Can you believe that sexist practices and beliefs remain entrenched in camps, even in this day and age? Although we have made great strides over the last decade to eradicate overtly sexist behaviors (like sexual harassment), remnants of the beliefs that resulted in these past behaviors still emerge in various camps and camp practices. Are they still evident at your camp? You work so hard to provide an inclusive environment and to promote positive youth development for your campers. Are there things you can do that could eliminate gender stereotypes that get in the way of your goals? Is your camp part of the solution to the limitations posed by sexist stereotypes faced by both boys and girls?
While most — if not all — camp staff would easily agree that camps exist to promote positive youth development, some camps are blind to policies and practices that thwart their good intentions. These policies and practices are based in beliefs and stereotypes about what girls and boys do or like. Sadly, because of unexamined beliefs and stereotypes about boys and girls, many of these best-intentioned camps aren’t fully realizing the potential they have to make powerful differences in campers’ lives. But by using positive interactions between girls and boys and positive discussions about gender to decrease stereotypes, camps can promote positive youth development for all.
At a long-standing and well-regarded camp for youth with chronic illness a couple of years ago, I worked with a cabin of thirteen-year-old girls. Because of medications to treat her illness and depression, “Leila” was heavier than she wanted to be, often mentioned her weight in derogatory terms, and was taunted by other kids at school about her weight. Toward the end of the camp session, she asked me “Aren’t we going to play sports this week?” It turned out that no girls’ cabins had been scheduled for sports during the entire camp session. When I told Leila there wouldn’t be any sports, she crumpled in her disappointment and said, “Oh. Well, I was thinking it would be OK to play sports here at this camp. I don’t play sports at home because people make fun of me there. Too bad.”
Staff members at this camp held rigid beliefs that girls wanted to get makeovers and make crafts, while boys wanted to get dirty and play sports. So, they scheduled activities for boys and girls cabins based on those assumptions and a strong loyalty to “tradition.” As a result, some campers were prevented from engaging in certain activities based solely on their gender. Limitations like these can stifle development of personal, physical, and emotional skill development, as well as counteract efforts at positive youth development.
From an early age, children internalize beliefs about what boys or girls should do and like — from pink blankets for baby girls to sports equipment for little boys. Campers come to camp having already received years of messages about what is “right” for girls or boys. Does your camp help expand kids’ beliefs about their opportunities and responsibilities? For example, boys who clean up their cabins learn that cleaning is not someone else’s job. Girls who get to be in charge of the “camper council” learn how to lead and contribute to the camp. These are lifelong learning skills of value for all campers.
Many gender stereotypes are rooted in myths related to single-sex education. Contrary to popular belief, decades of empirical investigation into the benefits of single-sex education have shown no demonstrable benefits (Halpern, et al., 2011). However, research has demonstrated actual harms from single-sex education, particularly the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and prejudice that leads to later-in-life consequences such as choice of profession or career. Oftentimes, benefits erroneously attributed to single-sex education are actually produced by factors other than gender, such as parental education, economic status, selection effects, and additional intensive resources. Additionally, there are no physiological differences between girls’ and boys’ learning styles (Rivers & Barnett, 2011). Sex-segregated learning environments can also lead to boys viewing girls and women as inferior. While some camps may be OK with this worldview, many camps wish to be responsive to parents and caregivers who want their children to be equal. Most parents and caregivers want to cultivate egalitarian values in their children, help them learn how to get along with everyone, and not devalue nor overvalue anyone based on their gender.
What Can Camps Do to Resist or Relieve Gender Stereotypes?
Think about your camp and yourself, and answer these questions:
Assumptions about gender are often revealed by the presence of campers who are transgender (i.e., individuals who identify as a gender different from that of their biological sex, or see their gender identity as fluid and not conforming to the gender binary; [Holder, 2011]). The topic of transgender campers and staff has received increasing attention in the American Camp Association (ACA) since about 2008. ACA has been including more and more information about transgender campers, especially through training and reports from its Camp Crisis Hotline; there was one call about a transgender camper each in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. This highlights that camps in general are moving toward educating themselves and raising awareness of gender issues.
For example, in response to the need for education on this topic, Camping Magazine has included articles on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) campers and staff (“Don’t Assume I’m Straight,” November/December 2003), inclusion in camp (“Everybody’s In, Nobody’s Out!” May/June 2005), and transgender children (“Transgender Youth — The Role Camps Might Play,” September/October 2011). Moreover, educational sessions on LGBT campers and staff have been a fixture of national and regional conferences for several years, in large part because of the impassioned advocacy of camps serving youth and staff known to be LGBT. In October 2011, the Girl Scouts of Colorado spoke out in response to news media coverage of a transgender girl who wanted to join Girl Scouts but was rejected by a troop leader because she “had boy parts.” Their statement in support of transgender children said, “Girl Scouts is an inclusive organization and we accept all girls in kindergarten through twelfth grade as members. If a child identifies as a girl and the child’s family presents her as a girl, Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout” (GLAAD, 2011). Youth-serving camps and organizations are increasingly moving toward being places where gender stereotypes are diminished.
The Three Rs
Given that positive youth development and preparation for successful transition into adulthood are the rights of all youth, youth development contexts such as camp have the responsibility to provide supports and opportunities that are free of gender-based restrictions to growth and learning. I propose that summer camps fall into one of three categories of thinking about gender. There are those that reinforce gender stereotypes, those that resist gender stereotypes, and those that relieve gender stereotypes. These three categories derive from how individual camp cultures view gender, and how assumptions about gender factor in to the planning and implementation of camp programs.
Reinforcing camps are those that adhere to gender stereotypes. At these camps, girls are encouraged to participate in stereotypical girl activities such as makeup, art projects, singing, and dressing up. Boys are encouraged to play sports, be gross, cause mischief, and be competitive. Often, camp staff members and administration believe that their campers’ parents and families expect them to uphold gender stereotypes.
For example, many coed camps divide campers for sports or activity competitions, all-camp activities, color wars, and talent shows. One nationally affiliated nonprofit camp offers an entire session of this, called “Battle of the Best.” During “Girls vs. Boys Week,” daily spirit competitions and games all lead up to a field day and pink/blue dress up day. It’s hard to imagine why designating one gender as “the best” is meaningful to youth. If boys win, stereotypes get reinforced. If girls win, they get a false sense of “girl power.” If it’s a tie, calling the competitors “equal” ignores and erases important opportunities to talk about gender and why stereotypes exist and for what purpose. This camp program undermines the organization’s stated mission to provide opportunities for youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.
Other camps offer boys and girls separate and unequal activities. For example, I joined one camp’s evening activity called “Girls Night Out” in which older girls helped younger girl campers put on makeup and paint their nails in the dining hall. I watched two older girls fumble with the makeup and nail polish; they personally identified as “jocks” and had no idea how to engage in these stereotypical feminine activities. They gave up after a few minutes of noticeable discomfort, and went off by themselves. The boys, on the other hand, got to go on the ropes course, using only glow sticks for light. I left the activity as the two girls sadly and quietly looked out of the window at the boys having fun on the ropes course.
Some camp staff will explain these divisions as necessary because they believe that boys are interested in active and exploratory activities, and girls are interested in enhancing self-presentation. They believe that their campers wouldn’t even want to participate in the other gender’s activity, even if they were offered the opportunity to do so. By adhering to this belief, they convey subtle biases about “what boys do” and “what girls do” that artificially influ¬ence and distort campers’ so-called prefer¬ences. Naturally, campers are less likely to develop or express interest in an activity that is not available to them and that they are not empowered to try. Interest follows opportunity.
Occasionally, a camp may use gender stereotypes to embarrass or punish bad behavior. This typically occurs with boys, such as when counselors admonish boys by calling them “ladies,” or make boys act or dress as girls by wearing dresses or singing “girly” songs, as I witnessed at an otherwise high-quality camp a couple of years ago. The boys’ cabin had misbehaved, and as punishment, the counselor (a ten-plus-year veteran) made them get up on the stage in the dining hall to sing and act out the mo¬tions to “I’m a Little Teapot” (interpreted as a “girly” song) to the entire camp. Why is this wrong? This sanction assumes that being a girl is a punishment. Girls typically don’t have equivalent punishments because of the privileged status of being a boy in our society.
Camps can also reinforce gender ste¬reotypes in how they communicate with campers. For example, staff might call on boys first, listen to boys’ ideas more than girls’ ideas, and assign tasks based on gender stereotypes. Boys are often encouraged to light the fire and cook while girls are instructed to prepare the fire circle, gather firewood, and clean the dishes. As a result, both sexes miss out on the chance to learn a complete set of skills.
Resisting camps are those that pay attention to gender stereotypes and are conscientious about not replicating them. At these camps, both boys and girls are encouraged to participate in activities that are of interest to them, and competition is deemphasized. At coed camps, there is a lack of rigidly defined all-boys or all-girls activities. At single-sex camps, boys and girls are encouraged to try new things that might be considered appropriate for the other gender outside of camp.
When gender stereotypes emerge, staff are trained and empowered to bring awareness to them through examination and discussion. Campers in turn learn to integrate these norms and monitor their own reliance on and reaction to gender stereotypes. However, staff might conduct activities that are occasionally organized into all-girls or all-boys, allow same-sex friendship groups to form that exclude campers who don’t strongly identify as either girls or boys, and slip into conducting gender-stereotypical activities.
All-girls camps are often the site of resistance because they espouse explicit beliefs about the power of camp to provide girls with opportunities that they typically would not have in co-ed environments. They often emphasize outcomes related to leadership, conf idence, and safety. Philosophies of these girl-serving resisting camps typically include an explicit approach to providing, as one camp states, “a safe space to explore, embrace, and understand their unique identity and purpose.” At another all-girls camp, promotional materials state, when a girl is “free of any self-consciousness that might happen at school, other social settings, or at a coed camp, you get to concentrate on skill-building, personal growth, and having fun changing your world!” I do believe these are very worthy goals, indeed. It is important for campers to feel comfortable at camp in order to build skills and self-esteem. But I do think it would be wonderful if campers could also experience these things in a gender-inclusive setting.
The few boys-only camps that question stereotypes about boys needing to show themselves as physically strong, unemotional, and competitive typically do so as part of a larger approach to social justice education. For example, in a facilitated discussion on a ropes course activity that requires a variety of participation or leadership styles that transcend gender stereotypes, boys might discuss how gender expectations keep them from doing what they want to do. While more information is needed to fully understand the program philosophies of these boys-only camps and how they resist gender stereotypes about boys, we do know that gender stereotypes affect boys as well as girls (i.e., Schmalz & Kerstetter, 2006), suggesting the importance of additional research and program development in this regard.
Relieving camps are those that integrate a gender-free approach to programming and supervision. Terms such as girls and boys are rarely if ever used; instead, the preferred terms are campers or kids. Opportunities to transcend gender are integrated throughout the camp’s philosophy, training, hiring, supervision, and programming. Campers are encouraged to participate in all activi¬ties, and judgments or expectations about activities and interests based on stereotypes are missing. Instead, staff model social interactions that are gender-neutral, and encourage campers’ individual interests in activities and positive characteristics. Comparisons, competition, and activities commonly associated with either boys or girls are missing. Relieving camps might provide privacy on an individual rather than gender-group basis, such as through single-person restrooms, showers, and changing areas and other forms of “universal design.” Communication with parents and families is open and clear about their inclusive policies and their dedication to ensuring developmental opportunities and camp experiences that are not limited by gender stereotypes.
Here is an example of an eight-year-old boy at a day camp. Even though he was clear in his self-identification as a boy, he enjoyed putting on makeup, dressing up, and being around the girls, rather than playing sports with the boys. The boys mostly ignored him, but the girls were thrilled to have another playmate in their group. At first, the male staff wanted him to “man up” and play sports with the boys, but the female staff were warm and nurturing of his efforts to make new friends with the girls and try new activities. The staff at the camp talked together about how to handle the situation and determined that the point of the program was for kids to have fun and make new friends. As such, they decided to stop encouraging him to play sports and interact with the boys and suggested that he play with whomever he wished. This child loved going to the camp, and his parents were glad that he could be in such a safe space that welcomed him, especially because he endured taunts in school. This example demonstrates that camps don’t have to have a particular focus or mission on gender to act as a relieving camp. The staff could have reacted to that camper in ways that reinforced stereotypes, but instead chose to relieve them.
One relieving camp’s philosophy is to provide transgender and gender-variant youth with a camp experience in which they can express gender however they are comfortable and connect with others in similar situations. This residential camp follows all standard camp practices such as high levels of supervision and a focus on fun. One difference is that cabins are divided by age group, not gender, which for this camp is a more meaningful way to manage groups of youth because of the camp’s culture and parental beliefs. Another camp’s philosophy is to provide a safe space for “unconventional” and diverse youth to create support networks to develop coping and advocacy skills.
Relieving camps that promote gender-integration rather than separation may promote benefits beyond just exposing campers to diverse activities. Research has shown that girls with older brothers show more interest in sports (Whiteman, et al., 2007), for example. These positive outcomes associated with mixed-sex groups are ones that most parents and camps would agree are important for their kids.
An Opportunity for Camps
Camps have the opportunity and flex¬ibility to support the relief of gender stereotypes. As a cherished source of childhood memories, camps should focus on providing positive youth development for all youth without reliance on gender stereotypes in making programming and policy decisions. Camps can be contexts for liberation and freedom from toxic gender roles. With gender-based bullying and harassment on the rise (Hill & Kearl, 2011), camp can provide youth a safe place from these pressures and risks as they learn and practice skills to become resilient, caring, and effective in their communities.
Things to Think About
GLAAD. (26 October 2011). Girl Scouts of Colorado released statement welcoming transgender youth. Retrieved from www.glaad.org/node/39044 .
Halpern, D. F., Eliot, L., Bigler, R. S., Fabes, R. A., Hanish, L. D., Hyde, J., Martin, C. L. (2011). The pseudoscience of single-sex schooling. Science, 333(6050), 1706-1707. doi: 10.1126/science.1205031
Hill, C., & Kearl, H. (2011). Crossing the line: Sexual harassment at school. Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women.
Holder, S. (2011). 20/20 Toolbox: Transgender youth — The role camps might play. Camping Magazine, 84(5).
Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Almerigi, J. B., Theokas, C., Phelps, E., Gestsdottir, S., et al. (2005). Positive youth development, participation in community youth development programs, and community contributions of fifth-grade adolescents: Findings from the first wave of the 4-H study of positive youth development. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(1), 17–71.
Rivers, C., & Barnett, R. C. (2011). The truth about girls and boys: Challenging toxic stereotypes about our children. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Schmalz, D. L., & Kerstetter, D. L. (2006). Girlie girls and manly men: Children’s stigma consciousness of gender in sports and physical activities. Journal of Leisure Research, 38(4), 536-557.
Whiteman, S. D., McHale, S. M., & Crouter, A. C. (2007). Explaining sibling similarities: Perceptions of sibling influences. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 36(7), 963-972. doi: 10.1007/s10964-006-9135-5
Ann Gillard, PhD, is an assistant professor of youth development at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Her teaching and research interests include program evaluation, mindfulness in summer camp staff, youth with HIV/AIDS, gender issues, and social justice. Ann was a camp director for the Girl Scouts and has worked and volunteered with youth programs for over thirteen years.
Originally published in the 2012 March/April Camping Magazine.