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Camping and Social Capital.

When you think about camping programs, you often think about the world of good it does for individuals. Much of the camp literature has focused on promoting self-esteem or improving the attitudes of young people toward themselves and peers. What advocates of camping programs have sometimes failed to do is acknowledge the broader social benefits of camping. As you think about how communities are changing, you may want to view how camp is a place where social identities and a sense of reciprocity are created and sustained after the time at camp is over.

Declining Social Capital

In 1995, a political scientist by the name of Robert Putnam wrote an article in the Journal of Democracy entitled, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." He argued that a strong and active civil society is necessary in a democracy. He laments, however, that American society is losing its traditions of civic engagement with a widespread tendency toward passive reliance on the government. He notes that our society has been the model for the post-communist world, but that striking evidence suggests that our active civil society is declining. People care less about helping others and undertaking the group responsibilities necessary to sustain caring communities. He cites examples of decline during the past three decades in voter turnout, net participation in church-related as well as membership in civic and fraternal organizations, and overall volunteer involvement. Whimsically he described how more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but we are bowling alone rather than in organized leagues.

On the positive side, Putnam notes that mass membership organizations (such as the Sierra Club and American Association of Retired Persons) are gaining members. For the vast majority of these members, however, the only act of membership is writing a check for dues and occasionally reading a newsletter. Another counter trend is the apparent rapid expansion of support groups where the purpose usually is developing the self rather than necessarily creating a community.

Camps Raise Social Capital

Social capital is defined as social connections. According to Putnam, trust and engagement are two facets of social capital. The most fundamental form of social capital is the family. Neighborliness is another example. Causes of the erosion of social capital may relate to the household as women move into the labor force with little reallocation of home duties to others, the mobility of Americans, and the technological transformations that disrupt opportunities for local social capital formation and encourage social isolation.

When thinking about some of these ideas, it seems that Putnam's observations of the situation might be something that camps mitigate. If social capital is offering mutual reciprocity, collective action, and the broadening of social identities, then camping may contribute to stemming the tide of a weakened civil society.

What Can Your Camp Do?

What can you do directly or what can your camp do to foster a sense of community? First, camps may be a way that young people can experience the value of a community of concerned individuals. If a sense of community is valued in camp, this attitude may carry over into school activities and social involvements in which young people engage.

Second, camps ought to be a place where young people learn tolerance. While at camp, children can learn tolerance for different ways of thinking, acceptance of people who are different from themselves, and the realization that we do not always have to think of difference as a "better-than-worse than" scenario. Once learned at camp, this value should also transfer into campers' communities. Inherent in these ideas is how we get people to care about what happens in their world, whether related to environmental issues or how people negotiate differences of opinion.

Third, at camp young people are expected to develop a sense of responsibility for doing such activities as keeping the cabin clean or keeping track of one's swimming buddy. These expectations of what it means to do one's share to make the camp community work can be integrated into other aspects of life. The development of trust that each individual will do his or her part is a fundamental aspect of developing a sense of responsibility to carry over outside of camp.

Related to the preceding points, in a camp people learn to live together in a group. Some young people have this experience in their families, but camp staff often note that many of their campers do not have good group-living skills. The goal is to function like a unit whether as a cabin or a tripping group. Teamwork and a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves are outcomes that can be carried into other groups outside the camp.

Camp can be a place where young people learn the value of simplicity. Camp is more than Nintendo and TV. Realizing that a larger world exists and is available in terms of activities and relationships can have carry over value when the camper returns home. We hope that young people will realize there is a simpler, more caring world outside the materialism and "me-centeredness" that often predominates in today's society.

Finally, camp offers a forum for the development of leadership skills that can be carried over into the larger community by both campers and staff. Now more than ever, our society is in need of caring, responsible, ethical leaders. Camp does not develop those characteristics in everyone, but a high probability exists that with thoughtful programming, this leadership development could occur for everyone at camp.

Organized camping programs are not about "camping alone" but about a possibility for increasing social capital both at camp and in the larger community after camping sessions are over. The development of social capital as connections, reciprocity, and collective action are reasonable outcomes for camps. The social identities that people develop with their local communities and the broader world are central to a civil society. The "proof' that these benefits occur is not easily available, but it seems, camp is one place in society where the potential exists to help people develop trust and a commitment to engagement. The term "social capital" may be new when applied to camps, but the concept is as old as camping itself. Camping professionals must continue to think about this idea as a way that camp not only gives kids a world of good but gives "communities a world of good."

Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D, is professor and chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D, is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Author:Bialeschki, Deborah M.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Words:1096
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