How 15 Summer Camp Traditions Came to Be

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If you love being out in nature, there’s a good chance you had some early exposure through adolescent summer camps. Since the turn of the century, kids have been able to spend their break from school exploring the outdoors, making friends, and more, all of it encouraged by annual traditions that make them feel more at home. Have a look at how some of the biggest recurring camp activities started.


While every counselor might have a different playlist, most are still in the habit of gathering attendees to sing along. When summer camps were becoming part of the cultural fabric in the early 1900s thanks to an increasing state park development, the concept of communal singing was already a large part of movies (i.e. following the bouncing ball) and residential pianos. The practice was—and remains—an easy way to establish a unified attitude.


While summer camps are meant to cultivate teamwork, sometimes that means breaking off into warring factions. The concept of splitting camps into squads of different colors may have started at Schroon Lake Camp in the Adirondacks in 1916. Dubbed “Red and Grey Week,” the practice soon spread to several camps around the country in the 1920s.


Many camps signal kids to wake up by using a bugle, but the instrument’s original intention was to put soldiers to sleep. In 1862, Union General Daniel Butterfield asked one of his men to promote something less formal than what was currently used to signal lights out for servicemen. (That melody later became “Taps.”) Like the “First Call” upon waking, it was adapted from the military as a way to corral campers who might be scattered over a large area.


It’s not quite dodgeball, but it’s close. Gaga ball—gaga is Hebrew for “touch touch”—originated in Jewish summer camps in the 1980s and quickly spread when it was written about in a trade journal. Instead of being spaced apart, players are confined to a small space dubbed a “Gaga Pit” and need to smack the ball with their hand rather than throw it.


Many camps play games that require the use of bean bags as “ammunition” or as objects to be tossed, grabbed, or carried. These were typically made with conventional flour and bags that were sewn at the top to avoid spills. In the 1950s, one Adirondacks camp found themselves short on the flour needed to fill the fabric bags for the activities. In a rush, they used the campers’ dirty socks instead. Thus, the “Flourhawk” was born.


This metaphorical war game has been around for ages and isn’t relegated strictly to camping: recreational clubs and schools play it, too. All of them can chalk it up to the practice in actual combat of having one man keep a flag raised to indicate they were still fighting. If a flag was down, it meant there was no one remaining on the losing side to keep it aloft.


A popular team-building exercise, bucket brigades have ties to fire fighting in the 1600s. Before hydrants and powerful hoses were commonplace, emergency responders typically passed a bucket of water from one set of hands to another, daisy-chaining a supply of water from the town well to extinguish a blaze before it got out of hand.  Some cities, like New York, wrote laws requiring businesses to have a certain number of buckets on the premises.


There’s no huge need for an origin story when it comes to costume parties—they’re just fun—but one North Carolina camp’s backstory can offer some exposition on why kids can dress up one night every summer. As this particular camp’s legend has it, a tiger-like creature known as a Tajar likes to lurk in treetops and is usually too shy to socialize. By putting on disguises, the kids can lure him out without knowing who he really is. Other camps may have similar legends to promote themed parties.


Not every camper in the 7- to 15-year-old age range has the patience for conventional golf, but a growing number are taking up disc golf. Using a saucer-shaped projectile, players try to hit a target using a minimal number of throws. The game was conceived by disc makers in the 1970s in the hopes of boosting sales.


Many camps celebrate the end of a session by taking ashes from the final campfire and having a counselor introduce them into the next year’s ceremony to create a link between groups. The practice may have originated with an Iowa boys’ club in 1933—they wanted to use the ashes as a memory of their time together.


Camp is one of the few instances where children setting fire to things is encouraged. In a rope burn, counselors tie ropes eight feet long to a brace and have campers set up fires underneath; the group then watches from across the lake as the ropes burn through, with the first one to fall the winner. The idea comes from scouting organizations that introduced rope burn as a way of promoting fire building and fire safety.


The idea of staging a faux-Christmas celebration in the summer months had its origins in a North Carolina girls’ camp in 1933. Sensing some of the attendees came from lower-income families, counselors wanted to make sure they had a holiday experience, with a tree, an appearance by Santa, and gifts. The activity has since become a fun way to juxtapose winter cheer with warm weather.


The practice of awarding campers with colored bandanas to recognize accomplishments stems from a camp curriculum near the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1914. Campers were given inexpensive rags rather than medals to signify it was the action—not the reward—that had value.


Some camps drum up anticipation for the pending summer season early—occasionally even as early as Valentine’s Day. Kids who sign up before spring get limited edition t-shirts, an effort started by one group in 1990 to help fill up enrollment before school lets out.


Though the exact origin is unknown, the ritual of setting candles to float on the lake and watching them slowly “swim” together to form a unifying light was meant to symbolize the camp experience itself: individuals arriving alone and feeling isolated wind up coming together.