What Summer Camps Were Like in the 1970s & 1980s

Attending summer camp is a rite of passage for many young children and teenagers. While today’s kids may balk at spending their days and nights at a place in the middle of the woods without WiFi, back in the 1970s and 1980s it was no big deal.

Interestingly, kids enjoyed a lot of the same things 40 to 50 years ago that they do today. Swimming, canoeing, and hiking continue to remain popular activities. Yet, somehow life was simpler back then. Check out what summer camps were like in the ’70s and ’80s…

Campers Learned About Snakes And Other Reptiles

camper learn about snakes from a counselor
Norman James/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Norman James/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In 1970, boys without fathers attended Bolton Camp and learned all about snakes from and other critters from counselors. The camp operated on a $150,000 grant to help both children and their moms “escape from city streets during hot summer days.” This was a common theme in the ’70s — getting away from metropolitan areas to enjoy the country.

Animals were very popular camp attractions. Kids learned about various reptiles, birds, and other creatures in order to better understand the natural world around them. Camp was the perfect place to do that.

Kids Got Baseball Lessons From Mickey Mantle

Mickey Mantle visits a summer camp
Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

These children at Flamingo Park in Miami Beach, Fla., got a very special treat during summer camp in 1970. They were given baseball advice by former New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle. In this image, the ball player shows the kids how to bunt.

Mantle was one of the sport’s best players and sluggers and is considered one of the greatest switch hitters in history. He visited the children at the camp one year after he retired. Mantle was the all-time leader in games played, with 2,401 until Derek Jeter broke his record on August 29, 2011.

Campers Hung Out With Four-Legged Friends

two boys with a puppy and a kitten
Frank Lennon/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Frank Lennon/Toronto Star via Getty Images

These two young boys were Montessori pupils who attended day camp over the summer in 1970. The photo shows them playing with some four-legged friends during a visit to a farm. While some camps were overnight adventures, others accommodated kids for the daytime only.

It’s not uncommon even today for children to attend a day camp and go on a field trip to a local attraction, such as a petting zoo or amusement park. Camps offer a variety of activities for kids to enjoy.

Hermit Crab Racing Was A Thing

kids participate in crab racing
The Denver Post via Getty Images
The Denver Post via Getty Images

This photo from 1981 shows youngsters at Green Mountain Children’s World involved in an intense game of hermit crab racing (which is also an intriguing spectator sport). The camp included a segment on American Indians, and Phillip Stepanek, 5, Eric Villanyi, 4, Malia Scow, 4, and Tun Tuni Chatterii, 4, all wore makeup to play the part.

Today, Americans are much more sensitive to the plight of Native Americans, and children are less likely to be painted to resemble the people who inhabited the United States long before colonialism.

Visually Impaired Campers Also Enjoyed The Advantages Of Summer Camp

visually impaired children at summer camp
Graham Bezant/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Graham Bezant/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In 1971, guitarist Bob Baker entertained children who were enrolled in a summer day camp operated by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Many of the campers were attending overnight camp for the first time in their lives. Shortly after this photo was taken, it rained heavily, and the kids had to take refuge in an auditorium.

The campers were also treated to sailing and plane rides. Back then, like today, there were specific camps geared towards children with disabilities, enabling them to have fun in the summer even if they have mental or physical disabilities.

Kids Had A Love/Hate Relationship With Their Counselor’s Water Hose

kids play with a water hose at summer camp
Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images

One of the best things about summer camp is cooling off in cold water, regardless of the source. This photo from 1985 shows youngsters at the Island Canoe Camp on Toronto Islands acting as “Roman legionnaires” as they used paddle kick boards to protect themselves from their 16-year-old counselor, Troy Maillet, who sprayed them down with a hose.

Some things never change. Over 30 years later children still love being in the water and horsing around with hoses, sprinklers, kiddie pools, and water pistols. It’s even more entertaining when an older counselor is involved in all the fun.

Camp Life Was Educational

learning skills at summer camp
The Denver Post via Getty Images
The Denver Post via Getty Images

This photo is from Camp Chief Ouray. It depicts a young blonde boy wielding a hammer as his counselor and several other campers look on. We’re not exactly sure why he was hammering that log, but it was likely part of an important project at the camp.

Many camps from the ’70s and ’80s involved educational experiences. Kids didn’t simply hang around at the beach and play kickball. They also learned useful life skills, such as how to survive in the wilderness and build a fire.

Kids Learned How To Use A Canoe And Other Watercraft

camp7
John Prieto/The Denver Post via Getty Images
John Prieto/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Here is another photo from Camp Chief Ouray from 1978. It shows a bunch of campers at a lake. Several are gearing up for a boat and/or canoe ride by putting on life jackets. A couple of counselors are nearby to make sure the youngsters are safe and ready to go out on the water.

When you think of the stereotypical summer camp, it always includes a lake. Many camps are located near water, allowing children to swim and canoe throughout the summer.

Meatballs, Starring Bill Murray, Was A Popular Camp Movie In 1979

the summer camp movie
Paramount/Getty Images
Paramount/Getty Images

This image shows actor Bill Murray posing with several cast members on the set of 1979 film Meatballs. Ivan Reitman directed the film, as well as subsequent comedies Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984), both of which starred Murray. The film is described as focusing on the “wacky hijinks of counselors and campers at a less-than-average summer camp.”

The movie touched on several themes related to summer camp, including coming of age as a counselor-in-training, falling in love for the first time, and trying to fit in when you’re the odd one out.

Counselors Taught Children The Art Of Indian Dancing

kids dance at summer camp
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

This photo is from Arvada Summer Day Camp in August 1976. It shows two North Jeffco recreation district staffers, Jerry Housel and Carolyn Adam, offering Indian dance instruction to a group of campers.

Many camps in the ’70s had Indian-inspired names and included activities that included Native American themes. While they were probably all created with good intentions, today the appropriation of Native American names and places is frowned upon by most Americans.

Adventure Camp Cost $20 A Week

playing in the water at summer camp
Colin McConnell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Colin McConnell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

These days, summer camp can be quite expensive and costs hundreds of dollars a week. Back in 1976, this adventure camp, sponsored by Scarborough’s recreation and parks department, cost just $20 a week. It was geared towards kids ages seven to 14 and included a variety of activities, such as orienteering, hiking, crafts, and sports.

This photo shows a group of campers trying to beat the heat by playing in what appears to be a creek while taking a break from a nature study hike. The kids went to camp Monday through Friday from 8.30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tetrahedral Kite Making & Flying Was Just One Camp Activity

interesting camp activity
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

The great thing about camp is it exposes kids to things they may not normally get a chance to see and do. This photo from 1975 shows a couple of kids involved in Tetrahedral Kite Marking And Flying. Instructor Ruth Ann Lindblad presented the kite to John Amato and Tina Ninneman during an expanded summer playground and day camp program.

The art of flying kites seems to have been lost in today’s hustle and bustle, which often includes electronic devices that absorb our attention. That’s what makes summer camps so fun — they make old-fashioned activities enjoyable.

Girl Scouts Received The Key To A New Camp Infirmary, A Necessary But Dreaded Facility

Girl Scouts at summer camp
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

In this image from 1970, a group of Girl Scouts received the keys to a new infirmary at camp near Rye, Colorado. The campers were Jane Day, Tracy Burch, and Mary Kay Reyhons. Al Link of the council camp committee presented the keys, and Pueblo people contributed money for the facility.

While it is a necessary amenity, no one likes to visit the infirmary during summer camp. Yet, there are many ways kids can get sick or hurt while attending camp, including falls, allergic reactions, bug bites, and more.

The Camp Fire Procession Was A Tradition For Webelos

Webelos camp at peaceful valley ranch
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

Over 250 10-year-old boys participated in a Webelos camp for four days at Peaceful Valley ranch in Elbert County in 1979. The picture shows the Webelos camp fire procession. Webelos are boys who are older than Cub Scouts and younger than Boy Scouts (typically fourth and fifth graders).

The word “Webelos” means WE’ll BE LOyal Scouts. It was common then and still common today for members of the Boy and Girl Scouts to attend camp during the summer. These programs are intended as enrichment to strengthen the character of the campers.

Kids Were Taught How To Fold A Bedroll

campers learn how to fold a bedroll
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

This photo was taken in June 1976 at Camp Fire day camp. It shows a couple of women teaching the campers how to properly fold a bedroll. While this may not have been one of the campers’ most interesting activities, it was certainly a valuable one. It’s just one of many life skills kids were taught in the ’70s.

How many kids today know how to properly fold a bedroll? While it may seem unimportant, it taught kids how to clean up after themselves and respect the space of those around them.

Camp Exposed Kids To Many Different People

diversity at summer camp
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

In June 1974, Carlayne Doll, 5, attended day camp at Foss Park near Indian Hills. Her first project at camp was learning how to make a colorful headband. Robertha Willingham helped put the headband on the young camper. The camp was sponsored by three Baptist churches made up of different ethnic backgrounds.

Another great thing about camp (then and now) is that it exposes children to a variety of different people. Often kids are surrounded by other children and adults who look just like them. When they go to camp, they meet new people with various backgrounds.

Children Made Tortillas At Intercultural Day Camp

making tortillas at summer camp
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

In this image from July 1971, Deroyce Anderson, 8, and Kennie Carrasco, 8, participated in a tortilla making class. The kids flattened the tortillas during cooking class at Our Lady Roman Catholic Church during intercultural day camp. While kids with Hispanic backgrounds may have been familiar with this activity, it was probably new for many other children.

Camp isn’t just about swimming and hiking. It also introduces children to many things they may have never had the opportunity to try, such as cooking Latin American food.

Older Kids Helped Younger Kids

older kid volunteering to teach a younger child
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

In August 1970, Vol Vercio, 15, helped Valerie Johnson, 5, with a drawing at a day camp sponsored by Seventh-Day Adventist teens. The aim of the camp was to bring the mountains to the city. What’s great about this image is that a teenager took off part of his summer to work with other children.

Many teens today want nothing to do with little kids during their summer vacation. Yet, there are always a few who strive to be camp counselors and don’t mind working alongside younger children.

The Fresh Air Fund Started Helping Kids Attend Summer Camp Nearly 150 Years Ago

Fresh air fund breathless wonders
Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images

This photo from 1989 shows the Breathless Wonders day camp for children with asthma. The camp was one of 77 summer camps that welcomed kids sponsored by the Fresh Air Fund. The Fresh Air Fund provides free summer vacations to New York City children from low-income communities.

The Fresh Air Fund has been in effect since 1877 and has helped more than 1.8 million kids, who travel to various states to attend summer camp. It gives them an opportunity to experience something they’ve never done before in a clean, fun, outdoor environment.

Camp Was Hard Work For Junior Counselors

junior counselor at YMCA camp
Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Playing with hundreds of young campers can be hard work and quite exhausting. This photo from August 1982 shows YMCA camp junior counselor Tammy Davies, 13, laying down to “rest her weary bones.” In her hands she’s holding a radio, which today would be an iPhone.

Life was simpler in the ’70s and ’80s. Kids looked forward to camp, and teens enjoyed working at camps to make a little spending money. But a long day in the hot sun could take its toll on even the most seasoned teenager.