I’ve spent nearly as much time trying to understand the strange appeal of summer camp as I have the appeal of a talking mouse who favours red shorts. Quite frankly, I’m still stumped about the mouse. But, I think I’ve figured out the amazing allure of summer camp to kids everywhere.
First of all, reality always beats virtual reality.
Our kids have incredible games at their command that allow them to experience everything but the real thing. I have nothing against most of these games. My company makes a lot of them. But, at the end of the day, reality is what kids prefer. Virtual reality can offer wonderful entertainment, but it invariable puts kids in a world of someone else’s creation. Camp puts them in a world of their own creation. What could be more exciting? What could be more empowering?
It was fantastic.
Every day there were more variables than any computer programmer could ever pack into an arcade game. And we did it all ourselves…or, at least, we felt we did.
Which brings me to the second reason city kids want to go to rustic camps-because they get to be grownups…sort of.
It’s a strange truism that, as much as adults want to be kids again, kids want to be adults. At home, kids may secretly want to be grown-ups, but they’re perfectly willing to have someone else cook for them and wash their clothes and get them ready in the morning and drive them around. At camp, they have to shoulder a lot of these responsibilities. They get to be little grown-ups. And, in the process, they actually do some growing up. The third reason camp has so much appeal is because it’s liberating. Sure, kids have lots of wonderful toys today. But, toys-like all possessions-are a mixed blessing. They open up possibilities, but they also constrain us. They limit us to what they can do.
When kids go to camp, they leave their toys behind. In doing so, they get to free their minds and look to the horizon. It is tremendously liberating for kids to realize that they don’t need contraptions to enjoy themselves. To be sure, the contraptions still have their place…it’s just not at camp.
The fourth and final reason that explains the remarkable appeal of summer camp is that it makes memories. At camp, the days come alive with their own identities. Each day makes its own mark. Everything is more vivid because everything is so different from the normal urban routine. The entire pace of life changes and we form wonderful recollections that don’t just stay with us until we get home or until the next year…they stay with us our entire lives.
So, as I see it, these are some of the reasons that kids are drawn out of their homes to spend summer months roughing it in the great outdoors.
But, I believe that these are just the reasons that they think they’re going to camp. To me, the real magic of camp happens beyond the campers’ immediate consciousness. The real magic is in life lessons that, once learned, become ingrained and relevant every day of one’s life long after you take the last ride home in that big sad bus.
Let me give you a few examples from my own experience.
First, there were the canoe trips. On these trips, we could never survive the first day if we didn’t practice teamwork, show initiative, handle adversity, listen well and, not least important, maintain a sense of humor. These five attributes don’t just apply to canoe trips. And, you just can’t learn them spending your summers playing video games.
Simply consider one of the lessons I was taught by building a campfire. I was always intrigued by the process of a single small flame of the match spread to the kindling and then the twigs and then the smaller branches and finally the larger logs. It didn’t dawn on me until years later that this was the perfect metaphor for the creative process. In much the same way, the fragile spark of an idea can spread to become a great work of art or a movie or a political movement or an automobile or a Space Shuttle or a new communications technology. But, these blazing achievements can only happen if the initial idea is cared for, protected and nurtured until it is ready to spread.
Years later, I found myself running a network television division and then a movie studio and now an entire entertainment company. But, much of the success I’ve achieved can be traced to the direct and metaphorical lessons I learned in building those campfires.
I can hardly think of an aspect of my life that wasn’t positively affected by my camping experience. Environmentalism? Long before I had even heard the word “ecology,” I was immersed in its significance. My environmental consciousness didn’t come so much from hearing talks about he delicate balance of nature. It came from such things as only peeling bark from a dead tree, or burying the garbage after burning the cans…or leaving the campsite just as it was found.
Charity? Every Sunday, we joined in a service during which we were expected to make a donation out of our precious canteen money.
Responsibility? At 18, I was driving trucks that held nine other kids and towed six canoes.
Crisis management? I once led a hike and got thoroughly lost on the mountain in a rainstorm. After considering all the options, I led my band bushwhacking down the trailless mountainside to civilization.
Healthy skepticism? Since I attended a boy’s camp, there were no women around to do those “Mom things.” This was a time when sexual roles were quiet ordained in society. Women cooked and cleaned. Men worked and watched football. But, it didn’t take many cooking assignments before my 8-year-old brain started to appreciate (a) that cooking wasn’t so easy and (b) that there was nothing “feminine” about it. This led me to learn that things shouldn’t be accepted just because that’s the way they’ve always been done.
Language? It was at camp that I learned my first foreign language, since it was there that we were taught the Native American words for most of the things around us. This taught me that language isn’t just about words, it is about the history and subtext behind those words.
Theater? Every Sunday night, there was a comedic review of the previous week’s events. I came to write some of those scripts, which was my first attempt to write for an audience…fortunately, a wonderfully sympathetic and receptive audience.
Respect for education? Most of the senior staff at camp were teachers the rest of the year. These were extraordinary individuals who made a lasting impression on me. And, I couldn’t help thinking, “Wow, these are teachers! And I’m not even getting in trouble.” It gave me a whole new understanding for education and the people who dedicate their lives to enriching the next generation.
Recognition? I may never win an Oscar, but it doesn’t matter. I have my coups. At the end of every session, we would get a certificate filled with the coups we had earned for hiking, archer, canoeing or whatever. Sure, it was just a piece of paper. But, so is a diploma. These certificates meant an incredible amount to me. And, they helped me to remember in later life to acknowledge excellence whenever and wherever I come across it.
The imperfections of life? Lest I paint to rosy a picture, during my many years at Kewaydin, there were a few staff men and experiences that weren’t so great. But, this contributed to the value of the experience as well. Camp isn’t about artificiality. It is about life. And life is never perfect. But, in part because it incorporates the fullness of life, warts and all, camp comes pretty darned close.
Camp transports kids with everything to a place where they have close to nothing. In so doing, it takes kids away from things they value to tech them the things of real value.
So it is that I am personally grateful for the camping experience and feel I’ve unlocked some of the secrets of its mysterious appeal.
Now, back to trying to figure out that mouse.
Whew…we couldn’t have said that any better!!!
By Michael Eisner Chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company