Many of my son's American friends are returning from sleep-away camp. His Finnish friends hardly did a day camp. Which is a better summer - for kids, and parents?
I grew up going to sleep away camp and plan to send my son next summer for 2 weeks - he'll be 10. I intentionally chose a camp with NO set schedule or agenda - they choose what they want to do all day so if it's 7 hours in the woodshop, so be it. I want to send them because their lives here are SO structured and controlled and I think sleep away camp provides the opposite experience (if you choose the right one!) I also think letting them meet more new people from different places helps grow a diverse and interesting friend group. But I can never imagine sending them for more than 5 weeks max (that's the longest I went until I was in high school). I think this all really depends on where you live and what you expect out of a summer. I see sleep away camp as providing more independence and autonomy that day camps.
I think it's easy to romanticize the 'come home when the street lights' era of time, and it is certainly more akin to how I grew up. However, unlike Helsinki, most major US cities are no longer places where parents feel comfortable allowing their 8-12 year olds to be alone for an entire day, even though the public transportation structure exists to allow that. Personally I wouldn't let my kids ride the NYC subway alone (even though I know many older kids do just that in NYC). I think a city like Helsinki provides a unique opportunity where kids don't need to rely on parents for transportation but parents feel they are in a 'safe place.' I feel we live in a very safe town, but my kids can't get around to everywhere they want to go without a car - hence, the need for some structure, otherwise parents feel like they're just a summer chauffeur.