Informal school camps
In addition to family camping holidays, New Zealanders have traditionally been introduced to camping as part of their schooling. Since the 19th century schools have encouraged their students to take camping trips for exercise, self-reliance, group bonding and other benefits. These trips were initially taken during students’ free time, since their school hours were reserved for formal academic study. Wellington College pupils made frequent holiday excursions throughout the district, such as a trip to Kāpiti Island at Easter 1877. Camps were also a useful diversion for students required to remain at boarding schools on weekends and holidays. Auckland’s Dilworth School held fortnight-long annual camps in conical tents from 1909.
First official school camp
School camps were organised locally and informally until the late 1930s, when the 1935 Labour government promoted a progressive educational philosophy influenced by US and European ideas. These favoured engaging the ‘whole child’, rather than simply the brain, and advocated nature study and physical activity alongside classroom work. From this period the government’s Education Gazette published articles promoting the educational benefits of school camps, including ‘the development of such qualities as initiative, self-confidence and independence. Relationships between pupils and between pupils and teacher improve markedly’.1
The first recorded camp held in school time was at Hūnua, south of Auckland, for Auckland Normal School boys during the first two weeks of the 1938 school year. At other primary and secondary schools, camping trips remained dependent on the enthusiasm of individual teachers.
‘Showplace of school camping’
School time became systematically available for camping trips in the 1950s. From 1956 Port Waikato Camp School west of Hamilton (a former health camp), was used by a succession of South Auckland Education Board schools. Port Waikato's programme was soon followed in other parts of the country. School camps involved sleeping in tents or in more permanent structures. Most lasted five to 10 days, with students taking responsibility for chores such as food preparation, dishes and camp cleanliness. ‘Camp mothers’ (usually the parents of students) took charge of meals. Students learned the use of maps and compasses, bushcraft, swimming and water safety, and the need for nature conservation. Inner-city schools in low-decile areas reported that until their first camp some students had never been to the beach or seen a cow.
Some adults were concerned that school camps interfered with traditional teaching or led to immoral behaviour. Others thought parents could best educate their children in outdoor activities. However, by the 1970s outdoor education, as it became known, was an almost universally accepted element of New Zealand schooling. At both primary and secondary levels, camping was by far the most common single outdoor activity. In 1999 it became a formal part of the school curriculum.