American Camps Tradition: Birth to Present

Gelena Blishteyn
Written by
for Camps USA
American Camps Tradition: Birth to Present

Summer camps for children have gained so much status in United States over the years, it is now equally important to year-round enrichment choices, and often, more important than formal schooling for children's social development.  However, camps in America have had a longstanding reputation of being coveted places for children to attend since before the turn of the twentieth century. As the booming cities at the center of United States culture began to develop during the late 1800s, more families began to recognize the importance of 'fresh air' and the outdoors for their children's health. Parents of the time were intent on providing their children with an escape from their "unclean" urban lives. Cities were overcrowded, with high instances of diseases like TB and lots of factories emissions. Camps were in the "mountains," with fresh air and shade. 

During these times, camps were run by families, who took their and other children for the much needed respite. Progressively, camps grew into larger facilities with hired counselors and other staff. Gradually, camps began to evolve into methodically educational places during the mid-1900s, created with a new purpose of instilling morals and mental development into children during their breaks from regular education. Young children, especially boys, were sent to camps during that critical era of change to learn how to become upstanding citizens of America through various tasks and skill-building activities. The evolution of camps from their focus on being natural getaways into becoming prime areas for out-of-school learning has been a developing occurrence for over a century.

In the past three decades or so, camps have shown rapid evolution to keep up with the focus of the respective time period. In the 1980s, summer camps became a hot commodity for families; children would frequently beg their parents to be sent to one of the more popular overnight facilities. The typical camp in the 1980s and 1990s would focus on wholesome activities such as crafts, outdoor exercise, and building of a sense of community. Although there were a few camps with certain specialties, such as diet and future career camps, they were the minority at the time. Camps during the 1980s and 1990s were beginning to become coeducational facilities with a more modern take on society with a focus on personal development. It is during the last three decades that camps became traditions, often, with several generations in one family attending the same summer camp. 

Camps' financial structures have also changed over time. Though there have always been a variety of benefactors to run camps and keep their finances afloat. When camps were just beginning to sprout up in America, the majority of them were privately run by families or a very small number of people. Since then, summer camps have become an industry, with numerous religious organizations and other groups creating them to aid children, as well as to add their own set of beliefs to the camps' agenda. Camps usually are very upfront about their mission, and it is highly recommended when a family is choosing a camp, to ensure that their personal beliefs are congruent with the camp's mission statement. Mission-driven camps and other nonprofits are becoming increasingly more common, while family-run camps either die out or hire a large number of unrelated staff to assist with the children and the facilities. Mission-driven camps tend to offer scholarships and financial assistance to the children that attend, and they primarily focus on bettering their charges. Private and non-profit camps both still flourish in America, though they tend to reach different concentrations of children.

In the present era, summer camps in the United States are on the upraise. (See article about current summer camps trends). Numerous studies have begun to show that children benefit considerably from summer camps, gaining essential experience and lasting social abilities. According to the American Camp Association, the number of day camps in the United States has grown by almost 90 percent in the past two decades. Progressively more families are beginning to realize the special skills and mental development that summer camps can give children. Summer camps have been a cultural part of the United States since the mid 1900s, and to further showcase this, each year, more than 11 million children and adults collectively attend a camp of some sort. The societal trends of America for the past few decades have ensured that summer camps for children are an American tradition. 

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