The Blog

Is Summer Camp Like the Movies, Mama?

Needless to say, my experience of camp was nothing like Moonrise Kingdom. So where does this distinctive tradition come from and why, historically, do we not practised it in the UK?

When I imagine summer camp, I imagine a coonskin cap, a warm yellow lens filter and the awkward sincerity of first time love. I imagine Moonrise Kingdom. Then, I recall The Parent Trap ('98) and the solitary log cabin on the hill that reunited Hallie and Annie over their mutual affection for Oreos with peanut butter. My last point of reference is the Spirit Stick and Kirsten Dunst's dimples and the apparent brutality of cheerleading camp in millennial mega-movie Bring it On.

I am unmistakably British; meaning the only contact I've ever had with camp in the traditional sense has been on film. The same goes for corn dogs, home runs and wearing white after Labour Day (basically, Friends taught me everything I know about America).

Stereotypes aside, when I was growing up, the indigenous-inspired, pine-tree-lined camps of American movies weren't an option. I did go to a day camp but it was less Wampanoag more white middle England, held inside a wrought iron air hangar in a field surrounded by the identikit toy houses of a suburban wilderness known as Surrey.

Memories of day camp involve dancing to Saturday Night in a gymnasium-turned-discotheque that stank of rubber and accommodated a single flashing red light. I was wearing glittery jelly shoes and experienced my first inklings of nonconformity by making up my own moves to the Macarena.

Needless to say, my experience of camp was nothing like Moonrise Kingdom. So where does this distinctive tradition come from and why, historically, do we not practised it in the UK?

The Rise of the Woodcraft Indians

When Henry David Thoreau built a log cabin in the middle of a New England forest, the memoir that he wrote there would become an enduring example of transcendentalist literature. Walden; or, Life in the Woods was published in 1854 and documented Thoreau's active escape from urbanisation and his pursuit of a simple, self-sufficient life.

A few years later, headmaster William Gunn and his wife took their students on a two week outdoor camping trip. They taught their young sophomores how to fish and how to recreate a back-to-basics Thoreauian lifestyle.

Then, in 1902 naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton -one of the founding pioneers of the Boy Scouts of America- formed the Woodcraft Indians. Having developed an interest in the education of local children, Seton pursued the community-based beliefs of Native American culture. He believe it offered a structured yet environmental approach to childhood development that was instinctively Thoreauian. Woodcraft was a huge success and for a while, it overtook the Boy Scouts with their military mess halls and begul wake-up calls.

Before long, and thanks in part to Seton's involvement in both organisations, the traditions merged, creating the military/tribal crossover culture that makes American summer camp so recognisable today.

Hi-de-Hi, Hi-de-Ho!

So, summer camp is very much a part of American heritage, a heritage that has, until recently, struggled to establish itself across the pond. Historically, that gap has been filled by the redcoats, chalets and knobbly knee competitions of Carry on Camping and Hi-de-Hi!

Indeed, in the early second half of the 20th century, holiday camps were very much a part of British culture. Whilst this was more or less extinguished in the 80's by the juggernaut of package holidays, to this day, the term "summer camp," will more likely evoke visions of beauty queens and ballrooms than outdoor adventures in the middle of the forest.

Regardless, a number of organisations have popped up in the last few decades that have finally popularize the art of stayaway summer camps. Whilst we can only dream of the 12,000 camps and 10 million annual campers in the US, the UK's Camp Beaumont boasts three French and eight UK camping destinations and reports 2013 as their busiest year to date. Offering a variety of programmes, Bushcraft (the modern day Woodcraft) is hugely popular. By mastering basic wilderness survival skills, campers learn how to develop a completely self-sufficient and respectful lifestyle that is in harmony with environment and every bit in line with Thoreau's ethos.

It's interesting that Thoreau's need to escape urbanisation is reflected in contemporary society by a burgeoning desire to 'unplug' children from digitalisation, to retreat into the sanguine simplicity of nature and to become a part of it. Just as Wes Anderson so artfully captures in Moonrise Kingdom, given the chance to set up camp in nature, you'll realize how little you need to feel right at home.