Residential Boys Camp is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago
by Seth and Stephanie Kassels, March 2015
The onset of the 20th century may be mostly identified with the close out of the American Frontier, rapid industrialization and urban growth. But did you know summer camping for boys also developed at this time?
The growth of the boys camping movement can be closely linked to the late 19th-century view that suggested adolescent boys needed outlets to engage in invigorating physical activity. The camping movement was primarily created to offset the trend of families moving from rural America to living in apartment buildings of metropolitan areas. The camp experience created an opportunity for boys to develop their spirit, mind and bodies in a natural setting through experiences that were not readily available in their daily lives.
Summer camp may be needed even more today. Societal trends show that boys are more likely to become enthralled with digital gaming opportunities and thus spend proportionally less time, exercising, interacting with peers and enjoying play in a natural environment. Additionally, there are over 8.8 million boys living with single parent mothers, according to the U.S. Census in 2013.
While all of this is occurring studies continue to demonstrate that adolescent boys struggle with “affective empathy or the ability to recognize and respond to others' feelings,” and have an easier time discussing their feelings with fathers or male role models, according to an Oct. 13, 2013, article in the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile formal educational experiences tend to focus on preparing boys for the tomorrows of life, not today’s emotions.
Summer camp anchors boys in the present, while still providing an environment to explore personal and moral growth as a foundation for the future. The essence of the residential summer camp experience for boys is to unplug them, provide them with young male role models and engage them in face-to-face conversation.
At many boys’ camps, boys live in a rustic tent or cabin with several other boys of similar age, yet with different backgrounds and interests. The boys play together, eat together, clean their cabin or tent together, try new things together, grow together and watch the stars at night together. When boys are consciously put together and provided good guidance, a strong brotherhood develops. Camp becomes a safe place where friends feel like brothers.
Just as important as bonding with their cabin mates, role models at camp are not distant figures they see on TV. They are someone the camper knows personally, and someone who knows the camper. In many situations the cabin leader, also known as a counselor, was once a camper. They live with the campers, they sweat with the campers on hot days, freeze with them on cold nights, and bond with them just like their cabin mates.
The concept is that the campers, along with their cabin leaders, have experiences that create a brotherhood. In addition, many boys’ camps teach their staff to lead by example. Furthermore, some camps encourage older campers to look out for younger campers. Older campers are frequently assigned “little brothers.” This builds mutual respect and empathy.
Camp is a place where you do not need to pretend to be someone else, thus allowing each person a safe place to find themselves. The brotherhood that is created provides a place where boys feel part of something bigger.
Campers become well-adjusted members of society. They generally grow to appreciate and respect their families, they learn how to remain positive in the toughest of times, and they come to understand what it means to find happiness in a variety of environments. They become the roommates you want to live with, the group project members you want to work with, and they will be the fathers you want to grow up with.
Seth and Stephanie Kassels are co-directors of Camp Belknap in Mirror Lake.