What The Hell Happened To Summer Camp?

You know, when I was a kid, summer meant lemonade stands, trips to the library, afternoons at the swimming pool, bike riding everywhere, and overall free lancing until it was time to come home for a late dinner. Throw in some sailing and annual trips to visit the cousins in Toledo….It was grand. It was all very Norman Rockwell-ian and exactly as it should have been.

And there were the weeks I went to camp. Brownie Day Camp. Girl Scout Camp. YMCA Day Camp. Band Camp (shut up). Sailing Camp. Student Council Camp. Then there was the six years I was a camp counselor at the YMCA Day Camp I had grown up at. I spent so many summers having adventures and living outdoors and enjoying nature that I gave Laura Ingalls Wilder a run for her money.

I loved all of it – being outside, hiking through the woods, teaching sports to kids, dumb camp songs, river walks, arts & crafts, cooking on a campfire, swimming, boating, preparing skits for Parents Night, the sound of the cabin door creaking open, All-Camp Capture The Flag, throwing frogs at lifeguards, the epic 160 foot slip-n-slide we made with pool covers and dish soap….even the underwear on the flagpole.

You know, S-U-M-M-E-R  C-A-M-P. The kind with bugs.

A few weeks ago my mother sent me a letter in the mail. It has a yellow sticky note on it, which means she thinks it is something serious and the sticky note bears her warnings and forebodings. In college this would have been articles on STDs and binge drinking and the importance of antioxidants. But these days, in my matured adulthood, it means one thing and one thing only: Sexualization & Gender Stereotypes.

I read her note that says: “Pigtail Pals needs to become a corporate sponsor for this camp and redirect curriculum”. Huh, I thought. I actually used to run this community day camp the summer after I graduated from high school. What could have possibly become so awful about it?

Gender Stereotype Summer Camp!

Did you digest all of that? Let’s break this down:

Girls: For ages 4 and up, those girls whose dreams are wild and daring enough to be an “aspiring princess” get to go up to the school, sit in the gym, make capes and craft tiaras for themselves and their favorite doll, learn a princess dance, wear a princess dress, and attend a tea party and something of a debutante ball.

Boys: For ages 4 and up, Adventure Camp! They will explore Ravine Park, go fishing, sports day, Olympics day, they will venture away from the school gym and embark on safe adventures all around the village.

In fact, the boys will become such Masters of the Universe that they only meet at the school for the first day, after which their grandness takes them to locations and activities so exciting they cannot be named in the community newsletter.

Summer Camp for girls should look like this (images from Rachel Simmon’s Girl Leadership Institute, where even I want to be a camper!)


Girls sitting in a gym doing arts & crafts on what is really a glorified play date with princess dresses and tea parties DOES NOT a summer camp experience make.

What it does make is Stepford Wives. What of the girls who are ages 4 and up and do not aspire to be princesses or learn a princess dance? What of the girls who can kill it on the soccer field and rip into a softball? What of the girls whose eyes shine at the thought of adventure and tromping through the woods? What of the girls who enjoy the sound of waves lapping gently at the shore while they wait for a tug on their fishing line?

For that matter, what of the boys who are interested in textile and fashion design and prefer less testosterony, Gladiator-like afternoons? What of the boys who enjoy choreographed dance and storytelling?

This camp is held in the very small community I grew up in. I personally know ALL of the high school graduates from the last 15 years or so. And you know what? Not a single one of us gals grew up to become a freaking princess. Not a one. We grew up to become teachers, lawyers, investigators, social workers, doctors, mothers, business women, chefs, policy makers & legislators, finance and accounting gurus, artists, writers…you get the idea.

If girls want to play with dolls and have tea parties, that is darling. My own four year old daughter loves to seat all of her plush toys and dolls around a little table in her room and host an afternoon tea at which she serves buttons, pennies, and nickels. And she loves art. And dance. and storytelling.

She also loves sports. And fishing. And exploring and adventure walks and all of the things that this tiny village seems to think requires stratification between the genders.  Couldn’t there have been a way to have Castle Camp (instead of Princess Camp), where the children of BOTH genders, design their own castles using recycled materials like boxes and paper towel rolls and construction paper? Or draw castle dragons and coat of arms on giant rolls of butcher paper? Create mosaic crowns? Participate in Royal Field Day where there are egg rolls and wheelbarrow races and waterballoon tosses? What about create a menu and songs for a castle feast where everyone dances after the dragon is captured?

And why does the exploration of Kohler Village necessitate the having of a penis? Couldn’t both genders attend Adventure Camp? I do not have a penis and I spent my entire youth getting eaten by mosquitos while I built forts in the woods, caught crayfish in Ravine Park, played soccer and baseball at Upper Lost Woods Park, and rode my bike to Woodlake to get ice cream and feed the fish stale bread.

Summer camp and the experiences it gives children for exploration, pushing boundaries, friendship making, leadership training, learning about nature, skill development, and overall providing of new opportunities should not be squandered and packaged into Pink and Blue Boxes.

We should never limit and label our children.

We should NEVER teach them to do it to each other.

Here are some other great posts about summer camp, and summer activities:

My Little Hen: “Be a Preservationist of Childhood Summers” Read here.

Rachel Simmons (with Michael Thompson: “Putting Camp In the Childhood Equation”  Read here.

Parenting Pink: “Tips for a Fun & Productive Summer With Your Daughter” Read here.


  1. Um, wow. That’s really sad. It seems like gender stereotyping is becoming more and more institutionalized. The camp is probably responding to demand, a demand that has been generated by the barrage of princess marketing to girls. A big issue is educating parents. Parents of babies may not become aware of the insidious nature of stereotyped marketing until a few years later when the children have already become indoctrinated. Then it’s hard to steer them away from the princess or other gender-stereotyped interests that have been sold to them right under our noses. I hope you will work to turn this camp around, and help the parents to understand why.
    .-= Erin´s last blog ..Fifth graders learn to deconstruct ads =-.

  2. 20 bucks say the princess camp is sponsored by that TLC show, “toddlers and tiaras.”

    such bullshit this is… UGH!!!

    in other news, your mom is friggin amazing and i want to get on her mailing list.

  3. If I lived in that community I would be signing my daughters up for the boys camp, no question. A princess camp? How absolutely ridiculous.
    .-= Bridie Cotter´s last blog ..bumblebrie: @PigtailPals Aww, thanks : ) She is so much fun, too. Really coming into her personality. Loves to play. =-.

  4. I know the point of your article was about gender stereotypes, and I agree with everything you said!

    However, I really appreciated the validation I felt after reading your first paragraph… my 8- and 11-year old are home this summer going to the library, weeding the garden, having lemonade stands, and bicycling to the park. I was feeling guilty that they weren’t in camp.
    .-= Dee Andrews´s last blog ..Laughs in London =-.

  5. Hey Melissa!! This is the same thing I was looking at last week! Adriane and I are working on incorporating our programs we run year round into a camp for girls, that would include like social change projects, career development programs, which include things like starting a business, writing resumes, career exploration, science/technology and robotics camps! I think we’ve come from the same mode you and I. When I studied took women’s studies classes when It returned to college after dropping, I was forever changed!! Keep up the amazing work..awesome!!

  6. First, you should add ‘queen of pithy journo’ to your illustrious list of titles, as I love, love, love this important snapshot (& backwards time travel into the “scary fairy syndrome” of pigeon-holing genders)

    I’m frankly surprised marketers haven’t started hawking ‘pink tents’ & canteens for a ‘girl spin’ on ‘ruggedness’ since it seems nothing can just ‘be’ without a gender defining ‘bow in the hair, long lashes, or other telltale signs of foisted identity into kids’ mindshare.

    In response to Kara’s comment (so we don’t go ‘all bile’ with our morning mayhem routine) there ARE some positive change camps (like GFC, GLI, etc) & some STEM selections too: DigiGirlz (Microsoft’s summer camp offering I wrote about here: http://www.shapingyouth.org/p?=4784 but those are “specialty offerings” vs. a well-rounded cornucopia camp.

    Def need to put the ‘camp’ back into summer camp universally, ditch the pink and blue segmentation of interests (frankly off-base at that age regardless, until we put them there w/marcom!) and return to natural shades of forest green and brown open to all to pick and choose what THEY like in ‘discovery’ mode, since that’s what camp’s REALLY supposed to be about, n’est ce pas? Exposure to new things, people, places, scenarios in ‘trial-sized’ portions as marketers might say…
    .-= Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth´s last blog ..Hey Grads! Free Gift For You! Josh Shipp’s 2010 Graduation Rap =-.

  7. Erin, Let me know when you plan to go to Rachel’s Summer Leadership Institute– I want to go too!

  8. Thank you for writing this.
    No thank you to the people who thought this camp was a good idea.

    Kudos to you and Pigtail Pals for giving us a voice in the world.
    No Kudos to the people who want to make my little girl conform to gender stereotypes.

    I agree w/ Amy – look into S.T.E.M. camps, F.I.R.S.T. camps and GLI *Girls Leadership Institute. We have to offer our girls more options and offer our boys some well roundedness, too. How about camps designed on activities and fun not based on gender stereotypes and labeling? Not all boys love adventure and not all girls want to wear Tiaras. When people realize they can make a ton more money marketing balance and education — we will all be richer!

  9. One hour for camp each day? I think both the boys and the girls are getting cheated. What kinds of adventures take an hour (or less, because you have to get the kids together and bring them back, etc…)?

  10. Well, I feel absolutely silly because my first response was “that’s cute.” My daughters, who are 3 and 5, absolutely love all that princessy and dressing up stuff. They even had a princess-themed birthday party. (Boys were invited and one even wore a tiara.) However, I am angered after some thought because my girls would also like to go on outside adventures and I know my 5-year-old’s male BFF would like to learn a princess dance. If there were no genders attached, would you be pissed?
    .-= BrooklynShoeBabe´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

  11. Great post Melissa. I wonder if this even qualifies as summer camp, since it’s only one hour per day, for four days. What ever happened to summer camp?!?

  12. I’m kinda with “Brooklyn Shoe Babe” above. I think girls should have the option to do princess-y things if that’s what they like, but it should be an option. Not the only thing offered for them. My daughter loves, loves, loves princess stuff. But, she also loves outdoorsy, tough stuff – climbing trees, getting dirty, playing cars and Legos, etc.
    .-= Krista´s last blog ..atsirkdeer: RT @Blacktating: Moms of color: if you’ve had a C-section and are open to writing about your birth experience, please contact me…. htt … =-.

  13. Kidvidkid says:

    An “N” of 1…there are lots of summer camps out there with equal adventure, arts, drama, sports, crafts and other opportunities for boys and girls.

    Far beyond the $10 range for “Princess Camp,” but both my daughters went to Hidden Valley Camp in Maine, where their opportunities were unlimited and the traditions, adventures and friends will stay with them forever (I know, because one of those friends just came and spent a weekend with us!).

  14. I would never limit my boy/girl twins to such a gender divided summer activity. While I never went to summer camp growing up, my favorite summer activity was playing in the cow pasture, climbing trees and getting dirty. my twins will enjoy a family summer camp trip to my sister’s farm. Getting dirty is encouraged!

  15. Yes. I agree with you 100 times 100 times 100.

  16. I did a study for one of my qualifying papers during my doctoral program years back in which I studied websites of different sports to see the gender split– specifically how they portrayed boys and girls in pictures and what gender markers they used in text, font, colors, etc. In much of what I saw, boys were active, girls were passive. Boys were rugged and girls were sweet and cute.

    This takes it to the next degree. As someone who grew up with dirt under her nails and insisting on wearing pants since that’s what her brother’s did, I couldn’t begin to understand the fascination with sitting in a hot room making tiaras over the summer. I started full day camp at age 4– earlier than my brothers because I just couldn’t take it anymore to be left behind by the big yellow camp bus– and 8 week sleep away camp at age 9. It was dirty and sweaty and fun.

    Now I’m not saying that girls can’t like princesses. Or that they can’t like tiaras. As long as they can toss them aside when running down a field, diving into a lake, or collecting frogs (spring peepers– we were obsessed with them) in their hands while waiting their turn on the archery field.

    Nice work, Melissa.

  17. Ack! Some girls might adore this camp-like experience…it may just be their “cup of tea”, while the more adventurous at heart may find themselves coming up short. I love your suggestions of making it an “all-skate”…with fare that would please a wide variety of campers.

    The idea of gender-role stereotyping is what touches the nerves. Why separate the genders at all when there is no obvious need to do so (no overnights, etc.)?

    But, how dare we question this seemingly harmless kid-camp experience? Are kids smart enough to even see the discrepancy…”Girls stay inside and read and have tea and crumpets…while the boys explore, divide and conquer…they are the movers and the shakers…they get things done.” While there is nothing inherently misogynistic about these camp offerings, there is an undercurrent of gender-role stereotyping that may be subtle, yet enduring. Therin lies the rub.

    Would this one camp experience make it such that a little “princess” might feel that she would be resigned to a life “castle-keeper” and “tea-preparer”? (And that SHOULD be a choice if it is made freely, and amongst other options) Highly unlikely…just as it is highly unlikely that a child would learn to read given just one lesson in reading. It is the exposure to the topic and idea over and over again, which finally consolidates it in one’s head. It is the strong undercurrent and the insidious power that it has on one’s developing belief systems about themselves and how they fit into this world, what their options are, what they are capable of and how big they can dream.

    The good news is…the camps run at different times. The saving grace would be a disclaimer that says, “While we recognize not every girl might enjoy the “Princess Camp”, and every boy might not swoon at the idea of “Adventure Camp”…we scheduled them at different times and you are encouraged to sign your child up for one OR both of the camps!”

  18. Great post, Melissa. These ideas about gender get started so early, and the “princessification” of our girls is taking it to a whole new extreme. I have an activity in YOU’RE AMAZING! that encourages girls (and girl advocates) to take a trip down the greeting card aisle and look at the birthday cards for girls and boys. Even cards for one-year-olds are obviously gendered, not just in their pink and blue colors, but in the messages and images they contain. Girls get “sweet” and “cute” ponies, kittens etc. Boys get “go get ’em” skateboards and fire engines.
    .-= Claire Mysko´s last blog ..Oprah’s Mea Culpa: “I Publicly Shamed Myself” =-.

  19. My youngest daughter is 22 now. When she was about 8 she was asked to a princess birthday party. So I made her a costume about her favourite princess… Xena, Warrior Princess. It was a great outfit, complete with the ring thing that Xena weilded so well. To say that we got a few skew looks when we arrived at the party would be an understatement 🙂

  20. If your looking for a summer camp in the United States, check out Camp Network, http://www.campnetwork.com. There are over 4,000 camps and they have detailed descriptions of each one with links to the actual websites. Great for knowing what camps you should be looking at!

  21. You sound like me when I was a girl. I loved to be outside running and exploring everywhere. I don’t know if it that times have changed or if it has always been like this but I am the mother of a 3 year old who wakes up every morning asking to wear her princess dress, which she then pairs together with her pink gumboots. She likes to wear pink, sometimes if I am lucky I can get her into a yellow dress. I have not pushed her into this in anyway, I never wear dresses or bother with make up (unless it’s a special occasional) my hair is brushed in the morning and then put up and forgotten about, it’s a miracle if I remember to shave my legs every three months,so I know she doesn’t get it from me. It just seems to be who she is. I try to get her into overalls, shorts, jeans or leggings, she isn’t interested. Having said all that as soon as she is in her pink princess dress, with her pink gumboots and her hair made all pretty she runs screaming out the back door ready to start the day exploring she doesn’t mind getting messy, or loud, she has no problems play fighting and she also enjoys collecting and watching bugs, she just likes looking good when she does it.

  22. I see this all the time in my “upscale” suburb. Ugh. My sister and I were sent to a summer camp for a month in Canada where we lived in A-frames and participated in a rotating schedule of activities that the boys participated in equally. The only thing that separated the boys from the girls was which side of the dining hall their cabins were located, for obvious reasons.

    However an interesting thought, I have a friend, who is a sociology professor. She is adamantly against all this stuff as well. Her daughter begged and pled for princess crap, and eventually she broke down. Why? Because in her research she discovered that owning princess items, for girls, and guns and swords, for boys, were a form of “currency” in navigating toddler and the under 8 set social politics.


  1. […] and I’m proud to share her spirited prose on Shaping Youth today, which originally appeared on her blog here this […]

  2. […] what is my point. Well today I saw this on the Pigtail blog. It is a summer camp that girls go to be princesses and boy are explorers. I mean I have heard of […]

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