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Years of Adventures and Challenges: The History of Day Camp
Search the Web for "day camp" and the results are over 100 million hits. Although the descriptions vary greatly, the words "day camp" trigger a feeling of excitement and adventure. Many sites describe a variety of summer experiences as day camp . . . from summer craft classes at a hobby shop or a ballet day camp out of a home to a doggie day camp. This article focuses on the history of day camps as defined by the American Camp Association (ACA).
Day camp sessions are generally at least five days in length, but may be summer-long experiences. Campers go home to a parent or guardian each night, except for an occasional overnight. Day camp is principally oriented to providing programming for children during school vacation periods.
The Day Camp Adventures and Challenges of the Early Years
Organized camps have been in existence since 1861; however, in Eleanor Eells' The History of Organized Camping: The First 100 Years, day camp history is not as well documented or distinguished from resident camps. Some early day camps may have operated on public lands or rented properties, existed only for a short period, or were not well defined as a day camp. While it is impossible to include or compare all day camps or even know about those that have come and gone, there are some identifiable and interesting changes in day camp as noted in the examples of those included in this article. They are presented chronologically and many stories progress through the years.
Founded in 1918, Pierce Country Day Camp is believed to be the first documented day camp in the United States and one that has been continuously operated by the Pierce family for three generations. At the end of World War I, Forester Pierce ("Pop"), a young physical education teacher and coach, envisioned a unique summer recreation program for children that would instill them with a lifelong commitment to health and fitness. He rented a facility in Deal, New Jersey, and started his day camp. When he was offered a new position as athletic director at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, New York, he moved his wife and four sons and continued his camp on Long Island. Pop purchased a milk truck to transport campers from their homes. In the late 1930s he purchased property at the camp's current site in Roslyn, New York.
Soon after, a number of municipal and agency day camps began to operate. In Iowa, the Des Moines Playground Association operated a day camp with occasional overnights for six weeks in 1921. Also in 1921, the first Girl Scout day camp was started in Chicago as an idea inspired by Mrs. Herbert Hoover. A Girl Scout day camp was also held on a rooftop in New York City about the same time.
Other private day camps began to emerge as opportunities for teachers to continue an athletic or health and fitness program during the summer. In 1926, when John Cittadino, a teacher and swim coach in Asbury Park, founded Seashore Day Camp, the first day camp in New Jersey, he knew children needed a recreational program where they could interact with others during their summer break.
Like the Pierce Country Day Camp, other independent camps started that have now spanned three generations of single family ownership. In 1929, Camp Hillard was started as Westchester, New York's first day camp — beginning a tradition of excellence. Founded by Morris Libman, the Libman family has been providing children with active, safe, and memorable summers ever since.
Camp Mohawk was founded in 1930 by Glenn Loucks, a physical education teacher at White Plains High School in White Plains, New York. According to Steve Schainman, the current owner, it was started in a field owned by a church and then moved to a school. Campers were transported by bus twice a week to go swimming at a public pool.
Although records are unclear, the first known YMCA day camps appear to have been established in 1932. Both were founded in New York — one by the White Plains YMCA and the other, Camp Iroquois, by the Syracuse and Onondaga County Association. Camp Iroquois claims to be the oldest continually operated YMCA day camp in the country.
In the early years, youth agency day camps often had a paid staff member that coordinated the program with a group of volunteers trained to be the counseling and program staff.
The Heart of the Hawkeye Camp Fire Council started their first fun-at-home day camp for girls in Newton, Iowa, in 1931. The eight weekly day camp sessions had an assembly and athletics in the morning, followed by crafts in the afternoon. In 1933, a Summer Town Des Moines day camp program of eight one week sessions was started and continued until 1944, ending because there was difficulty finding women to volunteer during World War II.
Independent family-owned day camps often opened or partnered with a preschool or nursery school to operate a year-round service in their community. Many day camps continued to operate during the war. The director of Camp Mohawk, Glenn Loucks, joined the navy, and his wife Eleanor continued to direct the camp with other high school coaches. When he returned, the couple decided they wanted to own their own camp, and in 1948, they bought the Home School on thirty-nine acres. They moved the camp to the new location and united the Home School and Camp Mohawk. It is estimated that nearly one half of East Coast independent day camps have an affiliated nursery or preschool.
At Pierce Country Day Camp, Pop continued to run the camp with his youngest son while three of his sons were in the service. In 1948, as the camp grew, Pop realized he had to transport more campers; he purchased what is now the Pierce Coach Lines and began operating his first nursery school. The family business continued to grow and when his sons returned from the war, one took over management of the bus company. Pierce Coach Lines began providing bus service to all children attending Pierce Country Day School and Camp. It now operates approximately 130 busses daily, serving schools and camps in the area.
More Kids, More Adventure, and More Safety Concerns
After the war, both the population and day camp boomed. The YMCA National Yearbook first carried a reference to day camp in 1950, when 431 associations reported day camps with a total of 67,999 campers. By 1960, 811 associations reported a total of 171,989 boys and girls attended a YMCA day camp. Camp Fire USA reported 252 day camps in 1952, compared with 95 in 1948. However, as property became more valuable, some day camps had to give way to encroachment and zoning issues.
Standards for day camps were established in the 1950s by many national youth agencies including the Girl Scouts of the USA, the YMCA, and Camp Fire Girls. In 1956, the ACA adopted its first set of Standards for day camp.
Day camp was looked upon first as an alternative to resident camp. Some independent day camp owners affiliated with a resident camp to provide older campers with a sleep away experience. Others bought deteriorating resident camp properties in high density locations to remodel as day camps.
In 1961, A. Viola Mitchell and Ida B. Crawford stated in their book Camp Counseling that one of the most recent spurts in camping was in the realm of day camping — there were over 1,000 privately operated day camps in the United States as well as 3,000 sponsored by groups.
Irving M. Cowle, in his book Day Camping, published in 1964, said: "The day-camping profession is just beginning to grow; I would estimate that almost 50 percent of such ventures in our country have been started within the past five years. There's tremendous potential. An opportunity exists here for every qualified individual, possessed with a love for camping and a sincere desire to be part of this wonderful, burgeoning field."
When Steve Schainman was a Camp Mohawk counselor in 1951, the camp program was a simple operation. There were only two lifeguards (now there are more than seventy-five) and a handful of group counselors that did the entire program with their groups. In 1965, he became director, and soon after — like many other camps — he started adding some specialty programs.
The Adventure Continues as the Day Camp Market Expands
Many new day camps were started during the 1970s as the need for quality affordable day care grew. In the forward of the Day Camp Program Book by Virginia W. Musselman, Charles C. Kujawa, national director, YMCA Program and Camping Services stated, "Day [c]amping continues to grow by leaps and bounds as the nation's families demand constructive day care opportunities for the two-parent working family as well as for the one-parent working family, both of which have increased very noticeably in number during the 1970s. [. . .] Day camping is an integral part of this swiftly growing demand for quality day care. [. . .] [It] has come of age in its own right as one of the formidable components in organized camping."
Other youth agencies and religiously affiliated day camps, including the Salvation Army day camps, grew dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s, the Girl Scout day camps outnumbered their resident camps.
Each camp is unique and not all independent day camps followed the same program trends. Tom Sawyer Camps in Laguna Beach, California, was founded as an independent resident camp in 1926. In 1944, the camp moved to Pasadena, California, and changed to a day camp format. In 1974, Michael and Sally Horner purchased the camp. The camp is operated under an agreement with the Pasadena Water and Power department and in a flood control basin. Sarah Horner, Mike and Sally's daughter and the current director, explained that the program has always offered reinforcement from caring counselors, shared adventures with friends, and opportunities to hike, build secret forts, and get dirty. While it is located in the city, there is no electricity, nor are there permanent facilities at the camp.
In 1974, the Villaplano family became involved in Seashore Day Camp when the previous owner/founder died. The program is now known as a sports specialty camp with water sports and other activities led and coached by professional athletes. In the theater camp, campers put on a full scale production, go to Broadway plays, and take workshops with the stars in the shows they see.
In the late 1970s, some resident camps began adding day camp to their programs. An independent, nonprofit camp owned by the Franciscan Brothers, Camp Alvernia, in Centerport, New York, has a proud history of 120 years of serving children, youth, and families. In the late 1970s, in response to an increase in population in the area, they added day camp as an entry level for younger campers in their local community. Ben Esposito, current director, said of the times: "the counselors could always tell who the day campers were because they were a lot cleaner." Because of demand, difficulty staffing the resident camp, and the desire to become coed and serve the local community, Camp Alvernia dropped its resident camp program and became entirely a day camp in 1991.
Change in Day Camp Program and Campers
By the 1980s, with the increasing number of families with two adults working, day camp was no longer a discretionary experience for many. To accommodate single and working parents, many nonprofits added extra hours — both at the beginning and end of the day — for child care, thus meeting an important and growing national need. Most camps had programs that were a week in length but more campers were staying multiple sessions. While some independent camps offered extended hours as needed, they often worked to address the specific needs of their client group with door-todoor transportation, or scheduled early or late afternoon care pick-up.
In the early 1980s, YMCA began offering multipurpose day camps to attract a wider age range of children and to give children more choices. One and two week specialty camps kept children coming into their teen years. At the same time, some day camps began serving younger children, with half- and full-day programs for children as young as three years old.
In her 1980 book, The Day Camp Program Book, Virginia Musselman stated: "Today's child grows up under many pressures . . . so that the child is pushed rapidly into maturity. [. . .] The day camp is uniquely qualified to offset and relieve such pressures. It is relaxed, informal, and noncompetitive, yet stimulating and adventurous. Day camping does not have to cling to the coattails of resident camping or to the apron strings of the playground. It has its own unique contributions to make — to home and community, to education and conservation, but most of all, to childhood."
Agency camps also cited many changes in the 1990s. Some day camps integrated their resident and day camps on one site. According to Mary Helen Franko, director, YMCA Camp Grady Spruce began day camp at their resident camp in the early 2000s. Upon arrival the campers are integrated into age appropriate resident camp groups. Agencies expanded the number of camps they operated in a community. The Heart of the Hawkeye Camp Fire Day Camp Program in Des Moines, Iowa operated eight to ten different day camps that ran from nine to eleven weeks each. Some of these camp programs were more traditional day camps and some were a collaboration or community partnership, such as the Zoo Camp that partnered with a local zoo to provide animal education. The YMCA, like many agency camps, added more specialization to their programs, especially for older campers. Additions such as language and math enrichment, computer use, journalism, leadership, science, and photography became commonly offered programs. Some programs were designed to prepare teens for the changing work force by a more effective use of the CIT program. More flexibility was often allowed in the day selection, allowing parents to bring kids to camp two or three days a week and pay accordingly. Agency volunteer staff were often replaced with paid staff.
By 1999, some agency day camps reported 75 percent of the parents who enrolled children in day camp needed full-day care. Many agencies that have day camps also have after-school programs. Chicago YMCA High Ridge Day Camp director Jill Gimshaw stated that the camp began operating one-week day camp sessions in the 1950s, and today the season is thirteen weeks long — and most of the campers enroll for the entire summer. At the same time, independent camps are reporting that parents are requesting shorter enrollment choices to provide for family vacations, variety, or the opportunity to choose a shorter specialty so their child can attend more than one camp.
Day camps serve a population that has fairly close access to the camp. In the last fifteen years there have been major cultural shifts in some communities served by day camps. The attitudes and values of the new population may not be interested in day camp. They may want more of an academic or other emphasis, or require more modern facilities such as heated pools and air-conditioned buildings.
Keeping the Adventure, Addressing the Challenges
Day camps vary in how they have addressed new social issues and the current economic conditions. To meet the competition, some day camps have added one or more new programs a year. Pierce Country Day Camp is under the third generation of family ownership/directorship. Doug and Forrester Pierce, their wives Marie and Kathy, and Doug's daughter Courtney now lead the camp. The core values have not changed, and swimming and sports are still the backbone of the program. Some programs are in a constant state of change. For example, in the 1980s and '90s, karate was popular; now it is dance and yoga. Leather making has changed into an Imagination Station where campers can choose what they want to do.
With the recent emphasis on environmental concerns and nature experiences for children, camps often strive to maintain their tie with a more rustic environment. Tom Sawyer Day Camps builds secret forts in the Oak Grove Area and the flood control basin. They also offer four quality after school programs for elementary school and junior high students of Pasadena Polytechnic School.
Parent expectations have changed in the past ten years. They are more anxious and more aware of best practices, health and behavior concerns, healthy foods, and what their child is feeling on a daily basis. The number of children with allergies has increased. Some camps operate as peanut free camps. Staff are expected to be trained in emergency use of EpiPens and Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) available at the day camp. If the economic situation in a family changes, parents may be forced to seek a less expensive opportunity, and even long-term campers will follow their friends to another camp.
Although camps often ask campers to "unplug" while they are at camp and leave their cell phones at home, parents expect directors to answer their questions on a timely basis. Their children share their daily camp experiences at home each night. Some day camps assign staff to phones at the close of each day to respond to calls from parents. Partnering with parents and good customer service are not just nice — they are expected practices for today's consumers.
In her article "Why Day Camp?", Marla Coleman, past national president of ACA, wrote: "Reminiscent of less complicated days, when people connected with nature, thrived on inter-generational relationships, and made new discoveries, everything [in day camp] is designed and scaled to ensure that children feel included, cared about, and capable. Children learn life skills and behaviors that become habits of the heart. [A]fter all, there is a camp for everyone — and that might well be day camp!"
Ball, A., & Ball, B. (2009). Basic camp management (7th ed.). American Camp Association.
Coleman, M. (2008). Why day camp? Retrieved from www.CampParents.org/newsletter/0803/article3
Cowle, I. M. (1964) Day camping. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company.
Eells, E. (1986). The history of organized camping: The first 100 years. American Camp Association.
Mitchell, A. V., & Crawford, I. B. (1961). Camp counseling. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders
Musgrove, M., Pohl, M. M., & Peters, S. (1985). The Story of Camp Fire and the Heart of the Hawkeye Council 1910-1985. Heart of the Hawkeye Council of Camp Fire, Inc.
Musselman, V. W. (1980). Day camp program book. Chicago, IL: Follett Publishing Company.
National Council of Young Men's Christian Associations of the United States of America. (1999). YMCA day camp manual. (Adapted from Turner, E. A., Jr.  100 Years of YMCA Camping.)
Author's Note: Information for this article was also gathered from over 100 day camp Web sites that shared information about their specific history.
Connie Coutellier is currently the director of training for National Camp Fire USA, a former ACA director of professional development, ACA national president, and chair of the National Standards Board. Her books include Risk and Crisis Management Planning, The Outdoor Book, Camp is for the Camper, and Day Camp from Day One. She has directed resident and day camps in three states and Malaysia and consulted and trained throughout the US and internationally. Contact the author at connie. firstname.lastname@example.org.
This information could not have been written without the help of these camp professionals: Steve and Barb Schainman, Camp Mohawk, White Plains, New York; Ben Esposito, Camp Alvernia, Franciscan Brothers, Centerport, New York; Mary Helen Franko, YMCA Camp Grady Spruce, Dallas, Texas; DD Gass, Camp Fire USA Day Camps, National Headquarters, Kansas City, Missouri; Donna Nye, Retired, Girl Scout National Headquarters, New York, New York; Cynthia Moore, Girls Scouts, San Diego, California; Sarah Horner, Tom Sawyer Camps, Pasadena, California; Doug Pierce, Pierce Country Day Camp, Roslyn, New York; and Jill Gimshaw, Chicago YMCA High Ridge Day Camp, director,Chicago, Illinois.