9 Strangest Camps

Weirdest Camps

1. A Masculinity Camp for Boys That Starts at Age 8

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Each session of Camp Nick, a “masculinity camp” for boys age 8 to 11 held in a bucolic park in Santa Monica, California, begins with a chant.

We do what we HAVE to do before we do what we WANT to do!

Nick Tucker, the camp’s leader and namesake, sits cross-legged on the grass surrounded by seven boys, most of whom are sporting long hair — indicative more of Southern California style than anything particular about masculinity. “What does that mean? How does it pertain to your life?” Tucker, who could pass for an NFL defensive back, asks the boys. (In reality, he’s a teacher’s assistant at the local elementary school.)

“Brush your teeth before you play video games!” Riley* explains matter-of-factly. (*All the boys’ names have been changed out of respect for their privacy.)

“You do what you have to do to survive,” Damon adds. “Like keeping your house safe from hurricanes and washing the dishes and taking a bath.”

“Okay, and what do we call those things?” Tucker presses.

“Responsibility!” the boys shout in unison. Everyone is fired up, like the characters from Pee Wee’s Playhouse stumbling upon the secret word.

Dylan leans over and whispers in my ear. “Mr. Tucker really likes the word ‘responsibility,’ write that down.”

The Camp Nick curriculum is designed to help participants better understand themselves and how they fit into the world around them. The fundamentals of football are drilled, as are lessons on what it means to be on a team. “If you have any pointers on how to better guard someone, respectfully offer them,” Tucker directs during a flag-football game.

The end of each session is reserved for journaling, when the boys reflect on the session, the day or their life in general. Those with special needs who can’t write are asked to draw pictures representing their feelings. “It’s an important aspect of this camp because it’s a valuable tool to develop,” Tucker explains. “I remember going through college and having dysfunctional relationships just because I didn’t know how to express myself.”
“They’re kids!” says Jaclyn Lafer, a friend of mine who’s a psychotherapist and early childhood specialist. She’s extensively researched children, childhood and curiosity and recently earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She last spoke with me about the value of boys wearing dresses, so it’s safe to put her on the port side, politically. “In Freudian terms, age 8 to 11 falls in the period of latency, where there’s no sexuality going on. So I’ve never heard of a ‘masculinity’ camp for boys this young. To be cultivating masculinity years before boys enter puberty sounds ridiculous to me.”

Nonetheless, each Camp Nick session opens with a discussion relating to social influences, peers, males in media and developing a stronger sense of self. “There’s a billboard I’ve seen in the neighborhood for a show called The Outsiders,” Tucker says. “It’s a guy with an angry face clutching a machete and an axe. I pose questions like, ‘If you don’t look like that, are you any less of a boy or a man?’”

Heady stuff for third-graders.

A few of the kids engage in the conversation, Tucker says, but he admits others are restless and only there because their parents want them to be. “Then you get the kids who are rolling around throwing grass in the air, which is to be expected.”

Camp Nick began in January after parents asked Tucker if he could develop a boys’ equivalent to the after-school programs they had for girls — like yoga and Girls on the Run. It was inspired by mindfulness practices in the curriculum at Citizens of the World elementary school, where Tucker teaches, but also by his personal story. “Growing up I played sports that were hypermasculine — football, basketball, lacrosse — and remember how they shaped my mindset and influenced my actions, both positively and negatively. It was cool to say, ‘I got in a fight at the bar last night.’ I know what I know now, but I also know what I didn’t know when I was their age,” he explains. “There’s a pack mentality when you’re with a group of guys. You tend to do things you otherwise wouldn’t; it’s cool to be overly aggressive and talk about getting in fights or disrespecting girls.”

Tucker chose this age range — again, 8 to 11 — because that’s when he says pack mentality sets in and boys begin changing their behavior to fit in. He’s seen it with boys in and out of the classroom. “Third grade is a good time to start these conversations because they can begin to understand the concepts we’re talking about. My primary goal is to help them not conform based on what anyone else says and learn to be comfortable with themselves.”

In many ways, Tucker’s giving the boys of Camp Nick a head start on an effort currently sweeping college campuses. For example, a mandatory freshman orientation training for men at Gettysburg College included a documentary stating in part that the “three most destructive words” a boy can hear growing up are “be a man.” Brown University has a program to “unlearn toxic masculinity.” Duke offers men a safe space to do the same, as do the Claremont Colleges, Ithaca College and Oregon State University.

The “Men and Masculinities Center” at University of Massachusetts, Amherst is where students can “interrogate and deconstruct traditional forms of masculinity.” Vanderbilt University hosted “Healthy Masculinities Week” last semester, led in part by Jackson Katz (who recently explained to me how U.S. presidential elections are always a referendum on masculinity). Eastern Michigan University says its “Men of Strength” program is designed to promote “an understanding of the ways traditional masculinity contributes to sexual assault.” And the University of Regina, in Canada, hosted a four-day event in March at which students could enter confessional booths to reconcile the “sin of hypermasculinity.”

“We don’t have to continue to live in a misogynistic society,” a Regina football player told the Washington Times. “I think [changing this] falls on everyone and especially men because quite frankly we are the problem right now.”

Even Axe Body Spray — the eau de toxic masculinity and a brand synonymous with alpha male stereotypes — is now forcefully opposing them. “Seventy-two percent of guys have been told how a real man should behave,” opens a new Axe commercial entitled “Is It Okay for Guys?” (…To cry? To be skinny? To be the little spoon?). The commercial ends with a question central to Camp Nick’s mandate: “Is it okay for guys to be themselves?”

Tucker also wants Camp Nick attendees to know it’s okay to share their feelings. Case in point: During the flag-football game, he notices Riley has stepped off the field in tears and asks him what’s wrong. After a brief chat, he stops the game to allow Riley to share his frustrations with two other boys who have been making trouble all day. “I came here to play football and learn,” Riley says meekly. “I get really upset when you mess around because you’re making it really hard for me to even have fun — ”

“I don’t like when you judge me,” Damon interrupts.

“When I give Riley the floor to express his feelings, it’s not a time for debate,” Tucker scolds. “He was expressing something that was visibly affecting him and you went right to being defensive and unwilling to listen and participate in what we’re doing. Quite frankly, it’s really selfish.”

“I just don’t like that he’s judging me,” Damon repeats.

Damon’s not alone. There’s been a backlash to what some perceive to be an assault on masculinity in America. As Todd Starnes of Fox News put it, “Instead of a country full of manly men, our universities want a nation full of Pajama Boys. Could you imagine the Greatest Generation flitting about town after a spa and dishing about their innermost thoughts with life coaches?”

Lafer, obviously, isn’t as dic-ish as Fox News, but she does question whether Camp Nick’s mission should be gendered in the first place. “It sounds like what he’s doing is creating a sense of confidence, increasing an empathic response to others and developing a mindful way of being in the world,” she says, “which could be a benefit to either gender of child. Increasing a sense of who are we, how do we interact with others and realizing we sometimes have to postpone gratification and do things we need to do to be responsible in the world — all of those things can have value… for boys and girls. And adults. It’s surprising to me that parents in the liberal bastion of Los Angeles would be sending such young boys to ‘masculinity camp’ to learn these things.”

As Camp Nick draws to a close, Tucker asks the boys to huddle up. “We had our moments today,” he says, nodding at Riley and Damon. “One of our friends was upset, and we gave him space to express himself. After that, I noticed a big change in behavior which I’m really proud of you for.”

He distributes notebooks and pens to everyone.

“I know this isn’t everyone’s favorite. But I saw a lot of big feelings today, and I think we should maybe put them in a journal. Just remember, you get out of it what you put into it.”

And for the first time today, a hush falls over the park as everyone — including me — scribbles in a notebook.

“There’s definitely distance between your heart and your mind and your mind and your mouth,” I write, quoting Tucker. “If you can connect those three things and be able to say how you feel it could save you a lot of grief as you get older.”

Amen, I think to myself. (And it’s a hell of a lot easier to do sober.)

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2. Learn to Fight Zombies at Real-Life Zombie Boot Camp

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Zombie Boot Camp, a recently inaugurated one-day training course, promises to teach people specialized zombie-fighting skills for only 90$.

Whether you’re one of those crazy folks who believes a zombie apocalypse is imminent, or just a big fan of zombie culture, Zombie Boot Camp sounds like the perfect experience for you. The unusual training course taking place in the UK’s  Droitwich, Worchestershire, sees would-be zombie hunters take part in specialized training exercises with experienced military instructors, before putting on special armor and taking on a group of brain-eating zombies to prove they’ve mastered the skills necessary to survive during a zombie crisis.

A day at Zombie Boot Camp starts with equipment and weapons training. Zombie-killing trainees have to put on a standard-issue Kevlar body armor, jacket and pants, and pay close attention to a team of veterans, as they demonstrate how to handle a specially-adapted pistol, assault rifle, grenades and chainsaw. Then they’re drilled in how to clear a room of flesh-craving zombies, before…lunch. That’s right, a nice big nutritious meal, to prepare them for the truly scary part of the training course.

Led by their instructor, trainees will split into teams and make use of all the skills they’ve been taught to storm a warehouse and clear it of any walking dead. And there will be some zombies around, you can count on that. To survive the main mission of Zombie Boot Camp, would-be zombie slayers will have to use special ammunition like blood balls and simulated grenades.

“We’re always keen to offer experiences that are a little out of the ordinary, and we certainly think that’s the case with our zombie boot camp day!” said a spokesman of Wish.co.uk, before adding that “if a zombie invasion ever did occur, you might even be able to save the world” thanks to the skills acquired at Zombie Boot Camp.

3. Stavropol Children's Military Camp

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Welcome to Stavropol children’s military camp, where Russian kids lose…no not their virginity you pervert, their childhood!

As the title suggests, this is not your typical summer camp, where people play games, have fun and learn cool stuff, this is the army baby, the Russian army. About 40 children, between 12 and 17 years old go through a rough training here and learn the basics martial arts and weaponry. Just like the Ansan civilian camp in South Korea, Stavropol run by former Russian servicemen and I bet they’re pretty tough.

I may seem soft but I wouldn’t send my kid there no matter what he did, I really think places like these rob kids of their childhood much too soon…

4. I Went To A Summer Camp For Adults And It Was Weird

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I briefly considered bringing a rolling suitcase so I could accommodate the entire packing list: running shoes, sandals, bug spray, sunscreen, multiple hot-weather tank tops plus a few fleece sweaters for cold nights, a Wonder Woman costume, a Woodstock costume, heart-shaped sunglasses. I stopped short at one of the suggested items — “tribal tattoos” — because I’m not a fucking idiot. It felt like a lot to carry in a backpack, but I was more concerned about being teased for bringing luggage into the woods. I was heading to Camp No Counselors, a three-day summer camp for adults with locations across North America, complete with activities, dance parties, and open bars.

The older we get, the harder it becomes to make friends, or to develop real human connections with strangers, particularly as we get further from school, the place where human connection was mandatory for survival. By your mid-twenties, you can largely live your life knowing the same three people in your same industry, in your little corner of the world. But in the last few years, there’s been a boon in adult camps — Zombie Survival Camp, Camp Reset, Camp Grounded — environments where moderately affluent twentysomethings can manufacture those childhood human connections.

A CNC weekend was happening just a few hours away from me north of Toronto in late June, so I forked over nearly $700 (Canadian, so I guess it barely counts), booked a seat on their chartered bus, and got ready for a three-night sleepover with a group of strangers.

Camp No Counselors started as a camp weekend in 2013, the brainchild of founder Adam Tichauer, when he first rented a campground for himself and his “20 closest friends.” The camp required a minimum of 30 people to be booked entirely, so he told his friends to invite their friends, and it ballooned to 90 people. “This group became the best of friends” and stayed friends long after the camp weekend was over, he says. “So when there was a bike ride or a hike or a birthday, everyone would go.” Everyone who went to that original camp, in fact, is going to Tichauer’s wedding later this summer. Last spring, CNC appeared on Shark Tank (Tichauer served the Sharks some drinks but, alas, no deal) and later expanded their camps to 10 North American cities. This camp is CNC's first Canadian expansion. Tichauer himself was in attendance; he tries to go to as many camps as he can, walking around the site, making sure everyone is having fun and making new friends.

On the most base level, the purpose of the camp is to have fun, to act like a kid again, to recapture the same feeling you had at 12. Beyond that, though, it’s about making connections. “Our mission, when we write it down, is to enable adults to make genuine friendships through shared experience,” he says. “Camp is a place of firsts: first kiss, first time away from your parents, first independence. To go back to that special place of firsts and silliness is fun and very unique.”

5. ‘Bacon Camp’ Is Real And It’s 5 Days Long

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Bacon fans, prepare to pork out.

Camp Bacon is an annual food festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This year’s upcoming five-day event features every activity a bacon lover could want, from bacon baking classes to a pig roast to bacon-based meals and talks with food journalists and chefs. It’s pretty much heaven for hog lovers, and the fresh-cooked bacon almost never stops flowing.

Zingerman’s, a collective of Ann Arbor food companies, will run Camp Bacon from May 31-June 4 this year. For better or worse, it’s not actually a sleepaway camp; participants instead purchase tickets to individual events which are held in venues around Ann Arbor.

Gimmicky food fest this is not: At Camp Bacon, attendees mingle with notable meat-focused chefs, restauranteurs, butchers and even a bacon blogger, many of whom host informative talks during the main day of camp on Saturday, June 3. Other happenings include a bacon open mic night where attendees can perform songs about their love of meat, a bacon baking class featuring bacon doughnuts, scones and cookies, and a food film festival complete with bacon-flecked popcorn for snacking.

The whole thing is also a fundraiser for a local 4-H club and the Southern Foodways Alliance, which studies and documents Southern food culture.

6. Camp Okutta Teaches Kids How to Lob the Perfect Grenade

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There are summer camps and summer camps, it seems. Camp Okutta, somewhere in the Canadian wilds, is the best training camp outside a war zone, apparently, where you can toughen up your little darlings. Twinky-looking camp counselors give classes in grenade throwing, automatic weapon handling and land mine dodging (quite a handy skill if you're thinking of playing frisbee with them in the near future.) And I know what your next question is going to be: Where can I sign the brats up?

I'm afraid you can't, became Okutta doesn't exist. It's all a figment of charity War Child Canada's imagination, who made the video to draw attention to the plight of the world's child soldiers who do end up in war training camps. [Camp Okuttavia Neatorama]

7. Space Camp for Grown-Ups

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You might not make it into space during your lifetime, but you might get to Space Camp. Since 1982, this NASA program at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama has promoted space exploration by putting kids through simulations of astronaut training and life in space.

It's mostly for kids, but some lucky adults can participate, too. Jane Engle of the Los Angeles Times was one of them. She summarized the training:

During my program last year, more than 40 participants built and launched model rockets, whirled around in a G-force simulator, got turned topsy-turvy, piloted mock fighter jets and attempted to walk in simulated low gravity.

We also spent hours inside mock-ups of a space shuttle cockpit, NASA mission control and the International Space Station, the settings for simulated shuttle missions that formed the core of our training. Working in teams, we took turns crewing the space shuttle orbiter, monitoring the mission, conducting research experiments and doing extravehicular activities, a.k.a. spacewalks, to make repairs.

It was not a time to play. The adult Space Camp has a demanding training regimen and spartan living conditions:

On the first day, our nonstop schedule stretched beyond dinner. The next morning, we mustered for breakfast at 7:30 and finished our activities after 8 p.m. Meal breaks were as short as 30 minutes — just as well, because the cafeteria's food was forgettable. (The food service has since been upgraded, according to Tim Hall, a spokesman for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.)

We slept in the sleek, four-story Habitat building, which was cleverly tricked out to evoke life in space. Our communal bathroom, for example, was labeled "Female Waste Management." The snug dormitory rooms, on the other hand, were charmless. Ours was furnished with several bunk beds, lockers and little else. Towels were not provided.

8. One-of-a-kind summer camp offered at Penn State for the first time

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University Park, Centre County, Pa. - Around this time of year, many kids are heading to summer camps, but a new camp at Penn State is not what most people expect.

More than 20 middle school-aged students are participating in the Finding Your Roots camp, as part of the Penn State's Science-U Summer Camps.

It's the first time the University has offered a camp like this.

Students have the chance to learn about their ancestry and traits by looking at things such as their DNA.

The program is modeled after a popular PBS program.

"We can actually use the self-discovery camp to get kids interested in a lifelong pursuit of science," Nina Jablonski, a distinguished professor of anthropology said.

Jablonski developed the camp in hopes it would expose students from underrepresented populations to more STEM-related academics.

Although some of the subject matter, like race, can be somewhat controversial, Jablonski finds that discussing it at this age is a necessity.

"If kids can understand that these social constructs can influence people's behaviors but they don't have a real biological basis, that is a real, winning concept," she said.

Penn State is one of two sites in the country to host the Finding Your Roots camp.

The two-week long camp wraps up July 2.

9. Inside the Chinese boot camp treating Internet addiction

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There are 632 million internet users in China – and 24 million of its children are thought to be hooked. The Telegraph visits a controversial military-style boot camp where desperate parents send their offspring in the hope of weaning them off the web.

Chen Fei is nervous. His parents had told him that they would be travelling to Beijing once school broke up for the summer, but had been clear that this would not be a holiday. He has found himself in an inconspicuous building that was formerly a technology institute in Daxing, a working-class district south of Beijing. There are 70 adolescents milling about in military-style T-shirts. These slight, mostly bespectacled teenagers are in direct contrast to the burly men that appear to be serving as their guards.

In a small room inside the centre, while her son waits outside, Chen’s mother is crying as she explains to a psychiatrist why they have travelled more than 600 miles from their home in the central province of Henan. ‘Our son’s addiction to the internet is destroying our family,’ she says. ‘About two years ago he started going to cybercafes to play online, but we gave it little thought. He was a good student and we knew he had to relax. Yet the sessions became longer and he began to play every day. His schoolwork suffered so we tried to convince his teachers and classmates to distance him from that scene, but about six months ago he completely lost control and spent more than 20 hours in front of a computer.’

‘We can’t control him any more,’ his father adds. Which is why the family are here, at the Daxing Internet Addiction Treatment Centre, ready to enrol their son. ‘We want him to understand what is happening to him, to heal, and for this nightmare to be over,’ his father says.

It is decided that Chen will be committed to the centre for a period of three to six months – perhaps longer if he does not respond positively. He will undergo a therapy treatment designed by Tao Ran, a psychiatrist and colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, that combines military discipline with traditional techniques to overcome addiction. A doctor explains to Chen’s parents that their son will be denied access to all electronic devices, will be prohibited from having any outside contact, and will have to follow all orders. It will be a difficult process, he warns.

Chen will be one of 6,000 boys and (occasionally) girls to have entered the centre since it opened in 2006. When his mother breaks the news, he looks at her with repressed anger but does not utter a word as he is led away by one of Daxing’s psychologists. Then he snaps. ‘You bitch! How dare you do this to me,’ he shouts, rushing towards her. It takes five attendants to subdue him.

‘Internet addiction leads to problems in the brain similar to those derived from heroin consumption,’ Tao says in his office at the centre’s headquarters, a new building added in 2013 to increase patient capacity to 130. ‘But, generally, it is even more damaging. It destroys relationships and deteriorates the body without the person knowing. All of them have eyesight and back problems and suffer from eating disorders. In addition, we have discovered that their brain capacity is reduced by eight per cent, and the psychological afflictions are serious. If someone is spending six hours or more on the internet, we consider that to be an addiction.’

According to Tao, who began specialising in addiction treatment in 1991, 90 per cent of patients suffer from severe depression and 58 per cent have attacked their parents. ‘According to official statistics, 67 per cent of juvenile misdemeanours are committed by internet addicts that idolise the mafia and have difficulty differentiating between reality and fiction,’ he says. ‘I fear the trend will increase, because the problem is especially grave in China.’

China has the greatest number of internet users in the world – 632 million as of July 2014 – and the government believes that 10 per cent of its internet-surfing minors (24 million) are addicted.

A Chinese anti-videogame activist and university lecturer, Dr Tao Hongkai, has led the opposition to Daxing’s practices. Another doctor, New Zealander Trent Bax, wrote his PhD about Daxing and considers Tao Ran’s methods a form of torture. They both contest Tao’s assertion that internet addiction is comparable with drug addiction as the withdrawal symptoms are not linked to the taking of substances. They believe internet addiction should be considered a social deviation, and not a medically ‘curable’ condition.

The day starts with a shrill whistle at 6.30am. The patients hurriedly line up in the hallway, dressed in camouflage T-shirts. A monitor bellows out each of their names, a routine that is repeated a further five times a day. They have 20 minutes to wash and arrive at the exercise ground for their first set of military training.

‘They are very arrogant when they arrive but in bad physical shape,’ Ma Liqiang, a former soldier and now the centre’s behaviour instructor, explains. ‘They fall apart when they have to run or do push-ups. This puts them in their place.’ I spot several red-faced, panting boys stop jogging and slow to a walk. The centre’s seven girls run by, laughing at them. Embarrassed, the boys unsuccessfully attempt to pick up the pace. ‘They must learn to respect authority, get into shape, and create a very orderly routine,’ Ma says. ‘In the beginning it is difficult, but after a few months, the results are apparent.’

Tao Ran intends his treatment to become standard practice for internet addiction. He claims a success rate of 75 per cent since 2008, though there is no way of accurately substantiating this. But there are already about 300 clinics in China that incorporate elements of his model – mainly the military discipline. His manifesto has been published in 22 languages. ‘It was the Sars epidemic of 2003 that appears to have been a critical moment,’ he says. ‘The majority of students had to remain at home at the same time the internet was taking off. Without supervision, many started to play excessively. Soon after, a number of parents asked me for help.’

Tao first treated 17 adolescents, but failed in every case. In 2005 he started to admit patients to the military hospital where he worked for a 30-day period. ‘The success rate was only 30 per cent but this first step helped me to understand how the disorder functions,’ he says. ‘In 2007 I got permission to bring in the kids for three months, and a year later we started to involve the parents in the treatment. Their participation has been key to the method’s success.’

Wang Shupei, a construction worker, is one of the parents who understands their role. ‘Our son came to the centre for the first time in March last year and stayed for eight months,’ he says. ‘But soon after leaving, he began to play online again.’ So three months ago they returned to Daxing. They have spent 170,000 yuan (about £17,500) so far, a fortune for rural families.

Tao Ran says that a month of therapy costs ‘a reasonable’ 9,300 yuan, but several parents tell me this does not include meals, medical tests or medication – courses of drugs including antidepressants and sedatives are individually prescribed.

Most consider it a necessary financial sacrifice. There is a follow-up ‘after-care’ schedule, and parents are briefed on how best to supervise their child’s gradual reintegration to the web. Tao considers a patient cured if they are able to use the internet for less than six hours a day six months after leaving the centre. Despite – perhaps because of – this relatively low ‘success’ benchmark, there are plenty of familiar faces at Daxing. Twenty-two-year-old Li Wenchao is a repeat patient, and although the specialists have discharged him he has decided to stay on. ‘I am afraid to go back to a normal life,’ he says. ‘I fear I will become addicted again. That is why I have asked to stay longer, until I develop enough confidence to deal with life.’

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