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Passages Adventure Camp Photo courtesy Passages Adventure Camp
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Camp Motorsport Photo courtesy Camp Motorsport
It's 2014, and your child can blast off into space, set sail on the high seas, grab the spotlight in a rock group or burn rubber in a race car.
This is the modern summer camp, where a child is free to indulge pretty much whatever passion he or she can imagine. "There's a lot out there," says Barb Collins, field executive for the Virginias with the American Camp Association. "You can create your own summer experience." But as wide-ranging as the formats and activities can be, some aspects of camp are catching fire more than others. Here's a look at the biggest trends for the year ahead.
The Day Camp
With a 40 percent increase in the number of day camps over the past four years, "this is where the biggest growth is in the industry," says Collins. Many day camps offer the same activities as overnight camps, just without the sleepover, so it can be an ideal option if the child (or parent) is not yet ready for that next step. It's also cheaper. "A few years ago, when the economy turned bad, we had sort of braced ourselves," says Lewis James, camp director of St. Catherine's Brilliant Summer, where a child might learn guitar, play soccer and take a ceramics class all in one day. "And I think we ended up with more kids than ever, because a lot of people had decided against sending [their children] to an expensive overnight camp."
Collins also notes that more day camps are catering to preschoolers, as parents look to them as a way for a younger child to develop social skills and independence in advance of starting school. James can certainly attest to that: "I've done this for 10 years with St. Catherine's, and early on there were very few things for that preschool-age child in the Richmond area. Now there are a lot more facilities offering that."
The Family Camp
Isn't the purpose of camp to give everyone some valuable alone time? Not always, as it turns out. Family camps are becoming popular partly because of the aforementioned parents and children who aren't ready to go solo. But, with many camps operating a family program alongside their traditional adult-free offerings, it also can be a means for the parent to "test out" the program before allowing the child to come on their own the following year.
Then there are the more touchy-feely reasons. Camp Motorsport, in the Halifax County community of Clover, runs a three-day Adult/Child Sampler Weekend in which "the grown-up does everything that the kid does," says camp director Diane Tyrrell. That could mean driving a race car or go-kart, going fishing or playing paintball. "It's really about bonding, having that one-on-one time with your child or grandchild," Tyrrell says. "We have families that, just being able to stand next to your son with a fishing rod in your hand is … important, because they … don't get that downtime in their day-to-day lives." And, lest you think you'll be slumming it in dorms, think again: At Camp Motorsport, as with many similar camps, there's dedicated private housing, so families can really make themselves at home.
Summer camps have always featured adventure activities; what's different now is the extent of the challenge. "They'll go into the back country and do a weeklong backpacking trip, major survival-type things," says Collins of the so-called "high adventure" camps. It's partly an effort, she says, to keep older kids invested in the camp experience — and away from the TV and other unsociable distractions: "There are definite benefits to children spending more time out in nature. The more that children can do that as they develop into young adults, the more balanced they are as individuals."
Kevin Tobin of Passages Adventure Camp on Richmond's Belle Isle — where campers rock-climb, whitewater-kayak, zip-line, rappel and cultivate wilderness-survival skills, among other activities — agrees, reporting a steady increase in demand for high adventure over the past 20 years, and the largest number of campers ever at Passages last year. "Technology has given our generation so much, but it also has the capacity to take away," he says. "This isn't a reality television show or video game. At Passages and camps like it, the campers are their own superheroes. They love defining themselves through high adventure."
Nature and Environment
Modern lifestyles are also cited as a reason for the increase in nature and environmental education programs, which, according to American Camp Association figures, have been added by more than 35 percent of camps in the past two years. "Everything's becoming so digital … so the push in the opposite direction seems so much more important," says Jan Erving at Norfolk Botanical Garden, home of the NatureKids camp, with programs like Nature Sleuths and Animal Adventures.
Here — as at the Green Adventures camp at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where "nature and environment themes are perennially popular," according to Children's Garden program developer Kristi Orcutt, and FONZ Nature Camp at the Smithsonian National Zoo, which makes use of its proximity to the Shenandoah National Park and the Appalachian Trail — campers can tap into the wealth of experience and wildlife intrinsic to these environments. An added benefit? Much of what the kids are learning has its foundations in science or math, says Beth Martin at Camp Makemie Woods, and "catches a lot better outside the classroom, where people are learning by example and through experience."
Health and Wellness
Given what we already know about camps' efforts to provide a compelling alternative to kids' TVs, phones and computers, it seems obvious that health and wellness is top-of-mind with most camp directors. As further proof, "the more generalized camps are pulling in more healthy food options, and some of them are bringing in fitness centers" to complement their range of physical activities, says Collins. But at the other end of the spectrum is a growing trend for the very targeted, goal-oriented camp, like Camp Friends 4Ever in Williamsburg.
"It's a health and nutrition weight-loss camp specifically for girls," says Collins, "and it focuses on positive self-esteem and nutrition and healthy habits." There are camps for the visually impaired, for autistic children and for kids who've been treated for cancer. Camp Jordan, part of Camp Makemie Woods in Lanexa, is specifically for diabetics. "[The children] cook out over campfires, go to the pool, do rowboating … archery, Bible study … lots of silliness," says Martin. But there's also a big emphasis on "helping them learn how to manage their disease, and … get to know other kids. That's very important for some of the kids who haven't met any other diabetics before."
Credit the first lady and her White House vegetable garden for the growing popularity of the gardening camp — at least in part. "Urban gardening is trendy and may have started some with Michelle Obama's campaign," says Erving at Norfolk Botanical Garden. Its NatureKids camp has a veggie plot that children manage throughout the summer, as well as garden-to-table programs, "so kids learn to grow and manage a vegetable garden and then work with a chef, using vegetables." Erving also acknowledges that healthy eating considerations and the economy have had a lot to do with the growth, in which 28 percent of camps nationwide added a gardening component in the past two years, according to the ACA.
At Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where Green Adventures programs include campers harvesting lettuce, beans and cucumbers from the garden to make tasty snacks, Orcutt also notes the influence of the national garden-to-table trend: "As more people become aware of the health benefits … and the local food movement becomes more prevalent, parents are seeking hands-on opportunities for their children to learn about gardening and growing their own food."
Service Learning/Community Service
Giving back is an "essential education component for the whole child," says the
ACA's Collins — and clearly, that message is being taken on board, with 15 percent of camps adding service learning or community service components in the past two years. At YMCA Camp Thunderbird's Teen Adventure Camp in Chesterfield, campers participate in rock climbing, hiking, swimming and archery, as well as three field trips a week, of which one is always a community service project, working with organizations such as Meals on Wheels, the Salvation Army or a local retirement home. It's camp director Dave Hennessey's belief that community involvement is as important to the campers as it is to those who benefit from it. "As a YMCA camp … our goal is to meet the needs of our community, and … community service is one of those aspects that kids need."
‘Classrooms Without Walls'
More a concept than a trend, this spans all the aforementioned categories — and more. Otherwise known as "experiential learning," where children learn by active participation, it's about building on lessons learned during the school year. "Educators believe that … students lose ground on their studies over the summer," says Collins. With this concept in practice, "kids tend to not lose as much."
At Camp Motorsport, campers might think they're just learning to drive, but "science … is an everyday part of the program," says Tyrrell. "If a kid wants to know how to make his car go faster, he has to understand the physics — how is my tire gripping the pavement, and … how the engine works."
Fifty-five percent of ACA camps report at least one academic area of study, such as science, literature or entrepreneurship. "We have a camp coming this summer that's going to be a ‘Think It, Make It, Sell It' camp," says Collin McConaghy, director of Summer Quest at Richmond's Collegiate School. "These kids will learn how to create a product, … how to market that product, and [be asked questions such as], ‘How are you going to keep it ahead in the market?'" It's not just about academics, though, says the ACA's Collins: Traditional camp activities such as canoeing or a challenge course also offer valuable lessons — in teamwork, leadership skills, confidence and discipline.