Traditional Day Camps

By Jeremy M. Culpepper

The first day camps offered an exciting setting for children to explore the outdoors. It was typical for children to go to day camp at age five and continue until they were old enough or otherwise felt ready to go to overnight camp. Historically, many “feeder” programs were actually on the premises of residential camps. Day campers experienced many of the same benefits of outdoor programming. In fact, the only major difference between the two was the overnight stay.


However, in recent years, the terms “day camp” and “child care” have become synonymous, creating confusion as to what “day camp” really entails. A mother was recently asked whether she would be signing her child up for child care or day camp this summer. She replied, “I sent my child to day camp two years ago. However, with an increase in day-camp tuition, I decided to send my child to the more inexpensive child-care program. Is there even a difference between any of these programs? If it weren’t for the different prices, I would be content in picking which program we went to out of a hat.”

A Confusing Debate
Distinguishing between program options has become a growing issue among potential participants in these programs. For example, the following are actual program descriptions found in brochures under titles such as Adventure Care, Summer Day Camp, and Summer Child Care:

·         “… will be an unforgettable experience for your child, full of fun and friendship, wonder and excitement. This program is designed for children ages 5-12. Field trips, arts and crafts and hiking are just a few of the activities your child will enjoy. Meals and snacks as well as transportation for all activities are provided.”

·         “Activities spark both interest and imagination, from sports, games and outdoor activities to creative art and special events. Weekly themes add a special touch. Come join us and keep the smile in your summer!”

·         “… also provides opportunities to expand your child’s knowledge through field trips; music, art and drama activities; games and sports; and special weekly theme events.”

Many modern day camps have lost their original focus, which is to provide an outdoor experience that differs from everyday school programs and extracurricular activities. The day camp title has been used for many programs that do not emphasize the traditional outdoor experience of day camps and, therefore, the true “day camp” may be on the brink of extinction.

A Model To Follow
While the face of summer day camps has changed, there are still several organizations that hold onto tradition. For example, the following is the summer day-camp program description for an organization in the Midwest:

“Utilizing an environmentally based curriculum, day camp offers an exciting setting for your children to explore the outdoors. Quality staff will guide them through a summer of discovery as they explore the world around them. Weekly themes allow campers to learn more about the world’s ecosystems through art, sporting, nature and character-development activities.”

Three years ago, this organization was on the verge of cutting its day-camp program. Administrators felt participation was on the decline, and that it was no different than the summer child-care program; they looked at ending it as a cost-cutting measure. However, they gave the directors one more summer to make camp a unique experience that mirrored traditional day-camp programs as well as the program’s mission. A nature-based emphasis was created, and three years later the program has seen steady enrollment. Not only did this “new” focus give parents a choice in summer programming, it began to fulfill its role as a feeder program to the organization’s residential summer camp. While less than 1 percent of the organization’s membership made use of the resident camp in the past, participants in the organization’s day camp started to attend the resident camp.

At another day camp on site at a resident camp, the program strives to build upon the tradition of an old resident camp (closed in the late-1960s) from a nearby underutilized region. According to the camp director, “This is a resurrection, in many ways, of a lost camp!”

While the day camp has its own unique program goals, participants also may experience many of the same activities as the resident campers. In fact, each week, there is one night in which the day campers stay overnight at the resident camp, and participate in the evening programs.  It is not uncommon to see campers enrolled in this day camp early in the summer return for a week of resident camp later.

Reclaiming the day-camp title is an essential component to rebuilding and continuing the traditional model. It is time for residential camps to take ownership of this time-honored tradition, and either create on-site day camps or work with area organizations to infuse nature back into activities. Not only will these programs grow future campers, they also help expose youth to the wonders of the outdoors! Organizations that offer multiple summer programs must create a clear distinction between general child-care programs and day camp in an effort to offer parents choices in summer programming, and to also assist in bringing outdoor skills back to the definition of day camp.  The future of day camping depends on it!

Jeremy M. Culpepper is currently a doctoral student in Clemson University’s Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management department where his research interests include summer residential camp enrollment trends. Jeremy has over 20 years of camp experience as a day camper, resident camper, resident-camp counselor, resident-camp program director and most recently as a day-camp director. He can be reached via e-mail at