Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Camp Experience

I never went to summer camp as a child.  Back in the early 70s, when I was growing up, you went outside to play, hoping that one of the thirty or so other kids on your block was up and awake and had already eaten their Cap’n Crunch or Lucky Charms and was just waiting for a chance to start a game of baseball in the street or do one of the other things we did a long, long time ago.  Back then, your parents didn’t know where you were all the time and they were never nervous.  They knew that you’d always return when you were hungry and that you were running in a pack.  Stranger danger wasn’t a thing and everyone knew that as soon as the first street light came on, the day was over.

So, it was a surprise to me when several years ago my oldest daughter asked to go to sleep away camp and then a few years later, when her younger brother expressed an interest in going, too.  We are now parents who send their kids to sleep away camp, something I never thought I would say.  Child #1 aged out (she’s in college now, it’s own form of sleep away camp) but child #2 continues to go for a month every summer and I have to say:  I’m a convert.  No electronics, living among new people, structuring your days to make the most of your stay—these are all components of the sleep away camp experience and while I long for the days mentioned above, camp definitely has its merits.

I have friends who went to camp from the age of six until they were fourteen, spending eight weeks in the camp environment, doing things that only other campers have experienced—bon fires, “color wars,” sing-alongs—things that are mostly unfamiliar to us non-campers. A friend of mine has parents who met at sleep away camp and who have been together for sixty years. Another friend can name the first girl he ever had a crush on and can reminisce for hours about his time at the only camp he ever attended, a place in Pennsylvania that still holds a special place in his heart. Although I grew up with enough kids to constitute our own summer camp, our experiences were limited to those we could do in our small town (a hamlet, really) and with each other, people we saw every single day of every single year because we rode the school bus together, sat beside each other in the school cafeteria, attended the same church. When I hear the stories of sleep away camp, from both friends and my children, I wonder how the teenaged me would have adapted to a new environment in the woods with a group of people she had never met.

I’d love to hear your stories.  Did you go to sleep away camp or did you grow up like I did, playing with the kids in the neighborhood?  What is your favorite camp memory?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. No camp here. We were poor. No money for things like that. I heard and read about it and wanted to go, but it was out of the question. I worked in the summers from the time I was 11 (illegally). Family needed the money.

    My kids, on the other hand, had an upbringing like yours with lots of other kids playing each summer. Now, that's not a real possibility, I think. Sad.

  2. I was raised in NYC. No fields, and safe roads there. No pools that we could afford. Interestingly, my mother was raised with a tradition of going to the country for the summer or part of it. This was in Vienna; I don't know how uncomfortable it was. So we went to camp. I loved it, the sports, the swimming, the "color wars," and all the new people I met. I had the requisite crushes on the counselors. The places we went to weren't very expensive, but there was fresh air and a modicum of independence. I always felt as though I had grown up a little every summer. Thank you for bringing up the memories.

  3. Thanks, Linda and Lil! My friends who have been to camp swear by it, saying that camp summers were the best of their lives. Makes me think I missed out on something. Like you, Linda, I started babysitting when I was 11--one dollar an hour!--and had a job from that point forward. Maggie

  4. I went to one week church camp every summer and loved it. As a family we always went on vacation for three weeks, usually to Bass Lake where we tent camped, swam and water skied, great fun!

  5. Didn't go to camp, but played with the whole neighborhood and sometimes I just wandered or road my bike alone or spent hours on end at the air-conditioned library, reading and listening to records on turntables with head-phones you checked out from the front desk, just being sort of with myself. Which was also good and fun sometimes, to just sort of have quieter days. Camps seem to have only gotten better over the years from what I hear. I agree they sound like mostly good growth experiences for kids who go. And, after all, the kids do still get a good chunk of their summer at home, too. But, I always like thinking about those "home by dark" days, the old street light rule you cited is apparently something that is in everyone's DNA. We had to be ONLY on the front porch once it got dark, and in summer that took a long time to get to! No wonder we tended to sleep so solidly as kids, we spend every bit of energy we had on long summer days.

  6. Went to Girl Scout camp for several years and loved it. Also did the church camp one went to MN to canoe and to NYC and Washington DC. Some of those 8 week camps are moore typical to the East Coast. In the midwest, I suspect that the agarian need left little time for the spending money and time on kids going to camp.