Gussied up meant some lip gloss and a pink mini-skirt, and I was gussied up. As the telltale opening chords of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” played, we knew the stakes were high: it was always the last song of the camp dance, and it posed a giant challenge as it transitioned abruptly from slow to fast, then back to very slow. It’s not easy to go from hands-on-shoulders swaying to individual jamming back to hands-on-shoulders swaying.
I grew up in Gainesville, Florida, and went to Camp Crystal Lake, a rustic and freedom-filled camp run by the Alachua County public school system. I’m sure there were kids who went to fancier camps in different states, but most of my friends and friendly acquaintances from public school moved to the 140-acre, three-lake camp (if you count Mosquito Pond) for a couple weeks each summer.
We played Capture the Flag for entire days. We signed up for classes titled “Sports,” “Arts and Crafts,” and “Waterskiing.” We went to the recreation hall for canteen—bottled Cokes and candy bars—and after each day’s “free swim” in the lake, we lined up to get alcohol drops squeezed into our ears. We had sand in our beds and sunscreen in our hair and dirt caked between our toes. We learned how to thrive in a world run by kids, and how to wile away hours on a beautiful track of land in rural, inland Florida.
My son is still a toddler, but I’m already strategizing about how to make sure we don’t accidentally push him into an overly scheduled childhood; a childhood in which piano lessons followed by tutoring lessons followed by sports practice leaves little room for laid-back summer camp, unstructured play, and imagination-driven activities.
A flurry of press regarding the downfall of boys—rising crime rates and falling educational attainments—was followed by a recent Time magazine cover story by David Von Drehle, whose premise was that we must give boys the freedom to build self-confidence. In his article, “The Myth About Boys,” he wrote about a camp called “Falling Creek” as an example of a place where boys who are given “structured freedom” can thrive.
In his article, Drehle quotes Margaret Anderson, a Vanderbilt University faculty member and summertime infirmary nurse at Falling Creek: “When no one’s looming over them, they begin making choices of their own. They discover consequences and learn to take responsibility for themselves and their emotions. They start learning self-discipline, self-confidence, team building. If we don’t let kids work through their own problems, we get a generation of whiners.”
My husband spent two months each summer at Camp Bil-O-Wood in Ontario, Canada, where whiners were definitely not welcomed: Campers embarked on multiple-day canoe trips, braved serious waterfalls, and cooked everything they ate over a campfire. It was definitely more challenging and adventurous than my public school camp, but both seem to share the common idea that if kids explore nature and rise to meet challenges, they’ll come out stronger, healthier, happier.
Some of the challenges at my camp were physical: As a rite of passage, I once swam all the way across Little Lake Crystal. I don’t remember exactly how far it was, but I was a strong swimmer and it still registered as a major accomplishment.
Some of the challenges came in the form of naughtiness: whether I was going to be naughty, and whether or not I’d be caught. One of the campers’ preferred midnight pastimes was raiding cabins (boys raided girls’ cabins and vice versa). The raiders would make liberal use of shaving cream, place booby traps around the bunk beds, and always steal some mementos to put on the flagpole for everyone to see at the next morning’s flag ceremony. I’m pretty sure I never actually got up the nerve to go on a raiding mission, but I became pretty good at protecting my underwear, shoes, and other personal items against a raid, and I like to claim a couple notches on my belt for the raids my friends waged.
Some of the challenges were emotional ones. My parents took advantage of the first summer I went to camp and flew to London the very day they dropped me off. While the other campers received mail and care packages every day, I received nothing. I later found out my parents mailed postcards, but of course they took too long to find their way back from Europe. I battled homesickness as well as the sickening feeling that my cabin mates thought I wasn’t loved.
I want my son to swim and ski and canoe and raid cabins and cook his own food over a fire. I want him to learn how to thrive in a world of kids. I want him to be homesick, but to power through until he learns he will be fine without his parents.
I think all children, and boys especially, must be given the opportunity to learn outside of the constraints of a classroom. Summer camp offers an unusual chance for kids to escape parents and live on their own, within a world fashioned for kids.
I can just imagine my son on the last night of camp, when he’s wearing his sharp outfit in the Recreation Hall and hears the first chords of “Stairway to Heaven.” I want him to know that he’ll sway just right.