'90s summer camps are blazing a path in the day-care field

June 24, 1993|By William A. Davis | William A. Davis,Boston Globe

Summer camp, conceived at the turn of the century as a way of fostering self-reliance and an appreciation of nature, has a new and far more complex role in the '90s: acting as surrogate parent for kids whose stressed and overworked fathers and mothers have limited time to devote to them.

At a time when more than half of all mothers with young children are employed, gone are the days when kids simply whiled away the summer at home with mom. Today, when parents are at work, kids are more likely to be enrolled in a summer day camp, learning everything from swimming and soccer to chess and computer programming.

Not only are there more kids in summer camp, but they are going at younger ages and participating in more varied and flexible programs, all as a result of today's complicated family vacation and visitation schedules.

"It used to be that kids were sent to camp for enrichment, but now it's mainly for day care," said James Early, executive director of Hale Reservation in Westwood, Mass., the biggest day camp site in the country, enrolling 1,700 children daily.

Internally, camps are going through a major readjustment to adapt to the realities of the '90s. Programming is more sophisticated, with cultural and high-tech activities competing with traditional athletics and other outdoor activities. Camp counselors whose skills were once largely confined to lifesaving techniques and campfire building are now trained to cope with the emotional problems of youngsters.

"Summer camps have changed a lot in the last 10 years," said Pat Coughlin, who operates Kingsley Pines, a coeducational camp in Raymond, Maine. "When I was a camp counselor, all the counselors reported a week early to paint buildings, build rafts and clean up the camp, but my counselors spend the week before camp opens undergoing psychological training so they can deal effectively with the kids and give them positive reinforcement."

If summer camps have become the latest in day care for the nation's working parents, nowhere is this more clear than in the growth of day camps. Ruth Lister, communications director of the American Camping Association (ACA), reports that the number of day camps has increased by 89 percent in the past 20 years and nearly 40 percent in the past 10 years alone.

Today, 3,000 of the 8,500 camps that the ACA accredits are day camps.

To accommodate working parents, says Mr. Early of Hale Reservation, day camps' summer hours of ten exceed the normal 9-to-5 work day.

"Day camp hours have almost doubled. We used to start around 9 a.m. but now it's 7:30 a.m. because Mom and Dad have to go to work," he says. "Camps used to close at 4 p.m., when Mom was waiting at home with milk and cookies, but now closing is at 6 p.m."

Mr. Early also noted that at one time "7 or 8 was the youngest

camps took kids, but now most camps take 4-year-olds."

Traditional resident camps are still carrying out their original uplifting mission, but are also "acting more in loco parentis," according to Richard Kennedy, director of Camp Kieve in Nobleboro, Maine, and co-author of "Choosing the Right Camp -- the Complete Guide to the Best Summer Camp for Your Child." "They have to train staff better, have longer orientation periods and use questionnaires to get more information about family situations before a child goes to camp."

Because between a quarter to a third of the campers are likely to have divorced parents, Mr. Kennedy said, a well-run camp will be careful to communicate with mothers and fathers alike. Children of divorce are apt to be living with their mothers, who frequently choose the camp, but the cost is often borne by the father, who demands to be consulted, too. And sending a child to camp often involves one parent giving up visitation time, a sensitive issue that has to be handled diplomatically.

The most expensive resident camps charge about $500 a week. That can be a very good value, says Mr. Kennedy, if a child's camp experience is not only recreational but character-building. "What camps do well, and most schools don't anymore, is work on attitude," he said. "They try to make a kid a better person."

Because of the cost of resident camps, a shrinking juvenile attention span and the fact that even the most harried parents usually try to schedule some summer "quality time" alone with their kids, camp stays are getting shorter. "Ten years ago, the norm was 10 weeks at the top camps; now it's four weeks," said Mr. Kennedy, "and more has to be packed into less time."

Many camps now have two three-week sessions followed by a one or two-week "family camp," for adults as well as children. Besides providing a nostalgic camp experience for parents, family camp can also be a relatively inexpensive form of quality time. "There has been a 500 percent increase in the number of accredited family camp programs in the last 10 years, and we're hearing that they almost always have waiting lists," said Ms. Lister of the ACA.

Although specialty camps have proliferated, camps offering all-around programs and the traditional smorgasbord of outdoor activities seem to be holding their own.

"Kids get bored if you don't offer them a dynamic and varied program," said Richard Moss, director of Camp Lenox in Otis, Mass., which emphasizes sports and where about 80 percent of campers return the following year. "A lot of kids are under tremendous pressure today and have to go right from being little kids to young adults. Camp should be a respite for them, a time devoted to healthy, playful living in a place where traditional values are supported and they learn to be part of a community."

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