As the Club’s summer camp season nears, young Members talk fun in the sun, field trips with friends and new ways to grow.
At the turn of the 20th century, American parents began to worry that rapid industrialization and urbane society would overcoddle their children. The only solution, they reasoned, was to send the younger generation back into what remained of the frontier forests for weeks of axe handling, orienteering and rugged character building.
Soon enough, those same parents began asking what use survival skills were in a modernized future. But the concept of summer camp thrived. In the United States alone, the American Camp Association now counts 14 million campers at 8,400 sleepaway and 5,600 day camps across the country, and camp fever is spreading beyond American borders as well.
Far from teaching the bygone skills of a forgotten frontier, contemporary summer camps have kept pace with youth interests. Fascinated by computers? Head to coding camp. Love trying new recipes? Give culinary camp a try. Can’t get enough of big-budget action flicks? Hollywood stunt camp is for you.
A parent in 1900s New York might scoff at these frivolous programs, but early childhood education expert and Member Cathy Noyes believes every summer camp shares the same spiritual source.
“Camp is a really good place for kids to be away from their parents,” says Noyes. “It’s the beginning of a child thinking of themselves as an individual. It’s a stepping stone.”
Every summer, hundreds of campers find ways to grow at the Club’s Camp Discovery. A ratio of six campers to each counselor ensures that every child has the support and supervision they need.
At Preschool Camp (ages 3 to 5) and Big Kids Camp (ages 6 to 12), kids stretch their creative muscles with arts and crafts in the morning before stretching their real ones through sports and games at the Club and nearby parks. After a Rainbow Café-catered lunch, older campers beat the heat in the Sky Pool and set out on Thursday excursions to Tokyo’s most exciting sites.
Campers still with energy to burn at the end of the day can hang back at the All-Star Sports after-hours club to hone those tennis shots, hip-hop dance moves, volleyball spikes and more.
Axes or not, those early frontier fantasy camps and Camp Discovery share a purpose: when summer ends, campers are better off than when they started.
Suhavi Seyan had just turned 3. Standing outside one of Camp Discovery’s game rooms, she wouldn’t leave her mother’s side.
“Everybody was looking at me,” the 4-year-old explains. “I was hiding.”
For first-time campers, nerves are normal. That’s when counselors step in.
“We begin camp by getting to know one another and playing games to break the ice,” says Sabia Faden, 19, a Camp Discovery counselor and sophomore at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “Many children come in shy but leave very bright and energized.”
Icebreakers are just the start of the fun at Camp Discovery. After one summer of new friends and newfound confidence, it’s no wonder Suhavi was a changed camper on the first day of her second Camp Discovery.
“I ran into camp all by myself,” Suhavi declares with an infectious smile that spreads to her mother, Summeet Kaur Seyan. “I said bye-bye to Mommy, then I ran in.”
The camp was a dry run for preschool, explains Seyan. Pregnant with her son, Maha, she had one less worry when it came time for Suhavi to be on her own at school five days a week.
“I would have been completely lost without [Camp Discovery],” Seyan says. “I think it got Suhavi out of her shell. And I look forward to sending Maha to camp as well.”
Going It Alone
This summer will mark Alethea Ko’s seventh Camp Discovery. Even so, her mother can remember Alethea when she first started as a 4-year-old too timid to order for herself at restaurants.
“She wouldn’t even dare to ask the waiter for anything,” says Yoke Hing Ko. “Mama always had to do it for her.”
After five years of Camp Discovery, most of Alethea’s nerves had worn off. Still, she told her mother to make sure she was there to pick her up when camp let out each afternoon. Then, during one field trip last summer, Alethea, 10, explored KidZania, a kids-only theme park where she could try out dozens of grownup jobs. She designed robots as an engineer, defended clients as an attorney and saved lives as a firefighter.
“It wasn’t just one thing,” Alethea explains. “You could be anything.”
Maybe it gave Alethea an idea. Last year, she told her mom she didn’t have to pick her up anymore. She was going to hang out at the Club with her newfound friends.
“She never used to do that,” Ko says of the daughter who once hid behind menus. “Now she’s brave enough to just go to Rainbow Café and have a snack.”
Miki Makabe searched for the friends she had made the year before. But when she couldn’t find them, she didn’t cry. As all campers do on the first day of Camp Discovery, she started making her nametag.
A girl appeared by her side.
“She said, ‘I’m Lisa,’” Miki, 9, recalls. “She said, ‘Can I be your best friend?’”
Miki nodded, even if she found
Lisa’s openness a bit strange. A bit more reserved, Miki says she doesn’t think she’s the type to make instant friends.
“Not many kids talk to people they don’t know,” Miki says. “I mean, I don’t.”
Counselors can help campers feel more at home, but part of summer camp is when campers feel comfortable enough in an unfamiliar environment to try something new on their own.
Miki might not relish the spotlight, but what would she do this summer if she saw a girl like her, alone and anxious, on the first day of camp?
“If I have friends I’m playing with, maybe I’ll invite them,” Miki says. “I’ll say, ‘Hello, would you like to join?’ Something like that.”
Time to Talk
There’s no shortage of native English speakers working as camp counselors in Tokyo each summer. To twins Nao and Yuri Matsudaira, what makes Camp Discovery different isn’t the counselors but their fellow campers.
“Camp Discovery is, like, more American,” Yuri, 10, explains. “We spend most of the time speaking English.”
“It’s easier to talk in English at the camp,” agrees Nao, 10.
At school, they attend structured English classes. Some days, students round into circles. Turn by turn, they describe their days. At Camp Discovery, Nao and Yuri speak English of a kind that can be difficult to find in Japan: informal, authentic exchanges on all the topics kids know and love.
“We talk about, like, games and basketball and what kind of school [we go to] and what we like and things,” says Nao.
“Sometimes it’s talking about what your favorite food is,” adds Yuri. “Sometimes it’s talking about what your favorite animal is and what you want to be when you grow up.”
Every camper retains something from their time at Camp Discovery. On a recent family vacation to the Grand Canyon, the Matsudairas shared a ride through the deserts of the southwest with two American tourists. Just like meeting a pair of campers, Nao and Yuri chatted with their companions.
“It was fun,” Nao says as Yuri nods. “We could really explore.”
Each week of Camp Discovery ends with a show. In front of their parents, campers present the arts and crafts they’ve made and give their all in a group dance, song or skit.
It’s always a highlight of Edward Shaw’s summer.
“It just gives me a chance to share everything we learned and let out all that joy from the week,” the 10-year-old says.
Just before this summer’s Camp Discovery kicks off on June 10, Edward will turn 11. It will be his second-to-last year at the camp, but when he turns 15, the minimum age to be a junior counselor, he might be back.
“The most important values of being a counselor are to be motivational and to be engaged,” says Cade Reid, 21, a junior at Canada’s University of Victoria and Camp Discovery’s lead counselor last year. “In that sense, Edward has the potential to be an excellent counselor.”
So much so that Edward already knows how he would comfort a first-time camper.
“I would say, ‘Don’t worry, there’s so much fun and there are so many games. You’ll have some good times and you’ll make lots of good friends.’”
Words: Owen Ziegler
Image: Benjamin Parks