Sunday, August 8, 2010

Camp Keep-Me-Busy

I always assumed my daughters would go to overnight camp. Well, not really assumed; hoped, perhaps. It's not that I'm the type of parent who panics at the prospect of spending two months with children hanging around the house. I believe in a lot of free, unstructured time for kids, and I provide my girls with plenty of it every summer and throughout the year. It's just that I thought there would come a time when my daughters would want to go to overnight camp. After all, I went to camp, my husband went to camp, most of our friends went to camp. It just seemed like the Canadian thing to do (okay, the Canadian-of-a-certain-class thing to do, but allow me to ignore that not-insignificant point for the sake of argument): Spend a couple of weeks on the Canadian shield learning to appreciate all things natural.

When my daughters were young they tried out a variety of summer day camps; their reaction to those experiences were at best lukewarm and at worst downright hostile. Too much hurrying around in the morning, they complained, too much structure, too much like school or day-care. In fact, I came to the conclusion that most day camps are in reality glorified daycare. They have proliferated enormously in the last several decades to accommodate the fact that, more often than not, two parents are working during most of the summer break. This is not a bad thing; on the contrary, day camps are clearly providing a much needed service, but it means that we should not necessarily expect day camp to furnish our kids with a carefree, "camp-like" experience.

I understood this, and when my girls put their foot down and refused to attend day camp, insisting on safeguarding their free time, both at the cottage and in the city, I acquiesced. I watched as they made up their own games, both indoors and out, and read book after book after book. How could I object to that?

But, I thought, overnight camp is different. Overnight camp is where kids get to enjoy the true camping experience. Blue lakes and rocky shores. Singing camp songs around the camp fire, pitching tents, canoeing on crystalline northern waters.

My daughters turned eleven this year, and still they show no interest in overnight camp. Most of their friends are now attending camp for several weeks every summer, but my two are still holding out, resistant, suspicious. To encourage them to keep an open mind, I showed them the websites of some of the camps their friends are attending. This turned out to be a mistake. The girls took one look at the sample schedules and balked. With reason. A "typical day at camp," proudly advertised, ran something like this: Up at 7:00 a.m., flagpole at 7:30, breakfast at 8:00, three morning activities, lunch, rest period, three afternoon activities, swimming, dinner, after-dinner activities, and lights out around 10:00 pm. I was exhausted even looking at it. Yes, sprinkled throughout the day were some of the "traditional" activities that I remembered, such as canoeing, archery, and arts and crafts. But there were also things like "softball," "ultimate Frisbee," and "aerobics." One camp had even built a skate park.

I don't remember camp being so busy. We had scheduled activities, maybe two in the morning and one in the afternoon, but I also remember having a lot of time to chat with cabin-mates, hang out on the beach or rocks or just read. Evening activities were not nightly, and mostly took the form of sing-songs around a campfire or roasting marshmallows. Nowadays the emphasis seems to be on keeping kids busy. One of the camps we looked at proudly boasts: "Because every day at camp is crammed with activities, there is never a dull moment." Another states, "With over 28 activities to choose from . . . there's just no time to be bored!" At yet another camp, campers are reassured that the cabins are comfortable, then warned: "Don't get too comfortable though because you don't spend much time in your cabin!" I understand that at camp the emphasis is on the outdoors, but why are today's campers not allowed a certain amount of time to . . . I don't know, relax, laze about with their friends, read? When did the "rah rah" types, the kind of people who believe that only by pushing kids, both mentally and physically, will you achieve "results" (whatever that may mean in the context of camp) take over camping? When did camp counselor morph into gym teacher or sports coach?

The problem with this camping model is that it simply doesn't suit all children. My kids, for instance, while they are open to experiencing new activities, need their down time. They need sleep. They are slightly introverted, though not unsociable, yet almost all the camps we looked at seemed geared to extroverts. Where is the camp with the relaxed, sane schedule, where the needs of extroverts and introverts are respected and catered to? Where is the camp that emphasizes nature over junk-sports and keep-'em busy activities? If such a camp existed, I believe my daughters would be interested, and I would send them. If you know of such a camp, please let me know.

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