the school and the municipality assumed many of the responsibilities and much of the authority formerly residing within the family (Patty, 1938). Thus, camping represented a particularly American solution to the question of children's socialization in modernity as traditional systems of socialization became less powerful in shaping young people's lives (Paris, 2008).

Much of the enthusiasm leading to organized camping's origins and eventual popularity can be traced to Harvard University graduate Henry David Thoreau, who chose to live for several years in a rustic Massachusetts cabin. As he explained in his memoir, Walden, published in 1854, "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life" (Thoreau, 1854). Thoreau's writing encouraged other publications, specif ically ones for young boys, that epitomized the nostalgia many Americans felt for the rural farm life being eroded by increased urbanization (Ward, 1935). In the second half of the 1800s, nature enthusiasts and educators experienced the modern world around them as one of rapid, sometimes confusing, and potentially deleterious changes, and responded by recreating what had been lost in the transition. Reminiscent, the campfires of the wagoneers were scarcely cold when Frederick William Gunn, a schoolmaster of Connecticut, set out in 1861 with all his boys in the wilderness to found the Gunnery Camp — widely recognized as the first organized summer camp — at Welch's point, not far from New Haven (Solomon, 1930; Joy, 1936; Eells, 1986).

Camping as Schooling

While contemporary ideas of camps and schools symbolize different months of the year, historically the learning seasons have been less discrete. In fact, the evolving American school calendar is probably the most distinctive reason for why the summer camp successfully originated and thrived as it did. In pioneer America, children were educated as they lived on farms and learned to help adults with necessary farm work. Schools were introduced for only three months in the winter to supplement the daily education of farm and village life with "book learning." The school, with its emphasis on fundamental academic skills, at first merely a supplement to education, gradually came to assume that it was the whole of education.

Eventually school terms were lengthened. By the time people moved into cities, children no longer had occasion to help their parents during the summer, but the school calendar had become fixed in custom and schools continued to close in the summer (Ward, 1935). Summers not only became vast resources of unstructured space and time, the season also gave camp educators an opening to offer learning opportunities not available in schools. Camps became intentional learning venues for young people and the adults who directed and counseled them.

Gunn was not alone in his role as educatorturned- camp director. Contemporaries included Earnest Berkeley Balch who established Camp Chocorua in 1881. Mr. Balch deliberately planned his camp "to meet special educational needs," of campers, according to his statement published in an edition of Porter Sargent's Handbook of Summer Camps (Sargent, 1935; Gibson 1936). John Dewey, perhaps the most well known educator of this era, never mentioned camps specifically, yet shared in the nostalgia for an earlier, pre-industrial era in which young Americans had purportedly been more meaningfully socialized within their communities. In widely read books such as The School and Society (1899) and Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey emphasized children's play as deeply meaningful in developmental terms, and he argued for a system of education better fitted to the needs of children. In Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, Leslie Paris (2008) documents that while Dewey focused on formal schooling, many other progressive educators "saw camps as superior environments . . . . In schools, they argued, other pressures such as testing and the need to teach basic skills mitigated against creative play" (p. 237).

The "Early" Education Era in Camping

The educational stage in camping is typically thought to have been between 1920– 1950 (James, 2009). This is perhaps because many camp leaders were also educators, and the growing popularity of the progressive education movement (the Progressive Education Association, founded in 1919, enjoyed its greatest success during the interwar years) gave this philosophy widespread visibility within camping circles (Paris, 2008).

However, history points to several earlier references to the learning experiences of boys and girls during the summer. Educator C. Hanford Henderson, founder of Camp Marienfeld on the Upper Delaware River in 1896, planned a "study camp" that would combine a formal curriculum with outdoor recreation. Over time, he later wrote, he realized what a "novel and magnificent educational opportunity" camps represented (Paris, 2008).

Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the educative value of camping was a much talked about subject in American periodicals (Lewis, 1905; Talbot, 1905), including an article describing New York City's "vacation schools" exhibition in 1903, which noted, "the civic pride was stimulated by personally conducted excursions to historic points out of school hours. And the training of eye and hand, however important, was only a part of the mental and ethical development of these little citizens" (Camp, 1903, p. 474). By the nineteen-teens, the popular press sensed campers' love of the outdoors and documented the learning opportunities camps offered. Outlook magazine ran a piece on "Life In A Girls' Camp" recognizing that "[c]amp life gives a girl . . . a good store of knowledge as a preparation for her academic work" (Coale, 1914). Other mainstream magazines such as Good Housekeeping (Gulick, 1912; MacFarlane, 1914) and Redbook (Mason, 1930) extolled the educational virtues of this relatively new summer fad: camp.

The Intellectualization of Camping

By the early part of the twentieth century, organized camping in the United States had become somewhat of an institution, in large part because of the significant approval afforded to the industry by leading academic institutions in addition to favorable stories in the popular press. Perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of how popular culture merged with academic endorsement came in 1928, when the publishers of Redbook offered a "prize and book publication for a constructive and creative contribution to the theory and practice of organized camping" (Mason, 1930). A Committee of Award for the prize was comprised of some leading educators from distinguished universities, including Professor Elbert K. Fretwell: Teachers College, Columbia Univ.; Professor John M. Brewer: Harvard Univ.; Professor Mark May: Yale Univ.; Professor Jay B. Nash: New York Univ.; and Professor J.C. Elsom: Univ. of Wisconsin. Several manuscripts were submitted for the prize and the committee selected Bernard S. Mason for his manuscript "Camping and Education: Camp Problems from the Campers' Viewpoint," which was eventually published in 1930 by The McCall Company.

Many of the early camp directors shared common values with progressive educators in recognizing the educational potential of the summer camp experience. Several camp counselors or directors went on to study the benefits of camp at the country's leading institutions and published works of their findings (Elwell, 1925; Dimock & Hendry, 1929; Mason, 1930; Sharp, 1930; Lieberman, 1931; Ward, 1935). Collectively, they reasoned the emphasis on creating healthy bodies and minds had only limited success within classroom walls, and camps seemed suitable venues for literally living out the promises of meaningful education. Leading educators, including Dewey himself, emphasized process and creative learning, and they exerted considerable influence. After he joined the philosophy department at Columbia University in New York in 1906, Dewey's foremost spokesman in the camping movement was William Heard Kilpatrick, chair of the Philosophy of Education Department and one of the advisers to the Pioneer Youth Camp project (Paris, 2008). Kilpatrick also wrote the introductions to two of the earliest studies of camping and education: Camping and Character (1929) and Creative Camping (1931).

The influence of Columbia University's Teachers College was focused in The Family Consultation Bureau and Child Development Institutes housed on campus. In the 1930s, the Bureau and Institute's involvement with camps was evident with the publishing of "Summer Camps: A guide for parents" (Van Wagenen, 1935), which accused schools of inheriting "a set of habits and attitudes that tend to make it not an educational institution, but a certification agency." The authors surmised, "the school considers itself as a place in which to get young people to pass examinations," and believed camps to be at least part of the solution: "[B]ecause camps have the child twenty-four hours of the day and partly because they are not bound by tradition as are the schools, they have even a better chance than the schools to do a really educative job" (p. 5–6).

On March 17, 1930, Teachers College was also the site of a major policy address on the importance of camping in the field of education. Ben Solomon's speech "Camping as a National Movement" was later printed in the March issue of Camp Life, establishing f ive comprehensive values of camping: recreational, physical up-building, character-building, educative, and spiritual (p. 15–16). Qualitative examples of how the teaching of mathemat ics, geography, and history are greatly enhanced for young people in the camp setting were a major feature of Solomon's argument.

Based on the enthusiasm of intellectuals in the education field, school systems and organizations rushed to link themselves to the organized camping movement. The American Camp Association (ACA) described "very favorable rapport" with the American Council on Education, the Progressive Education Association, and the National Education Association (Twining, 1938). As the 1940s began, Kilpatrick (1942) published The Role of Camping in Education Today, characterizing how many intellectuals of the time felt about learning and camping: "We learn what we live, only what we live, and everything we live," suggesting "the camp can thus spread a more adequate ideal of education" (p. 20–21).

The Golden Age of School-Camp Partnerships

In 1938, the leading international professional education organization, Phi Delta Kappa, devoted an entire issue of Kappan Magazine to camping, predicting "In all probability the educationist of the year 2000 AD will look back upon us and wonder why we, the school people of 1938, failed to include the camp as an integral unit of our educational system" (Schorling, 1938, p. 114). Yet, in their May 10, 2010 commentary in Education Week, the nation's leading educational news sources, Ron Fairchild and Jeff Smink, claimed "the summer months are the last frontier of school reform," neglecting to account for the earlier efforts of school systems all over the country to fill the summer void with camp programs.

According to the Uni ted St ate s Department of Education, camping as a function of the public school system had its beginning in 1912. At that time, the Visiting Nurses Association in Dubuque, Iowa, established a summer camp for malnourished school children, and that association, in cooperation with the board of education of that city, conducted the camp. By 1929, the superintendent of schools for Philadelphia included in his annual report a recommendation for the establishments of camps for all school children (Ready, 1933).

A 1933 study commissioned by the US Office of Education of cities with populations of 30,000 or more found camps were maintained or directed by boards of education of city public schools in six cities — Chicago, Illinois; Dearborn, Michigan; Jersey City, New Jersey; and La Crosse, Oshkosh, and West Allis, Wisconsin. Additionally, among the cities in which camps were maintained for school children by outside agencies cooperating with school authorities were: Fresno, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Washington, DC; Macon, Georgia; Jacksonville, Florida; East Aurora, Harrisburg, and Joliet, Illinois; Dubuque, Iowa; Boston, Quincy, and Revere, Massachusetts; Battle Creek, Detroit, Highland Park and Kalamazoo, Michigan; Kansas City, Missouri; Butte, Montana; Camden and Irvington, New Jersey; Binghamton, Buffalo, Rochester, S chenec t ady, a nd Ut ic a, Ne w York ; Cleveland Heights and Lakewood, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Austin, Texas; Seat t le, Washington; and Madi son, Wisconsin (Ready, 1933). In some cities, the camps were maintained only during the summer months. In other cities they were maintained throughout the entire year.

In May 1947, the National Association of Secondary School Principals devoted an entire issue of their bulletin to camping and education in response to the popularity of incorporating camp programs in other major school districts. The San Diego City- County Camp Commission in 1946 gave the use of a camp to the school children of the community, namely Camp Cuyamaca in the state park. The school board of Parker District, Greenville, South Carolina, owned one hundred acres of land, which were used for camping; and the Atlanta, Georgia, public schools, since 1938, conducted a May and October program. In 1946, even the venerable New York City Department of Education itself established a "camp committee" by the board of superintendents based on a 1937 state law empowering boards of education to operate camps as a part of the school program (New York City Department of Education, 1948). The committee quickly assembled a program and embarked on a study to answer the following questions:

  • Is educational camping an effective medium for meeting the objectives of education?
  • Is educational camping a unique medium for extending pupils' experiences in living together democratically?
  • Should camping education be integrated into the school program? (Education, 1948)

Despite this early experiment, it would not be until 1998, with twenty camps and 1,500 children, that the Break-Aways Partnerships for Year-Round Learning program in New York City would quickly became a model for school-camp partnerships focused on educational reform. Within four years, the Break-Aways program had grown to include more than 10,000 students attending 100 camps throughout the New York region before being dissolved by the New York City Department of Education in 2001 (ACA, n.d.).

The New Frontier

Camps and the summers they occupy have served as landscapes of learning for many generations of campers, although the movement has not necessarily enjoyed the legitimacy it deserves. A 1938 article by Robert D. Seltzer acknowledges how then, as now, "Camping . . . is struggling to become recognized as an important factor in the education of youth" (p. 135). Despite tremendous momentum during the first half of this century by leaders in education and camping, little reference to camping's educational importance appeared after 1950, until a recent resurgence after the turn of the twenty-first century (James, 2009).

Current work to demonstrate youth development outcomes of the camp experience (Thurber, 2007) could not come soon enough to buttress ACA's advocacy for holistic educational reform in Washington, DC (Smith, 2009). Just this last summer, the ACA partnered with the National Summer Learning Association to advocate "National Summer Learning Day," since camp for 150 years, more than any other institution, has offered a vital setting for learning and living. With the summer school surge on the horizon, there not only needs to be greater collaboration between camp organizations and educational institutions, but also recognition of camp's golden era as a factor in education.

Summers will always belong to children, yet vacations need not carry the connotation of being unlikely places for learning, most notably for those underserved in the classroom. While schools are typically charged with academically enhancing our capacity to live and work in an everchanging society, there are important lessons to be learned from the role camp has played in America's educational past. As the current debate in education reform increasingly focuses on summer, camps are once again gaining much deserved recognition as vital summer learning venues, most notably from those who are in a position to make the promise as real as the past.

Milestones of Organized Camping and American Education

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Lance Ozier is education coordinator at Project Morry (Morry's Camp) and instructor in teacher education at Teachers College, Columbia University and The City College of New York. In 2010, Ozier was appointed to a three-year-term on the American Camp Association's national Committee for the Advancement for Research and Evaluation (CARE). Contact the author at Lanceozier@teacher.com.

The author would like to thank Julie Anderson and John Cash at ACA and Katie Kennedy at Teachers College, Columbia University, for their diligence in helping to identify, recover, and research material for this article.

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