Summer is almost over, and with it, the summer camp season. Every year, hundreds of thousands of American youngsters spend several weeks living away from home in rustic conditions with other kids at sleep-away camps. It's a time for playing sports, making crafts and mastering new skills, while learning life lessons about community building, leadership and healthy living, all under the careful supervision of their counselors.
To get a closer look at camp life, I visited Camp Seneca Lake in upstate New York, one of the nation's nearly 1700 accredited camps.
At barely 9 am, the 450 or so 8-15 year olds are already hard at play. Some are frolicking in the pool, others are busy with baseball, while nearby, a group of 20 or so teenage boys are holding an ad hoc basketball competition to the beat of rock music.
"It is competitive," says Jeremy, 14, who has been coming to Camp Seneca Lake for the past five summers, "but afterwards, everybody laughs about it and shakes hands, so it's all good."
On a sunlit grassy field about 100 meters away, 10-year-old girls in music class are getting ready to sing the feel-good classic "Lean on Me," their favorite song.
"I think the song means we always have friends, they are always there for you," says bright-eyed Alison. When asked whether that is the message of camp, she answers unequivocally. "Yeah, definitely."
Indeed, according to John Golden, community- building is what camps do best. Golden has directed this 79-year old camp for the past 15 years.
"The friendships that campers form at camp are just so intense," he says. "They are living in the same cabin, sharing time together 24 hours a day. It's not like home where they have their own bedrooms and mom and dad are down the hall."
Golden adds that this leads to learning a huge number of skills that are helpful in life. "You need to compromise. You need to learn respect for other people and their ways," he says.
An atmosphere of tolerance and harmony pervades the Arts and Crafts shack where some older campers are preparing costumes and making games for tonight's special Internet- themed "banquet."
"At home you can have one or two close friends. But here at camp, everyone's close," says Mark, a gangly youth armed with a paintbrush. "We are all unified. As you can see, we are all working really hard together to make a really good banquet for everyone."
Elaine, a blond girl who has been sitting nearby sewing computer designs onto t-shirts looks up and nods. "Here not only can you be yourself but you are loved for being that individual that you are."
For Elaine, the sense of acceptance from other campers helps her to feel both free and relaxed. "You [can] just show your energy. You let it all pour out of you because that's what its all about, showing your emotions and conveying them."
Inside the common dining hall, where campers bang on tables and belt out traditional cheers for their bunk groups, what is called "controlled chaos" reigns supreme. Many of the chants have been around since their parents and maybe even their grandparents attended Camp Seneca Lake.
Only halfway through her hot dog, counselor Dinah Irwin is already hoarse from leading the way. "At home you can never go in a restaurant and bang on the table. It's just unacceptable. But her at camp, it's a way of life -- just banging on the tables and screaming at lunch and letting everything out that you've been holding in all year."
When one cheers, she adds, one can say whatever words one likes, and in any rhythm "but you are joining the voices of everyone else to create one big voice. And eventually when it's time to quiet down, everyone quiets down."
But not for long. There is always the evening entertainment. Tonight, some campers are performing an end-of-season play that spoofs camp life. It's brimming with insider jokes, good-natured ribbing and laughs. It's just one more activity to fuel the nostalgic end-of-season goodbyes everyone here knows must come soon.