Summer camps no longer just hikes, bugs


When asked to remember what summer camp was like, some adults may think of cabins by the lake, nature hikes or roasting marshmallows by the fire.

Today, choosing a summer camp for a child is like shopping for cereal: With so many brands, how do you choose what's best? While the camps of old are far from extinct, many children are opting for specialty camps, where they can spend an entire summer playing basketball or learning to manage their weight or even defying the laws of gravity in simulated space shuttles.

In fact, the biggest trend the summer camp industry has seen over the past decade is the rise in popularity of specialty camps, such as ones where an athletic child can forgo drama and arts and crafts and focus on perfecting the crossover dribble.

"The camp you choose for your child should depend on what the child is looking for," says Nancy Canter, an executive in the Chesapeake office of the American Camp Association, which has been helping parents find camps for nearly a century.

"Over the past 15 years we have seen a shift. The traditional camps have changed," Canter says. Some "kids won't go unless there is air conditioning in the cabin."

Some experts point to accreditation as one of the first things to look for when selecting a camp. Accreditation means the camp has received official recognition for meeting standards for safety, quality and health.

But others, including Jeffrey Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association, say there are other ways to gauge a camp's reliability.

"What is important for families to realize is accreditation is a voluntary process," says Solomon. "Some camps that haven't chosen to do so haven't necessarily been denied accreditation. Parents can call the Better Business Bureau or the health department to find out if a camp is in compliance with all the necessary regulations."

Rob Weinhold, general manager of Ripken Youth Camps and Clinics in Aberdeen, encourages parents to "visit the camp and meet with the staff" before making a commitment. "I believe that a camp needs to take an 'open door policy' to parents and campers because it's beneficial for everyone involved."

Sports camps are becoming important for the young athlete to keep up with the curve, according to Weinhold.

"What we've seen is a continual increase in interest in the number of young people who want to become more efficient in the sport of their choice," says Weinhold. "If you look at the youth sports industry as a whole, using baseball as an example, you see young players becoming more serious about the game at a younger age."

There are summer camps for high school students worried about the transition to a big-time university. On college campuses, they attend lectures, learn time management and study skills, and meet college students who can tell them what to expect. One such program, the College Bound Program, is offered at the University of Maryland, College Park and will begin June 26.

"Students ... will be given the tools and techniques to try to help organize themselves," says Shirley Browner, a university academic skills counselor. "Hearing from college students validates the whole program because they are hearing from people close in age who are going through what they will in a few years."

Young children benefit from a variety of activities and thus seem better suited to a traditional camp, experts say.

"I would be concerned as a parent about burnout at a very young age and ... diversity in activity can prevent some of that," says Weinhold. "I'm a father of three children, all of which are very different. As a parent you have to be aware of your child's interest, which may not be the same as a parent's interest."

Solomon agrees, stressing that young children require variety to ease them into the camp life.

"The National Camp Association recommends children start at a general camp where there is a variety of activities and children can gain exposure to things they may not have tried before," says Solomon. "I think the downside to specialized camps is [that] the first experience might be too intense and deny the child exposure to new things."

Despite changes in the world of summer camp, there will always be room for the s'mores and scary stories. Wherever there is a parent with fond memories of color war and kayaking, there is a child being exposed to those same experiences today.

"In some ways, camp hasn't changed at all," says Canter. "Parents really want that same experience for their kids so they drive the camp home to their children -- living in cabins, doing traditional camp activities. Those traditions will never die."

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