Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Camp

If it's July, there will be articles about summer camp. This summer, two in the New York Times have caught my eye. "When s'mores aren't enough" looks into the business side of camp and reports that traditional summer camps -- the kind where kids hang around in the woods engaged in fun activities, friendship, and marshmallow roasting -- are having a hard time staying competitive with camps that promise more bang for the buck by honing tennis, college readiness, and other skills that promise to bring a financial return someday. An article on parents' increasing use of private jets to transport their children to rustic camps touches on some of the same economic issues: the cost of camp, the lack of time. Rather Marie Antoinette playing farmer at Versailles, but camps that serve wealthy children have always been that, if less dramatically so when reached by car or train.

Although chartering a private plan to get a child to camp might seem more outrageous than dedicating a child's summer to useful activities like soccer and marine biology, the decline of s'mores worries me more than the rise of private jets, perhaps because absurd disparities in wealth is such a familiar story by now that it takes a bigger story (like impending default on US debt) to raise my ire. Why worry about the end of s'mores? Because more than they need tennis skills and college admissions, children need time to ramble around in the woods, negotiate friendships outside the scrutiny of adults, and daydream.

The other big summer camp story, of course, is the shootings in Norway. A far more horrible invasion of summer camp (and that he shot kids at summer camp is what makes it so especially horrible!) than the incursions of self-improvement on American childhood, but analogous all the same.

I could cite research supporting the importance of unstructured time and free play for children, but since it's summer, I'll leave readers to ponder at leisure the question of whether, and why, free time ought to be children's birthright and a blank sheet of paper we provide for them to color in as they please.

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