These days deciding where to send your child for summer camp can give parents almost as much anguish as the all-important choice of college.
Is computer camp an investment in future success? Will a summer spent away from home offer enough benefits, like team-building and self-reliance, to justify the price tag? These are questions parents from diverse financial backgrounds are asking as they consider their children’s options for fun, friendship, and learning.
The practice of sending kids away from home to experience the joys of fresh air, starry skies, and activities beyond the routine wasn’t always egalitarian. In fact, the first official summer camp for children began in the 1880s specifically to address the effects of upper-class privilege. Dartmouth sophomore Earnest Balch, concerned about “the miserable condition of boys belonging to well-to-do families in summer hotels,” designed a summer experience that would serve as an antidote to the “emasculating” effects of their elite lifestyle.
His solution was Camp Chocorua, a simple camp near Lake Squam, New Hampshire, that taught camping, swimming, and boating along with arts and crafts, and even pillow fighting. At Chocorua, the campers did all the work, but other early camps had servants, with the campers dining on china.
By the turn of the century, the benefits of summer camp began to trickle down to the urban poor. The YMCA, which established its first camp in 1885, served 23,300 male campers by 1916. With all-male enrollment and military-inspired traditions, the YMCA camps retained the masculine spirit of the original camps. The advent of the Boy Scouts (1910) and Girl Scouts (1912) offered even more opportunities for affordable camping, with camps for girls flourishing in the early 20th century.
But how did camp evolve from the simple pleasures of outdoor play to the widespread incorporation of such activities as robotics, theater, and science instruction?
It started just before World War II. This is when child psychologists, water safety experts, professional camp planners, and other authorities began to play a role in camp design and execution, leading to more and better options for young campers. The result? The general goals of camp—self-esteem, friendship, confidence—have remained constant, while camp structure, themes, activities, and price points have diversified.
The American Camp Association now recognizes more than 12,000 residential and day camps in the U.S., and these make up a $15 billion industry. While most camps (87 percent) offer that old standby, swimming, an increasing number have less traditional options, such as health and wellness, cooking, and even college planning. Plus, two out of five residential camps have relationships with schools, and many offer academic programs.
You might pay $11,450 to send your child to Camp Winaukee, a boys camp on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, that retains some vestiges of early all-male camps. Specializing in sports and outdoor adventure, the camp offers activities like golf, waterskiing, lake cruising, and even yoga.
At Lake Bryn Mawr Camp in Pennsylvania, girls may choose bagels and lox for breakfast, participate in the English Equestrian Program, or take a Pilates class. The $11,550 price tag does not include a $400 spending allowance for “toiletries, candies, ice cream,” and more.
Some specialty camps are more affordable, though still not cheap. Camp Atkins, the first African-American-owned and -operated camp in the U.S., charges $2,000 for each two-week session. The activities include African-American history, ceramics, conflict resolution, fencing, and entrepreneurial instruction on gorgeous Lake Lashaway in Massachusetts.
An enriching camp experience does not have to cost as much as a college course. The American Camp Association cites camp fees starting at less than $100 per week, with the average day camp costing around $300 per week. Plus, 90 percent of ACA-accredited camps offer financial aid to low-income families and kids with special needs.
Day camps like those run by the YMCA offer the same social benefits (along with kooky themes, like Fear Factor Week) as pricier residential programs. And new for 2016, the Girl Scouts Camp Shelly Ridge in Miquon, Pennsylvania, offers a week-long residential “Little Mozarts and Einsteins” program for $355. Campers will perform lab experiments, make homemade instruments, and sing their hearts out … without breaking the bank.
Whatever the price, camps don’t seem to have trouble attracting interest. In 2012, 65 percent of camps reported steady or rising numbers of campers over the previous five years. Whether your child’s experience ultimately has ties to summer camp’s elite past or exemplifies one of today’s more affordable options, he or she will be part of the evolving history of this childhood summertime staple.