KEWADIN, Mich. – On a warm summer morning thick with dew, the counselor stood before 50 sleepy kids in T-shirts and sweatpants at the flagpole – the meeting place before all meals – and bellowed, “Good morning, Camp Maplehurst!”
“Good morning,” they mustered back.
He asked for announcements.
Nothing for a moment, then one camper offered, “Ryan farts in his sleep.”
“Are there any real announcements?”
“But it’s true!” the camper insisted.
Another said, “It’s Lindsey’s birthday Saturday!”
The kids, ages 10 to 16, cheered and descended into chatter. The counselor raised his hand, reeling them back with a simple command: “Listen to your camp family.”
After quickly running through the Camp Maplehurst Song (“I’ve got the Maplehurst feeling up in my head, up in my head …”), the kids headed to a breakfast of French toast, sausage links and strawberry yogurt on plastic trays.
It was an average Camp Maplehurst morning, the details likely forgotten before the last sausage was served (except maybe by poor Ryan). But in the camp family, as the counselor put it, even the ordinary is extraordinary. Every moment matters. Consider: For a few weeks every summer, each camper takes on a few dozen brothers and sisters. They sleep together, eat together, play together, sing together, work together and learn together. They fight and make up. They start figuring out love. They see one another in pajamas and bathing suits. They develop their own vocabularies that allow them to know the differences among the Moose Song, the Beaver Song, the Pirate Song and, when rushed, the Flagpole Song (“This is the flagpole song/It doesn’t last too long”).
In the togetherness, idiosyncrasies are forgiven. Peer pressure dissipates, or as much as it can at the age of 14. Material things prized back home are made moot. What good is a PS3 at camp?
And judgment is withheld. Don’t believe it?
“I don’t have many friends at school,” said Roberto Soto, 13, of Guadalajara, Mexico. “I like to read, and in Mexico reading is considered nerdy, and if you’re a nerd, you’re considered an outcast. Here, people are from a lot more places and everyone is open.”
Anyone who has been to summer camp knows that the relationships are like few others. Friendships form quickly, intensely and with open minds. Even if camp friends don’t keep in touch long-term, what has been shared is long remembered.
One hundred fifty years since summer camp was born, the American Camp Association estimates there are as many as 15,000 summer camps in the U.S., much of the recent growth in specialized camps: music, religious, athletic, etc. Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the ACA, said the camp experience “is probably even more important than it was 150 years ago.”
“It is a microcosm of a community,” Smith said. “You learn to contribute to that community and to make relationships. Being able to communicate needs and resolve conflict stays with you.”
Even the youngest campers realize the difference between what happens at camp and what happens back home.
“There’s a lot of drama at school,” said Charlotte Thomas, 12, of Short Hills, N.J.
“You get into fights with your friends, but here, you figure it out because you have to,” said Anna Stern, 12, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
That was Thomas Cohn’s plan when he started Maplehurst in 1955. Cohn, a University of Michigan psychology professor, wanted an outlet for kids built on freedom and creativity not promoted in schools. The camp is particularly popular with kids from Midwestern suburbs and attracts many international campers.
Laurence Cohn, who grew up attending his father’s camp, took the reins with his wife, Brenda Cohn, in the 1970s. They deal with issues the elder Cohn never had to address, such as restricting use of MP3 players to afternoon rest time and asking for cell phones at the start of each session.
“The kids don’t want to give up their phones,” said Laurence Cohn, a psychology lecturer at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “So we ask nicely.”
He figures phones get in the way of the real business of camp, namely, being at camp. It’s difficult to miss text-messaging when post-breakfast activities include biking, tennis, archery, arts and crafts, model rocketry, basketball, fencing, golf, kayaking, floor hockey, improvised comedy, tai chi and photography. And that’s just before lunch.
Campers can program their own time to learn what they like, Cohn said. But that freedom is balanced by the responsibility of cleaning their cabins daily.
“I don’t even have to do that at home,” said Jordan Correll, of Farmington Hills, Mich.
Leaving usually ends up being the worst part of camp. It happened a few days early last summer for Maud Foriel-Destezet, 16, because of her family’s travel plans.
Seemingly everyone at the camp offered Foriel-Destezet a hug, and tears flowed quickly. Her cabin mates formed a circle and took her in, heads down, arms around one another’s shoulders, to create a world of sniffling teenage girls in shorts and T-shirts.
“The real world is waiting for you on the other side,” said Margot Kriete, 16, of Birmingham, Mich.
A few hours after Foriel-Destezet had left, those same girls were all smiles while performing in the long-awaited camp talent show. Dressed in brightly colored clothes, they lip-synced to a Top 40 hit, leapt, giggled and made new memories.
For more information on camps across the country, and for planning a child’s camp experience, visit the American Camp Association Web site, campparents.org. Here are topics from the ACA to consider when choosing a camp for your child:
How are counselors trained? Does the training include CPR and first aid?
What are the health and medical procedures? Who is trained to deal with health issues?
What is the return ratio? It offers insight into whether kids are happy there.
What does a typical day look like? What activities are available?
What about the menu? Is there a philosophy guiding how campers are fed?