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A History of Summer Camp

Updated: 2011-07-23 14:45:34



If you think about it, overnight camping is a somewhat strange concept.  As civilization evolved, people built shelters, walls, and eventually towns and cities to shield themselves from the savage wilderness and the uncertainty of nature.  Why, then, would people pay money to leave the safety of civilization and go back into the wilderness?  Because city folk increasingly appreciated the beauty of nature and the wholesome purity of country living.  Simply put, organized camping in the United States was a response to increasing urbanization.  Parents wanted their children to spend school vacations in lush natural settings that promoted physical health.  Also integral to a positive camping experience were upstanding cabin leaders who instilled solid values through their own sterling examples.  Although building young people’s character through organized camping began as a romantic notion, it evolved into a robust institution that truly practices what it preaches.

William Frederick Gunn and his wife Abigail were the originators of organized overnight camping.  The Gunns were headmasters of the Gunnery School, a private school in Connecticut.  In the summer of 1861, they took a group of kids into the wilderness along Long Island Sound for two weeks.  At this original summer camp, activities included hiking, boating, fishing, and sailing.

Early campers, like those at the Gunnery Camp, played sports, told stories, and learned about living in the outdoors.  There were some big differences though, between early overnight camps and the ones we have today.  For example, instead of driving or flying to camp, some kids had to travel by train for several days to get to camp.  Fancy sports facilities were rare and some activities, such as water-skiing, didn’t even exist.  Some basic equipment, such a toilet, was also rare.  Often, campers had to dig their own latrines.  Another significant difference was that camps were generally more religious than they are now.  In part, this was because the YMCA, a traditionally Christian organization, sponsored many early camps.

Overnight camping turned out to be a fantastic way to spend the summer.  Kids had a lot of fun, and parents saw the positive influence that camps had on their children.  For these reasons, the popularity of camps grew quickly.  Only a few dozen camps were operating by the 1880s, but by 1900, that number had grown to several hundred.  Most of the early camps, many of which are still operating, were located in the Northeast and upper Midwest.


The early linkage between morality (or “character building” as it’s often called) and summer camping can be seen in the following 1905 quote by camping advocate Dr. Winthrop Tisdale Talbot:


In cultivating general morality and kindly behavior the camps are helped chiefly through their usefulness in making boys strong vitally, in improving their power of digestion, in increasing their lung capacity, in letting the sunshine pour upon every portion of their bared bodies.

It’s not fair, but boys got to go to camp first, just as Talbot’s quote suggests.  Fortunately, by about 1910, when the American Camping Association began, more girls camps had formed.  Over the next few decades, camps evolved into something similar to what we have today.  About 50% of the camps in America are coed, 30% are all-girls, and 20% are all-boys.

Military traditions and Native American culture both influenced early camps.  Groups such as the Boy Scouts adopted military structures, and so did many camps sponsored by the Scouts.  Bugle calls, uniforms, mess halls, and military-style daily schedules became part of most overnight camps.  These military traditions are still in use at many camps across the country.  Most camps that keep these traditions don’t try to be Army boot camps for kids.  However, the military legacies have survived because a regimented structure is indispensable to managing the activities and whereabouts of hundreds of children.

The biggest proponent of Native American culture in camping was naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton.  Seton had been an early pioneer in the Boy Scouts, but after living with Native American tribes for many years he decided to pursue and promote a different approach to camping.  With the blessings of his host tribes, Seton took it upon himself to visit many camps and promote his “Woodcraft League of America.”  The Woodcraft League of America celebrated Native American values for all Americans.  Seton’s books and practices became well-known in the camping world, and at one point, the Woodcraft League of America was even more popular than the Scouts.

Woodcraft teaches young people how to survive in the woods, respect nature, and live harmoniously with all of God’s creations.  Today, fewer than a dozen camps in the country still perform the weekly Woodcraft ceremony as designed by Seton and his Native American friends.  Although many camps continue to use Native American names, motifs, and costumes in their programs, this cultural assimilation ranges from the respectful to the absurd.  Despite drifting away from authentic Native American traditions, many camps still have a natural setting and an educational philosophy that promotes healthy environmental values.


Camping continued to grow rapidly throughout the first half of the 20th century.  Before World War II, camping was seen as a natural extension of the educational system, a way for young people to use the summer months to build useful skills.  Academic subjects were routinely taught and campers could get tutoring from the staff, most of whom were local college students.

During this period camping became less of an exclusively middle-class activity.  Parents of all classes saw camping as beneficial to child development, not just as a retreat from the evils of the city.  In 1922, Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot declared, “The organized summer camp is the most important step in education that America has given the world.”

In the two decades after World War II, from about 1945 to 1965, overnight camping in the United States became as American as apple pie.  The reasons for this post-war growth are not clear.  Renowned camping historian Eleanor Eells notes several possible explanations, including the adventuresome spirit of a relieved post-war society, a growing economy, and the baby boom.  Whatever the combination of factors, camping became a hugely popular summer activity for American children.  Nevertheless, only about sixteen percent of the camper-aged population attended camp in any given year.  The opportunity was apparently still not accessible to all.

Strong moral development was always a goal of those who promoted the camping movement.  However, this goal shifted somewhat in light of World War II, the Korean War, and the increasingly hostile Cold War.  Adults focused their attention on developing children who were prepared citizens in an ever-changing world.  Witness the underlying message of this 1951 excerpt from camping enthusiast C.I. Hammett:


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