Americans have a long tradition of sending their children to summer camps to commune with and learn a bit about nature. America’s love of sending children to camp got its official start in 1876 when a Pennsylvania medical doctor founded the North Mountain School of Physical Culture. Now, we have thousands of day camps and overnight camps and those that specialize in teaching kids about music, sports, or even math. Some camps cater to religious or ethnic preferences, and some address children with medical issues.
My first – and thankfully only – encounter with a snapping turtle came when one of my pals hauled one out of the Tippecanoe River where we had gone to experience a little nature as summer campers at Culver Military Academy in Northern Indiana. I was a city kid who had never been on a river or fished or canoed or bumped into ill-tempered turtles. But I guess that was the point of it – to get me out of my urbanized comfort zone and learn something about the natural world – how to enjoy it and learn from it.
You may already have a camp in mind, such as one affiliated with your church or synagogue, or local YMCA or YWCA. Word of mouth also works, too: My father selected a military camp for my two brothers and me because he knew people who had attended it as youths and figured a little extra discipline would serve us well!
But, if you don’t yet have a camp in mind for your children, a great place to start your search is www.acacamps.org, the website for the American Camp Association. It has a handy search tool that lets you sort through day or overnight camps by location, price, and religious preference. You can also look into specialized camps for music, for instance, or sports or other specialized kinds of activities.
Your kid can brush up on Italian or Mandarin during a four-week stint at the Lawrence Academy, in Groton, MA. On the other side of the country, at Santa Catalina Camps, on an island just “26 miles across the sea” off the coast of Southern California, your teenager can become an expert in skin diving, sailing, sea kayaking, and other assorted aquatic ventures, while humming the tune from that old Four Preps’ song! These are skills, many of which they will use for a lifetime, that your children rarely get in public schools.
In a 2012 story in The Atlantic Monthly, author Jared Keller cited researcher Michael J. Unger’s position that being placed in a minimalist environment away from the watchful eyes of parents can make children more resilient. “There are the simple challenges of learning how to build a fire, going on a hike, or conquering a high ropes course,” Unger wrote in Psychology Today.
Among the skills I acquired at camp were sailing, archery, target shooting, and an appreciation for the Native Americans who had lived long ago on the land where we now stood. I also socialized with young people from places both far and near. My first roommate was from Venezuela, and I encountered my first Canadian at Culver. Kids showed up from Chicago and Cleveland and Ponca City, as well, and we all had to learn to get along in an unfamiliar, challenging setting.
I also learned how to march and obey a chain of command. Oh, and “spit” polish shoes! At that time, my father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa Air National Guard, and before every drill weekend he put me to work on his shoes. Hey! You don’t suppose that’s why he opted for a military camp?
So, give some thought to the idea of sending your kids to summer camp. It will be an experience they will remember for their entire lives, and they might even learn how to identify and avoid those snapping turtles they might encounter when they’re all grown up!