Summer camps evolve to attract kids based on personal interest

Summer camps evolve to attract kids based on personal interest

by Conor Lee

Kerri Kahn's son Alexander Lynfield, 13, was weary of the traditional canoe-and-campfire summer camp.

The Sandspoint, N.Y., mother searched for something new to appeal to her son, who loved activities like paintball and ATV riding, and found the Master Spy Institute at Pali Overnight Adventures in Running Springs, Calif.

"Alexander went to a traditional camp for six years, but was a little older and wanted a little more," Kahn says.

Through structured, well-supervised activities, secret agents in the Master Spy Institute learn how to operate an ATV, dodge laser beam security, create disguises, break secret codes and beat a lie detector test. Teaching the campers how to evade, track and shoot using paintball guns is the highlight of the program.

"We go over the top on safety," says Andy Wexler, director at Pali Overnight Adventures, which was founded in 1990 and began adding specialty programs in 1997.

"Those that run the paintball course have years of paintball experience. The fingerprinting course is taught by an ex-police officer. We even have members of the CIA come to teach our covert class. And, no, I can't tell you their names."

Pali Overnight Adventures reflects a growing trend in the world of summer camps: specialty programs aimed at nurturing a child's particular interests. Located 90 minutes from Los Angeles, Pali offers more than 14 different programs including a Fashion Design Institute, Hollywood Stunt Camp, Culinary Camp, several Broadcasting Camps and The Master Spy Institute.

"They expose kids to different activities," Wexler says. "It really allows a child to explore new things."

Spy camp? It's not as unusual as it may seem. In a recent Angie's List Quick Poll, 43 percent of parents reported sending their children to a specialty summer or day camp.

Day camps differ from residential camps in that children are dropped off just for the day, but both kinds have expanded their scope to attract children based on personal interests.

From learning how to rock on stage to designing clothes for the Paris runway, camps have come a long way in the last few decades to encompass nearly any activity imaginable. "Programs have become very unique," Wexler says.

Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, the nation's largest camp organization, says nearly 75 percent of all ACA-accredited camps offer specialty activities, and a similar number have added new activities in the last year. "Camps today reflect the diversity of our society," Smith says.

"Camps still help children develop social skills, appreciate nature, and stay physically active. However, the camp industry is responding to the needs and interests of our ever-changing population. There's a camp for every child and every family."

Although summer is months away, experts say now is the time to be searching for camp opportunities. December is National Sign Up for Summer Camp Month, and according to the ACA, January and February are the most popular months for camps to open registration. (23 percent of Angie's List parents began looking for summer camps the winter before or earlier.) ACA expects 10 million kids to attend more than 12,000 camps next summer.

Willa Young used summer camp as a chance to continue her son's education by sending him to The Ohio State University's three-week math and science camp.

"Since schools don't place great emphasis on programming for gifted children, I seek out opportunities that provide intellectual enrichment and the chance to socialize with other gifted children," Young says.

David Elkind, professor of early childhood development at Tufts University and author of the book "The Power of Play," says the current generation suffers from a lack of creativity and an overly structured lifestyle. Camps that stimulate imaginative thinking can be a solution.

"They're engaged in crafts and sports in which they are supervised by counselors that are more like scout leaders," Elkind says. "It's a much less structured or directed role. I think you can link our decline in subjects such as math as an indication that kids are becoming less creative."

Elkind cautions that parents and their children should choose camps carefully, with an eye towards accreditation; even if it's devoted to one of the child's favorite interests, the experience is no help if it feels like work. "When children are obliged to play, it becomes an obligation," Elkind says. "ACA camps offer a lot of free choice within the structure of the camp."

For parents worried about giving their child free choice in the world of subversive secret agents, a different take on international relations can be found at Windsor Mountain Summer Camp.

Founded by Richard Herman in 1961, Windsor Mountain, which nurtures international relations through the 35 campers from overseas who attend each summer, is located in New Hampshire and currently is directed by his daughter Sarah.

"My father wanted a more international community at his summer camp," Herman says. "The cultural exchange is valuable."

One of the advantages of specialty camps is the opportunity for children to meet others with like-minded interests. For many, it's the ideal opportunity to immerse themselves in a subject they love.

"You have to want to be around theater people 24/7, to breathe it in, to surround yourself with others who have the same love," says Barb Martin, camp director at Stagedoor Manor, a theatrical camp located in upstate New York.

"Stagedoor is one of those places where a theater child comes to learn about singing and dancing but most importantly, they learn about themselves."

"My daughter absolutely loved Stagedoor," says Beth Tauberg of Pittsburgh, whose daughter Mindy attended Stagedoor for six years.

"It was amazing to see a performance that was put together and executed in the matter of two-and-a-half weeks."

Camp costs can range anywhere from $75 to more than $5,000 (including travel costs); Angie's List members spent an average of $730 to send their child to a specialty camp.

"Parents should always ask about financial assistance, scholarships and payment plans," Smith says. "[Tuition] can go as low as $75 and reach into the $650-to-$850 range. The price doesn't mean quality; rather, the options they offer."

Another thing to remember: You may end up with this camp for years to come.

"If your kids like the camp, they'll make your life hell until you agree to another summer, and then another and then another," says Malinda Faraway of Los Angeles, who sent both her children to specialty camps. Kahn would agree. "My son loved spy camp so much, he wants to go back next year for six weeks!" she says.


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