A Recipe For Magic

Summer camp for youth has been around since 1861. How could anything continue to be so popular for so long, with such passionate proponents in every generation, unless it has real magic? Most of my previous Camp Business articles have dealt with a leadership dimension–making wise choices based on listening, caring and measuring–creatively borrowing ideas that have proven successful (in camping and elsewhere) and taking action.

But is there something more elemental than that? Could much of the success of youth camping be attributed to an original formula–a secret recipe that’s been duplicated, altered but often unwittingly ignored? I’m eager to hear what you think about this thesis-in-progress, and what it might mean for camps.

Walt Whitman Was Right (And So Was Your Mother)

It was 150 years ago when Walt Whitman wrote, “Now I see the secret of making the best person: It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” Your mom paraphrased him every time you sat in front of the TV during the day: “Go outside and play!” Richard Louve in his famous book, Last Child in the Woods, laid out the consequences of moms today being too fearful to repeat their own mother’s words. (Signs that the pendulum may be swinging back are the many grassroots “No Child Left Inside” initiatives.) Louve used anthropological and biological research to strengthen his message. Seventy years before, Anne Frank said it from her heart: “God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.” So the first ingredient of camp is a beautiful outdoor setting.

Most traditional summer camps have been built in places of great natural beauty. It was an integral part of the mission of early camps: to help kids find the regenerative properties of nature away from a stressful world full of bad influences (actually that was printed in the brochures, even before 1900).

The rich have always been able to afford this pleasant time in beautiful surroundings. The first of the rustic great camps–private summer estates in the Adirondacks–was built in 1896. But the youth camping movement brought it to everyone. The colorful testimony of those early leaders who experienced it firsthand easily attracted money and volunteers for “the good of the kids,” and camps spread quickly from coast to coast by 1910.

Today, some camps have forgotten that a primary reason campers, parents and guests choose camps is to spend time surrounded by natural beauty. Too many camp staffs focus more on what’s convenient, like conducting activities indoors; or they ignore how their unmaintained buildings destroy the camp’s original beauty. Then, of course, there are the “camps” held on college campuses that miss out on all of the benefits of the great outdoors.

Excitement and challenge aren’t the main forces at work in camping. “Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods,” said John Muir, father of YosemiteNational Park.

Teach Responsibility

If you read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden today, you would swear much of it was from a current healthy-living magazine, instead of from 1845: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

The allure of a “simplified lifestyle” has been at the core of groups wanting self-improvement for hundreds of years. The nineteenth-century utopian communities in America, and even the scouting movement (Boys, Girls, Campfire, Woodcrafters, etc.) of the first decades of the twentieth century believed that living closer to the land brought people more in touch with the effects of their own actions, and amplified the dependency they had on each other. Thus the next ingredient is a separation from home that makes responsibilities for daily living very real.

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