Children grow in the great outdoors

4th August 2006 at 01:00
Scotland should think about doing more to promote the cause of summer camps, says Michael Russell

frequently meet people who, when they discover I live in Argyll, reminisce warmly about their childhood visits to one or other of the local authority-owned outdoor centres that used to dot the coastline of the county. Whether it was an art camp at Ardentinny, a music workshop at Toward, or canoeing at Colintraive, the experience was nearly always a formative one and often inculcated a lifelong love of the rural west coast, as well as imparted some valuable practical skills.

Local authority reorganisation as well as a perpetual squeeze on education budgets meant that such trips became less and less common in the 1980s and disappeared almost entirely from the mid-1990s. While Toward is now privately run, only Edinburgh still maintains a council presence. All the other facilities have long closed and with them has gone a set of valuable opportunities which we should try and find a way to revive, learning from the positive American experience of summer camps.

Those camps are as much a part of United States culture as Thanksgiving turkey or pumpkin pie. Started in the mid-19th century by the proprietors of a private school who organised an annual two-week hiking trip, the longest-running summer camp in the world is Camp Dudley at Westport in New York State which is enjoying, according to its website, an "awesome" 122nd year. It is still teaching boys the importance of the camp motto "put the other fellow first" - and not just boys for, from June this year, somewhat later than one might have expected, there has been a Camp Dudley for girls.

Summer camps are big business too. Certainly religious groups, youth groups (like the Scouts) and special interest bodies are well established on the camp scene. But there is still a key place for individual leadership and, as the subject-matter for campers to specialise in becomes ever more diverse, such involvement grows. Chefs, sportsmen, creative artists and technological gurus now offer their skills - at a price - as part of the mix.

Canada, as ever imitating and adapting what happens across its southern border, has a well established summer camp culture involving both its linguistic groups, with camps in French-speaking Quebec being particularly numerous. In Europe, only France is as enthusiastic, and there the Canadian model of camps being run by organisations and supervised by national regulation is followed with administrative rigour.

There are, of course, roughly parallel, but much smaller scale, activities still taking place in the UK. The Scouts, the Boys' Brigade and other youth bodies have over the years arranged events which meet the traditional summer camp criteria of combining the pleasures of the outdoor life with sports and more formal learning opportunities. Yet it is very much the minority of young people who are or ever have been involved.

Our more localised west of Scotland tradition of young people going for a week during the school term to a council-owned and run facility was more a reaction to urban poverty rather than a philosophical endorsement of the benefits to be had by sampling socialisation and self-reliance away from home. None the less, those virtues underpinned the whole thing and they are now the real reason for reinvigorating the process - not least because, when they are not taught, young people suffer.

How might we get them back? Not, it should be said, by looking again to local authorities to provide the whole infrastructure. That would be neither possible nor desirable. There are, however, already a number of private providers (such as that at Toward Castle), often structured as not-for-profit charities. We should encourage a growth in uptake, and a concomitant eventual growth in provision leading to more specialised opportunities (in America, there are even obesity-busting summer camps for youngsters) with a growing variety of different types of programme.

To do so, we should support individual schools, helping them to raise and access funds which would allow every child to attend a camp at least once in their secondary school career. This would ensure that, while any parental contribution would be desirable, the lack of it would not be a barrier. It would also be best to have these camps in the summer holidays, so that young people differentiated them from school. They would then come to realise that the way in which we amass and process new information and develop as human beings does not have to be formal, intimidating or just plain boring.

A week or a fortnight away from home, without television, computer games or mobile phones and living close to nature might seem like purgatory to many young people today. But summer camps are no longer always like that. Marine science, the martial arts, magic, public speaking, photography, leadership, lacrosse, water sports, web design, rock climbing, rifle shooting and robotics are just some of the themes that dominate camps in various parts of North America. Locations are as varied as first-class hotels, university and school campuses and remote log cabins.

Yet the the old-fashioned approach still has its appeal and its effect.

Recently one 12-year-old from a friend's family was recounting in particularly heart-ringing tones the tale of being forbidden, on his first night at a Scout camp, to use a phone box to ring his mum. He then admitted that, once settled, he had had the time of his life. His behaviour had also improved markedly after he returned home. Yet, even if it had not, the experience would have been worthwhile.

Summer camps are part of the initiation ritual for young Americans - the chance to learn something of their vast country and to touch, however briefly, the core values that America still holds dear. Whatever those values are, a similar initiation here and a similar chance for personal growth cannot but be a good and stimulating thing.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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