Summer camp. It’s a given part of childhood, even a rite of passage, for a large chunk of middle-class urban American kids, yet it has almost no analogue in Australia. For urban Aussie schoolchildren, the four instances per year of school holidays (three times two weeks, plus six weeks over the summer) are often spent either lounging around at home or participating in school-based activities with many of one’s normal class cohort. Some so-called “camps” offer more intensive engagement in specific activities, often sport or art, but participants still sleep and eat at home. Precious few secular sleep-away camps exist for Australian children. As a result, unless they take the whole family away on vacation, parents face heightened childcare constraints during school holidays, and our developing young people idle away long hours goofing off on their X-boxes or engaging in mainly the same types of activities that keep them busy during school terms. How can this make economic sense?
Sleep-away camps offer far more than their media image might suggest. They thrust children into a completely new environment, offer them activities they normally could not access, and confront them with a completely new set of other children with whom to interact. The geographical isolation of most camps in some natural rural setting encourages tight emotional bonding. Children learn how to form fast friendships and how to try new things.
Perhaps the most important element of camp from an economist’s perspective is that children trying out new activities and new social roles might just hit upon clues about where their true comparative advantage lies.
Why is the holiday sleep-away camp niche not filled by suppliers here in Australia?
First let’s consider topographic and geomorphologic fundamentals. Are there spots that would make for good camps in Australia? Sure. One could quite easily erect a residential dorm-style building somewhere in the Blue Mountains region of NSW, for example, and feature regular excursions into the natural surroundings. Beachfront camps featuring ocean-based activities could operate at suitable locations along the Western Australian, Queensland, and New South Wales coasts. Farm camps are a third obvious alternative: get a bunch of self-centred urban adolescents to work together for a week to two on a farm. Free labour for the farm, and a taste of hardworking country life for the city child. What’s not to like?
Perhaps the costs are too steep. A private stateside camp can cost anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars per week. Private charity and the government help to finance some stateside camps (particularly those with a public service element, and those designed for special-needs or disadvantaged children), in which case the costs are even lower.
There is no obvious supply-side reason – abstracting from any offense that a camp establishment would give to government bureaucrats – why Australian camp costs in the long run should be significantly higher than this, particularly if past campers were used as supervisors, a regular practice in the US. Even with no government subsidy, financing one or two weeklong camp experiences per year should be manageable for a large chunk of Australian middle-class families.
Is it cultural norms? Australian parents as a rule don’t like giving up their kids overnight to universities, and may baulk even more strongly at the prospect of giving them up overnight at younger ages. They also may be faintly suspicious that any person trying to persuade a whole bunch of kids to come together in one place far from a city has some sort of nefarious motive, ideological or otherwise. (By contrast, despite their reputation as prudish and paranoid about pedophiles, many middle-class American parents view sleep-away camps as a normal part of growing up.)
Yet, Australian parents do let their kids go on multi-day overnight school camps, and some children’s organisations do require their members to participate regularly in overnight camp-like experiences, touting the intense bonding and support for creativity that such experiences provide. There appears to already be a basic cultural understanding that camps can be beneficial. With some well-placed marketing, this understanding could be built upon.
School holidays are just around the corner. Who’s up for a joint venture?