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American Almanac
Journal of Children & Poverty


The Historical Perspective

By Ethan G. Sribnick and Sara Johnsen

Fresh Air for City Kids: The Early Years of Summer Camp

Summer 2013

Early camps also aimed to introduce children to other conventions of the middle class. Fresh Air Fund camp counselors were disturbed, for example, by the food and drink that immigrant children consumed, such as coffee and organ meat. Instead, camp food included such classic American fare as jelly sandwiches, baked beans, beef stew, hot cocoa, and ginger snaps. “The offspring of the crowded city often utterly refuse to drink the milk, or eat the country delicacies,” one article on the Fresh Air Fund camps reported. “A day or two, however, generally straightens things out.” Altering the children’s taste in food was part of a larger project of Americanization. A visitor to a Fresh Air Fund camp in New Hampshire reported, “I could not have believed it possible, had I not seen, that the ‘Melting Pot’ could have done such effective work in so short a time. There was no evidence of any distinction of class, race, financial condition, or anything else.” By bringing children from different ethnic backgrounds together into a middle-class environment, administrators hoped to integrate children into the dominant culture.

The Fresh Air Fund refused to serve kosher meals, thereby excluding observant Jews from their camps, but even camps aimed at a single ethnic group engaged in programs of assimilation. At Surprise Lake, the Educational Alliance—a settlement house on the Lower East Side—ran one of the few kosher camps for New York City children. Still, more Americanized Jews complained that children wearing hats to meals gave the camp “a distinctly oriental flavor.” In the 1920s an invited lecturer instructed children in how to speak properly and how to sit with a “correct American posture.” An article in the camp newspaper, also from the 1920s, demanded that campers abandon Yiddish and instead “speak the English language, the language of America.” Camp leaders hoped that children would return to their parents not only physically cleaner and healthier but also scrubbed of some of the ethnic peculiarities that might hold them back in American society.

A camp administrator inspects boys for neatness and posture c. 1923. Once children arrived at camp or at a host home, adults trained them to adhere to middle-class habits of cleanliness. Courtesy of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission Archives.

The men and women who organized early sleepaway camps for poor children acted on a variety of charitable and political impulses: a desire to promote the health of kids growing up in overcrowded, dirty cities, to allow them to enjoy nature and leisure, and to encourage assimilation into the middle class. As camps evolved during the twentieth century, administrators shifted emphasis away from Americanization and public health and toward play and leisure. Summer camp made vacations in nature possible for generations of urban children throughout the twentieth century, especially in New York City, where many social-service providers continued to operate summer sleepaway camps. But in the late 1980s recession and fiscal austerity forced many organizations to close or sell camps. Between 1985 and 1996, the number of nonprofit sleepaway camps decreased from 435 to 321—more than 25 percent—according to an estimate by the New York State Camp Directors Association.

Despite a period of financial challenge and decline, there are still approximately 8,000 not-for-profit camps operating in the United States today, and the American Camping Association estimates that nearly one million children attend camp each summer with scholarship assistance. In the summer of 2011, Homes for the Homeless sent nearly 600 children, most of them homeless New Yorkers, to summer camps upstate. Homes for the Homeless—like the Fresh Air Fund and the Coalition for the Homeless—operates its camps in order to provide opportunities for fun and learning in nature. Since they were built, in the 1930s, the camps that Homes for the Homeless now runs have been dedicated to providing outdoor experiences for underserved youth. Connie Stine, the director of one of these camps and the grandchild of settlement workers who opened the camp in the 1930s, explains, “I see camp as a way to continue my grandparents’ legacy on the site that they founded. The children we are serving are very similar to the children that these camps have always served. And it’s just as valuable today as it was 30 or 40 or 70 years ago for children to have the opportunity to be out of the city, to be in a new environment where they can learn about nature and the wider world around them.”

But contemporary camps are also interested in measuring specific benefits for those who attend, such as improved social and problem-solving skills. Lance Ozier, a member of the American Camp Association National Committee for Advancement of Research and Evaluation, argues, “At camp, kids learn things like responsibility, self esteem is increased, they take on leadership opportunities, they take on experiences that allow them to cooperate and work with peers and adults in meaningful ways that they wouldn’t have an opportunity to do otherwise.”

Private and government funders have increasingly looked to not-for-profit groups to measure camps’ impact on learning and school achievement. Recent camp models have aimed to combat the educational achievement gap by lessening summer learning loss among low-income students. In July 2012 New York City and the Fund for Public Schools launched Summer Quest, a day camp that merges summer school and sleepaway camp models, offering students formal, traditional academic programs alongside curriculum-aligned camping trips, sports, and arts activities. Ozier notes that camps are “more crucial now than in the early days because school has become hyperfocused on academic skills, and there isn’t space for these non-cognitive, psychosocial skills that you just can’t learn from grammar exercises.”

The psychological and social benefits that children accrue from camp are difficult to quantify. But as policymakers and camp administrators work to develop programs that reflect the evolving concerns of the social-services world, campers will continue to learn and play in a natural environment that they might not otherwise have encountered.

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